Uranium Facts

Why Uranium?

  • High demand as an energy source
  • Significant Price increase
  • Production shortfalls
  • Diminished supply
  • Growing cost of alternative fuels used to produce electricity
  • More than 140 new reactors to be built over the next 10 years
  • Uranium is more than 10,000 times the energy output than oil (megajoule/kg)

What is Uranium?

  • Discovered in 1789, Uranium is one of the most abundant elements found within the earth's crust.

  • It is more abundant than gold, silver or mercury, about the same as tin and slightly less abundant than cobalt, lead or molybdenum.

  • Uranium is a silvery white very dense metal (65% more dense than lead), with the potential to generate incredible amounts of energy.

  • Radioactive metallic element of high specific gravity.

  • Uranium averages about two parts per million of the earth's crust.

  • Uranium is found as an oxide, uraninite, or mixed oxide, pitchblende or complex salt such as brannerite (oxide of uranium, rare earths, iron and titanium), coffinite (uranium silicate) and carnotite (hydrated potassium uranyl vanadate).

  • Chemical symbol for uranium is "U"

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Where is Uranium Found?

  • Uranium, known as the heaviest naturally occurring element, can be found in soil and rock, in rivers and oceans, in a variety of different geological environments.

  • Concentrated uranium ores are commonly found in hard rock or sandstone and vary according to the substances mixed with and where it was originally found.

  • Uranium deposits can be found all over the world. Larger areas include Australia and Canada.

  • High-grade deposits are only found in Canada.

  • Kazakhstan, Niger, Russia and Namibia follow close behind in production, and combined with Canada and Australia, they account for about 84% of production from mines.

  • McArthur River in Canada (Cameco), Ranger in Australia (ERA) and Olympic Dam in Australia (BHP-Billiton) are the three largest operations in the world by annual uranium production.

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Mining Uranium

Uranium is extracted from the ground using a variety of different mining techniques, depending on the depth of the mineralization and grade.

  • Open Pit

When found close to the surface, generally less than 100 metres deep, this method is most common. It begins by removing overburden soil and waste rock on top of the ore body to expose the hard rock, a pit is then excavated to access the ore. The pits walls are mined in a series of benches to prevent them from collapsing. To mine each bench, holes are drilled into the rock and loaded with explosives, which are detonated to break up the rock.

  • Deeper deposits

Located more than 100 metres below the surface, underground mining methods are required. Entry into the ground in accessed by digging vertical shafts to the depth of the ore body, tunnels are then cut around the deposit. Horizontal tunnels (drifts) offer access directly to the ore and provide ventilation pathways. The mines underground are ventilated, but in the uranium mines, extra care is taken with ventilation to minimize the amount of radiation exposure and dust inhalation.

  • In Situ Recovery(ISR)

ISR is injected-solution mining that reverses the natural process that deposited the uranium in the sandstones. On-site ground water is being fortified with gaseous oxygen and introduced to the uranium ore body through a pattern of injection wells. The solution dissolves the uranium from the sandstone host. The uranium-bearing solution is brought back to surface through production wells where the uranium is concentrated on resin beads for trucking to a processing plant to be concentrated further and dried into yellowcake for market. This pattern of injection and recovery wells, plus surrounding monitor wells that serve as a safeguard, is called a wellfield.

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Uranium Grades

  • Uranium concentrations vary from substance to substance and place to place.
    1. Uranium in phosphate rock, which is used to produce fertilizer, can range as high as 400 ppm (parts per million).
    2. Some coal deposits contain uranium concentration levels as high as 1000 ppm.
    3. Concentrations in excess of greater than 750 ppm are usually considered ore, or rock economical to mine.
  • Ore-grade uranium ranges from .01% (1,000 ppm) up to several tens of percents found in high-grade deposits.
    1. High-grade ore-body -- 20% U 200,000 ppm U
    2. Low-grade orebody -- 0.01% U 1,000 ppm U
    3. Granite 4 ppm U
    4. Sedimentary rock 2 ppm U
    5. Average in Earth's continental crust 2.8 ppm U
    6. Seawater 0.03 ppm U

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Uranium Supply and Demand

  • Demand is projected to increase at and annual rate of 2.8% to 2010 and double by 2020.

  • Significant commercial use for uranium is to fuel nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity.

  • At this time in the world, there are 441 operable commercial nuclear power plants generating capacity of 367,684 megawatts requiring 178 million pounds of U3O8 per year. These plants are supplying approximately 16% of the world's power requirements.

  • Construction of 140 new reactors are underway or in the planning stages for completion within the next 10 years.

