SHIFT News – The Yellowcake Trail, Uranium Mining In Canada

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Jan 12, 2010, 10:30:25 AM1/12/10
to The Frontenac Uranium Standoff
SHIFT News – The Yellowcake Trail, Uranium Mining In Canada
http://www.ourbigearth.com/2010/01/11/shift-news-the-yellowcake-trail-uranium-mining-in-canada-part-1/


Posted by Guest Columnist on January 11th, 2010 No Comments Printer-
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Editor’s Note: This series of articles, “The Yellowcake Trail,” tracks
all aspects of uranium in Canada from the mining and milling, to
processing and use, throughout its eighty-year history. The series
begins with the history of uranium in Canada, from its initial
discovery to the rapid development of mines that placed Canada as the
prominent world leader in uranium production. Each mine has a story
and each story has a common thread and legacy. They originally ran in
the June/July 2009 issue of Western Canadian environmental magazine
Watershed Sentinel, researched and written by Anna Tilman:


Yellowcake is the bright yellow uranium powder produced when raw
uranium ore is crushed and purified. It is actually a mixture of
uranium oxides, mostly U3O8 (urania), and ranges in colour from yellow
to orange to dark green. It is this yellowcake that is packaged in
steel drums, traded and sent across the world to be further processed,
converted to different forms, enriched and used in the manufacture of
nuclear fuel or bombs.

The yellowcake trail is lined with environmental devastation, sickness
and death. The nuclear industry has always been a law unto itself,
sheltered by governments promoting the industry as a safe and clean
means of satisfying the insatiable demand for energy. Yet no insurance
company in the world will sell liability insurance to a nuclear power
plant. Nuclear scientists and engineers strongly endorse nuclear
power, caught up in their fascination with the unique properties of
uranium and the power it unleashes.

Nuclear (radioactive) waste is deadly to human beings in amounts as
small as a millionth of a gram, and we have produced it in hundreds of
thousands of tonnes. It is already leaking out of totally inadequate
containment, not only from mine sites, refineries and nuclear power
plants, but also from nuclear weapons programs. There is no way to get
rid of it and it remains lethal for millions of years.

For decades, Canada has been the world’s largest producer of uranium,
home to the richest ore bodies, the largest uranium mine in the world,
and the largest publicly traded uranium mining company – CAMECO
(Canadian Mining and Energy Corporation). As Canadians, we need to
understand the detrimental impacts of uranium mining, processing and
use to our country and to the health and environment of communities
affected by these operations. At every stage there is polluted air,
land, and water, wreaking permanent destruction on the health and
environment of communities – especially, native communities, their
food sources, and their natural habitat.

Once exploration and mining starts, there is no end – the mines can be
closed and abandoned as often is the case, but the radioactive
tailings remain.

EARLY HISTORY OF URANIUM IN CANADA

Canada’s foray into uranium mining began in 1930, when a prospector
for Eldorado Gold Mines discovered pitchblende, a uranium-bearing
mineral, on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest
Territories, about 450 kilometres north of Yellowknife. The ore body
was one of the richest known uranium deposits in the world.

At that time, radium, a radioactive decay product of uranium, thought
to be a miracle cure for cancer, commanded prices as high as $75,000
per ounce in the 1930s. Uranium itself was only incidental and of no
economic interest.

So in 1932, Eldorado built a radium refinery in Port Hope, Ontario,
5000 km away from Port Radium, the mine on Great Bear Lake. It took
about 74 tonnes of ore to yield little more than 3 grams of radium.
Dene men from the local community of Déline, the only inhabited
community on Great Bear Lake, were hired to carry cloth sacks of
radioactive ore to the shipping sites. The community later became
known as a “village of widows.”

By 1940, World War II was underway. The horrors of radium poisoning
were revealed. The overheated and glutted radium market collapsed. All
radium mines were closed, including Port Radium. German scientists had
already discovered that uranium atoms can be split (fissioned),
releasing vast amounts of energy. So uranium took centre stage in the
world and acquired strategic importance.

In 1942, the federal government bought out all shares of Eldorado and
established Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited as a Crown
corporation with a national monopoly on prospecting, mining, and
processing uranium. Port Radium was re-opened in 1942 in secrecy and
was contracted to supply uranium to the US army for the “Manhattan”
project to build the first atomic bomb and, after the war, to the US
Atomic Energy Commission.

The Port Hope refinery played a critical role in all war activity. It
was the only facility in North America for refining radioactive
materials such as uranium. The huge piles of refinery residues dumped
in the harbour and around the town provided an easy source of uranium.
Along with the uranium sent from Port Radium, rich uranium
concentrates from the Belgian Congo that had been secretly stockpiled
in New York were refined at Port Hope.

