Largest uranium deposit could light up Paris

24th July 2007, Comments 0 comments

MCCLEAN LAKE, Canada, July 24, 2007 (AFP) - Hidden in Canada's northern Boreal Forest, amongst hundreds of wild rivers and lakes, the McClean Lake uranium mine produces enough ore to light up Paris.

MCCLEAN LAKE, Canada, July 24, 2007 (AFP) - Hidden in Canada's northern Boreal Forest, amongst hundreds of wild rivers and lakes, the McClean Lake uranium mine produces enough ore to light up Paris.

Day and night, massive trucks and mechanical shovels shake the earth and move some 5,000 tonnes of rock each 11-hour shift that clench the precious material used to feed nuclear reactors around the globe.

At least five trucks working in tandem crawl through the dirt and debris in the open pit mine daily to a nearby processing plant.

The Athabasca region of Saskatchewan province is "the largest producing geological basin in the world," Yves Dufour of France-based Areva, which holds a 70-percent stake in the McClean Lake project, tells AFP.

In 2006, one quarter of the world's total uranium supply of 39,429 tonnes originated from just three mines in this region about 1,000 kilometers north of Regina: McClean Lake, Rabbit Lake, and McArthur River, which is co-owned by Areva and Canada's Cameco, the world's largest uranium producer.

"It's an enormous deposit," said Dufour.

"The region consumes about 40 percent of Areva's resources and produces about 50 percent of the company's total uranium output, which is enough to meet 30 percent of France's nuclear energy needs," he said.

The basin's deposits top 600,000 tonnes of uranium, or about 18 percent of the world's reserves, he said.

In production since 1995, the McClean Lake mine produced a mere 690 tonnes of uranium (814 tonnes of U3O8) last year, or about one quarter of its previous yield, "but still enough to meet Paris' annual requirements," said mine superintendent Jim Corman, during a tour of the facility.

Next year, its output is expected to return to normal levels and continue at that stratum beyond 2015.

At the bottom of the open pit, mechanical "beasts" five meters (16 feet) high and six meters (20 feet) wide stop only briefly to be filled up in four scoops, consuming some 85 liters (22 gallons) of diesel per hour as they labor.

These mastodons cost about 1.5 million dollars each and must be delivered in pieces, then assembled in about 100 hours. Due to their heavy payload, they wear out tires in less than six months, at a cost of 25,000 dollars per tire.

Nearby, a plant refines the mineral into yellow cake, which is then shipped east to Ontario and then exported.

Adjacent, the McArthur River project, "the world's largest high-grade uranium mine," according to Cameco's Kevin Quesnel, produced 7,200 tonnes of uranium (8,500 tonnes of U3O8) last year, or about 18.3 percent of the planet's production.

"The uranium produced by McArthur River each year is sufficient to meet about seven percent of total US electricity demand," Quesnel said. Cameco owns 69.8 percent of the mine, while Areva holds the remainder.

Digging the uranium out of the ground is arduous and dangerous. Its uranium content is so concentrated the risk of radon exposure during excavation is so high that remote-controlled equipment must be used.

"This way nobody is exposed," explains Jean-Pierre Nicoud, vice-president of operations for Areva Resources Canada, a subsidiary of the French behemoth, 620 meters (2,000 feet) below ground.

As well, gigantic vents pump air throughout the mine every six minutes and no miner spends more than two hours at a time in the extraction zone.

Another peculiarity, the mineral is lodged in brittle and porous rock that remains drenched in water after flooding in 2003.

To facilitate mining, the shaft was turned into a "giant freezer," at temperatures below minus 35 degrees Celsius, said Jean-Pierre Nicoud, creating "walls of ice several meters thick."

The extracted mineral is replaced with concrete to reinforce the shaft and allow exploration of more veins, he said.

"This frosty technique is a world first," he said.


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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