  • Approximately 180 million pounds (81,600 tonnes) for all sources is the current demand for uranium fuels. This number will increase to more than 200 million pounds (90,700 tonnes) U3O8 by 2025. Around 100 million pounds (45,400 tonnes) U3O8, is produced from world mining at this present time (remaining demand is currently met from "secondary" sources) but to meet expected demand this number must increase by 60 per cent by the year 2018.

  • Demand for uranium is linked to the level of electricity generated by nuclear power plants.

  • The cost of producing conventional electricity is increasing due to escalating oil, coal and natural gas prices. In addition, global warming concerns are also increasing international interest in nuclear power and spurring new demand for uranium.

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Uranium History by Decade

1895 - 1904
1895 X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen.
1896 In Paris, France, Henri Becquerel discovered uranium.
1898 Marie and Pierre Curie discovered and named elements radium and polonium.
1903 The radiation from radium was used to treat cancerous tumors.
1904 The nature of radioactivity and the theory of radioactive decay was published in a paper by Ernest Rutherford.
1910 - 1920
1910 Cosmic radiation first identified by Hess and Kohlhoerster
1911 Discovery by Rutherford that the atom consisted of a small, dense nucleus. Positively charged particles in the nucleus were named protons. Niels Bohr proposed theory that electrons orbit the nucleus of the atom.
1913 The modern x-ray tube was developed by William Coolidge in the United States.
1915 The first recommendations on safe use of x-rays were issued by the Roentgen Society.
1920 - 1929
1928 The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) was established.
1930 - 1939
1930 Pitchblende was discovered at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories
1932 James Chadwick discovered the existence of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom.
1936 Uranium ore was discovered in a mine on the north shore of Lake Athabasca at Goldfields, Saskatchewan.
1937 Radioisotopes were used for therapy for the first time in the United States.
1939 In Germany, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner discovered that uranium could release energy by nuclear fission. The threat of war caused the work of atomic scientists to be covered-up and classified as military secrets.
1940 - 1949
1942 Nuclear research was conducted in Canada by British scientists. The first controlled nuclear chain reactor was produced in the United States by a team led by Enrico Fermi. No public announcement was made because of wartime restrictions.
1943 In order to gain control of all sources of uranium in their respective countries, the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States banned all private exploration for, and development of, radioactive materials. The federal government established a Crown corporation, Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited, to oversee Canadian uranium interests. This company expropriated the uranium mine at Port Radium (Northwest Territories) and was given a monopoly in all uranium prospecting and developing activities.
1944 Chalk River, Ontario, was established as the first national research centre in Canada.
1945 A second discovery if uranium ore was made at Goldfields, Saskatchewan. Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited staked its first claim in the Lake Athabasca area in northern Saskatchewan. The first operational nuclear reactor outside the United Sates was started up at Chalk River. The Manhattan Project, research into the development of the atomic bomb being done in the United States, produced the first atomic explosion in New Mexico. Atomic bombs were dropped by the United States on Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th, demonstrating the power contained in the uranium atom. This ended World War II and started the nuclear arms race.
1946 The Atomic Energy Control Act was passed by the federal government and the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) was created to ensure that nuclear energy is used a s safely as possible.
1948 The government agreed to purchase all uranium through Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited. The federal government lifted the ban on private exploration for radioactive minerals and incentives were offered to encourage prospectors to search for uranium. The Saskatchewan government set up prospectors' training schools to encourage prospecting for uranium.
1949 A uranium mine was developed in the Beaverlodge area by Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited. The U.S.S.R. conducted their first atomic tests.
1950 - 1959
1950 The onset of the Korean War maintained the demand for uranium for use as weapon material.
1951 The first cancer treatment units were developed in Canada and installed at the University Hospital, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Victoria Hospital, London, Ontario. In the United States, the first electricity was generated from the fission of uranium atoms. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), a Crown corporation, was established to conduct research and development into peaceful uses of nuclear technology and to sell, supply and service CANDU nuclear reactors.
1952 The town of Uranium City was established in the area of Beaverlodge. Buildings form Goldfields were moved to the site. An operator's error caused radioactive particles to spread throughout the nuclear reactor at Chalk River. Massive clean-up was required.
1953 The mine and mill at Beaverlodge went into production.
1954 The hydrogen bomb was developed in the United States, quickly followed by similar developments in the U.S.S.R.
1955 Gunnar Mines Limited, a private uranium mining company, began production in the area of Beaverlodge.
1956 The first nuclear energy power plant opened in England.