The Port Radium mine was decommissioned in 1984, but a further clean-
up of an estimated 1.7 million tonnes of radioactive mine tailings has
only recently been ordered, after more than 60 years. The Port Hope
refinery continues to operate today as the oldest uranium refinery in
the world.

THE POSTWAR CLOAK OF SECRECY

When an industry develops as a result of war and military security, as
the nuclear industry has, then it comes as no surprise that the
industry is enveloped with secrecy, that the public are not being
informed, that governments coddle, protect and cover up for the
industry.

It was the US-led development of the atomic bomb and the subsequent
nuclear arms race in the 1940s that really resulted in the nuclear
industry and uranium mining taking off. The US government sought a
reliable supply of uranium for its nuclear weapons program; the
Canadian federal government willingly assisted. Canada became the
leading uranium exporter in the world.

The ban on private prospecting was lifted in 1947. By the early
fifties, Canada was the scene of the most dramatic and widespread
prospecting boom in its history. Thousands of radioactive strikes were
reported. By 1959, 23 mines with 19 treatment plants were in operation
in Canada, spread across Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and
Ontario. Some of these operations were small, others were huge. But
they all share a common fate: a legacy of waste and contamination of
waterways that continues to today.

Beaverlodge: During its lifetime from 1953 to 1982, the Eldorado mines
at Beaverlodge, north of Lake Athabasca in the northwest corner of
Saskatchewan, produced over 20,000 tonnes of yellowcake. The abandoned
mines have yet to be reclaimed although there are currently proposals
to carry out studies to this effect. Dam failures have been releasing
tailings into Lake Athabasca.

Rayrock: This underground uranium mine, located 145 kilometres
northwest of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, was operational
for only two years, from 1957 to 1959, at which point it was abandoned
by its owners. During its operations, the mine yielded only 207 tonnes
of uranium concentrate (yellowcake). Over 70,000 tonnes of radioactive
tailings were “contained” in two basins, with the potential to leak
metals, both radioactive and stable. The site also emits radon gas. In
the 1990s, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs remediated
the site, and it will be monitored once every 10 years for a further
100 years.

Bancroft: This area in Ontario southeast of Algonquin Park was the
site of radium mining in the 1920s and 1930s, and went through two
uranium booms from 1956 to 1964 and from 1976 to 1982. Its three
underground mines, all of which were abandoned, produced about 6,700
tonnes of uranium oxide.

Elliot Lake: The “Uranium Capital” of the world, the Blind River-
Elliot Lake area of Ontario had 12 uranium mines by 1960. All mining
was underground at a depth of 170 to 950 metres. The low grade ore was
plentiful. These mines accounted for about 80% of all uranium produced
in Canada.

Within about twenty years of operation, more than 30 dams, built to
contain uranium tailings, failed, dumping nuclear waste and chemical
toxins into the Serpent River watershed which flows into Lake Huron.
By 1976, the entire Serpent River system including more than a dozen
lakes, was badly contaminated for 80 kilometres or so downstream. The
Serpent River system was identified by the International Joint
Commission as the largest single contributor of radium contamination
to the Great Lakes.

By 1996 when the mine finally closed, over 120,000 tonnes of
yellowcake had been produced from the Elliot Lake mines, but over
170,000,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings are left behind.

web map.cdr

BOOM & BUST

The post-war phase of Canadian uranium production peaked in 1959 when
more than 12,000 tonnes of uranium was produced. But as fast as it
began, the boom came to an end when, in November 1959, the US Atomic
Energy Commission decided to purchase all its supplies from US sources
and not to renew any Canadian contracts.

Over the next few years the number of mines declined to four. Uranium
production in the Bancroft area and at Beaverlodge ceased in 1982 and
the last of the Elliot Lake mines closed in 1996.

The “nuclear” appetite had declined. Grassroots peace movements
sprouted up around the globe, demanding some form of control and
disarmament of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT), designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, came into
force in 1970. Canada’s position, as expressed by then Prime Minister
Pearson, was that no uranium from Canada would be used for weapons.

THE DAWN OF NUCLEAR POWER

The post-war phase of Canadian uranium production peaked in 1959 when
more than 12,000 tonnes of uranium was produced. But as fast as it
began, the boom came to an end when, in November 1959, the US Atomic
Energy Commission decided to purchase all its supplies from US sources
and not to renew any Canadian contracts.

Over the next few years the number of mines declined to four. Uranium
production in the Bancroft area and at Beaverlodge ceased in 1982 and
the last of the Elliot Lake mines closed in 1996.

The “nuclear” appetite had declined. Grassroots peace movements
sprouted up around the globe, demanding some form of control and
disarmament of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT), designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, came into
force in 1970. Canada’s position, as expressed by then Prime Minister
Pearson, was that no uranium from Canada would be used for weapons.

The two key players in uranium mining in Canada are AREVA, a French
owned company, and Cameco, a private Canadian company. AREVA is the
largest nuclear power generating company in the world, and ranks third
in total uranium production. Cameco was formed in 1988 from two crown
corporations, Eldorado Nuclear and Saskatchewan Mining Development
Corporation.


THE ATHABASCA BASIN – UNIQUE

The Athabasca Basin, an area of about 100,000 square kilometres, is
located primarily in Northern Saskatchewan, spanning the Alberta-
Saskatchewan border. The Basin adjoins the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one
of the largest freshwater deltas in the world, providing habitat for
water birds, including the endangered whooping crane, and wood bison.
Canada’s largest national park, Wood Buffalo National Park, designated
a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes part of the Delta.

When it comes to ore bodies, the Athabasca Basin is unique. The
largest and richest uranium deposits in the world are found here. Most
ore deposits of uranium worth mining are in the order of 0.1% to 2%.
But ore bodies in the Basin far exceed those grades (ranging from
about 0.5% to over 20%). For example, the McArthur River mine is the
highest-grade uranium mine in the world, averaging about 22% uranium,
more than 100 times richer than most mines.

Mining in the 1980s and 1990s was primarily by the open-pit method as
the deposits were near the surface. Surface
mining is more economical than underground mining and, combined with
the very high ore grade found in the Athabasca Basin, made this
uranium very competitive in world markets. In the words of the nuclear
industry, “The high ore grade also requires that great care be taken
to ensure radiation protection for workers.” At the McArthur River
mine, which produced 8,500 tonnes of yellowcake in 2007, remote-
control raise-boring methods are used for mining.

CanadaUranium2

MINING KINGDOM, URANIUM RUSH

One fifth of all mineral exploration programs in the world will be
done in Canada, well over half by foreign companies. With uranium re-
emerging as a star mineral commodity, the uranium rush is on. Uranium
prices have gone from a low of $7 per pound of yellowcake (U3O8) in
1968 and 1990 to the current price of about $78.

Active exploration for uranium is underway in Saskatchewan, Alberta,
the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec,
New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and of course, the eastern,
central, and western Athabasca Basin, where over forty companies are
active.

The exploration for uranium, mostly on or near First Nations land, is
encountering fierce opposition from many communities and
organizations.

In some cases, this has led to the imprisonment of protestors, such as
the highly-publicized arrest and imprisonment of a former Ardoch
Algonquin chief in Ontario, after he refused to obey a court order to
stay away from a proposed mine site on traditional territory.

In Canada, mining is usually governed by provincial regulations.
Uranium production is under federal jurisdiction via the Canadian
Nuclear Safety Commission which regulates uranium mines and mills.
There are significant variations in provincial restrictions on
exploration and mining uranium. For example:

* British Columbia has a longstanding moratorium on uranium mining
and exploration. It was first introduced in 1980, and has been
recently renewed.
* Nova Scotia established a moratorium in 1982, but there are some
indications that the province may lift it.
* In July 2008, New Brunswick enacted new regulations to limit
uranium exploration and the staking of claims on municipal land, and
in watersheds and fields with private wells or within 300 metres of
private homes.
* On April 8, 2008, the Nunatsiavut Government placed a three-year
moratorium on mining and development of uranium on Labrador Inuit
Lands. The moratorium does not apply to exploration. The issue is to
be revisited after March 31, 2011.
* In 1990, residents of Baker Lake in the Thelon Region of the
Nunavut voted to ban uranium mining and exploration in their region.
However, in September 2007, the ban was overturned
* 20 Ontario municipalities, including Ottawa, have called for
restrictions, including moratoria, on the exploration and mining of
uranium.

LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED

The nuclear industry, including prospectors and mining companies,
leaves no stone unturned in their search for uranium. Since uranium is
ubiquitous, any place is fair game for exploration, provided the price
of uranium warrants it. Resistance to their operations can be easily
overcome, particularly when governments are favourable to their
operations.

In the words of Donna Dillman, a well-known activist in the struggles
against uranium exploration in the Sharbot Lake area in Ontario,
“Currently, there are numerous groups in Canada and around the world
resisting uranium exploration and mining. So it is essential that we
come together as one voice. When we do this, and only then, will the
media and government give the issue the importance it deserves.”

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