1957 Lorado Uranium Mines Limited, a private company, began production in the area of Beaverlodge. Numerous small mines operated in the Beaverlodge area, using Eldorado and Lorado milling facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created to establish and administer international safeguards for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
1958 Contracts with the United States to purchase Canadian uranium were not renewed.
1959 A second nuclear development centre was established at Whiteshell in Manitoba.
1960 - 1969
1960 Lorado Uranium Mines Limited closed. The Canadian government allowed radiation to be used for inhibiting the sprouting of potatoes.
1962 Canada generated electricity for the first time using nuclear energy.
1964 Gunnar Mines Limited closed due to depletion of ore body. Eldorado was the only uranium production company in Saskatchewan. Interest in nuclear power plants began. Electricity derived from nuclear reactors was proven competitive with electricity from conventional thermal generators. The federal government developed the policy of exporting Canadian uranium only to those countries using uranium for peaceful purposes. A ban on atmospheric testing signed in 1958 by the United State and the U.S.S.R. was enforced.
1967 Government incentives were offered to exploration companies by the Saskatchewan government.
1968 Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited changed its name to Eldorado Nuclear Limited. The Treaty in the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed. A section of this treaty prohibited the sale of Canadian uranium for use in weaponry. A rich ore discovery was made at Rabbit Lake in northern Saskatchewan.
1969 A "uranium rush" began in northern Saskatchewan because of the Rabbit Lake discovery and because forecasts of an increased demand for uranium. A high grade uranium deposit was discovered near Cluff Lake in northern Saskatchewan. The high costs of nuclear power plants and environmental concerns postponed or cancelled the development of these plants.
1970 - 1979
1970 The federal government established a foreign ownership policy which would limit foreign ownership of uranium producing companies to 33% and single investors to 10%, with some modifications.
1972 The rush to find uranium ore slowed.
1973 The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) tripled the price of its crude oil. The result was loss of a cheap, abundant energy source. More of the industrialized world turned to nuclear power to generate its electricity.
1974 The Saskatchewan government formed the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation as a Crown corporation to explore for and mine uranium and all minerals other than potash and sodium sulphate in Saskatchewan. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission once again allowed Canadian uranium to enter the U.S. market.
1975 A uranium ore deposit was discovered near Key Lake, about 250 kilometers north of La Ronge. Uranium ore production began at Rabbit Lake. India exploded a device using Canadian technology and United States uranium. Canada stopped all nuclear trade with India. The Canadian government realized that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was not sufficient and that it was necessary to take action to impose further conditions (that is, bi-lateral agreements) on the countries importing Canadian uranium.
1977 The Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry was appointed to conduct a public inquiry into the probable environmental, health, safety, social and economic effects of the expansion of the uranium industry in Saskatchewan.
1979 A major nuclear accident occurred in a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in the United States. The Key Lake Board of Inquiry was appointed by the provincial government to make specific recommendations about the Key Lake project. The hearings were boycotted by anti-uranium groups.
1980 - 1989
1980 Uranium production began at Cluff Lake.
1982 Eldorado closed its mine near Uranium City and began to decommission the site. Uranium ore production began at Key Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Eldorado Nuclear Limited took over ownership of the mine and mill complex at Rabbit Lake.
1983 High grade ore deposits at a depth of 400 meters were discovered at Cigar Lake.
1984 People living near the community of Wollaston Lake blockaded the road leading to the Rabbit Lake mine sites.
1986 A major nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl in the U.S.S.R.
1988 Shaft sinking began at Cigar Lake and Midwest Lake. Eldorado Nuclear Limited and the Saskatchewan Mining Corporation merged to form one company; the Cameco Corporation. Approval was given to proceed with a test mine at Cigar Lake. McArthur River (world's richest deposit discovered)
1989 A Saskatchewan uranium producing company was charged in the court system by the federal and provincial governments in connection with a spill of radioactive water at the Rabbit Lake mine.
1990 - present
1990 The price of uranium on world markets was at a low. 433 nuclear reactors produced electricity in 26 countries, providing 17% of the world's electricity.
1991 Cameco Corporation made its first offering of shares to the public. The company is a major shareholder and operator of both the Key Lake and Rabbit Lake mines and a major shareholder in the Cigar Lake Mining Corporation. The company developed the McArthur River Deposit.
1998 Cameco began mining at McArthur River, the world's largest high-grade uranium mine.
2001 Cameco announced that reserves at McArthur River increased by more than 50%. The mine produces 18 million pounds U3O8 annually
2005 Cigar Lake mine will begin production with proven and probable reserves of more than 232 million pounds U3O8 and a production life of 40 years. Total reserves of Uranium in the Province are estimated at 779 million pounds U3O8. . At 2002 prices of about $10.00 US per pound this amounts to about $11.8 billion in Canadian dollars.

Source: Saskatchewan Interactive