(last updated 10 Jan 2013)
|1. HELP! Someone wants to mine uranium in my backyard! (FAQ)|
|2. The phases of a uranium mining project|
|3. The regulatory framework required for uranium mining|
|4. Existing regulations for uranium mining|
1. HELP! Someone wants to mine uranium in my backyard! (FAQ)
Why my backyard?
There are several possibilities, why some property may have been chosen for uranium prospecting or exploration:
- there is information available from old prospecting/exploration files, and the deposit is becoming of interest now in view of a changing market situation,
- In the 1970s, in expectation of a golden nuclear age, uranium prospecting and exploration was performed in many parts of the world. After the uranium price crash in 1982, these activities were mostly discontinued. With the recent recovery of the uranium price, these old results are now being used to select sites of interest for further work.
- proven deposits are located nearby,
- …not necessarily a wise strategy, but very popular,
- the site has a geological analogy to proven deposits elsewhere
Why didn’t anybody ask me in beforehand?
(in case you are the owner of the property in question)
A reason might be that the subsoil is not part of the property in certain jurisdictions.
Who are these people?
There exist three categories of companies:
- “junior miners” (exploration companies that are searching for uranium)
- there exist hundreds of them; their staff typically comprises a geologist, equipped with some sort of radiation detection device, a geologist’s hammer, a rucksack (for the rock samples collected), a notepad, a pencil, and a helicopter, plus a shareholder relations department of five highly trained storytellers flooding the venturesome investor community with reports on their latest highly prospective, strategically located acquisitions, their aggressive exploration programs, their encouraging drilling results, and their potentially interesting finds – while the actual drilling is done by contractors; they have typically raised a few million dollars of venture capital at the Toronto venture exchange (TSXV), or the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX), and that’s all the money they’ve got.
- “near-term producers” (exploration companies that are planning to develop a deposit they discovered)
- these are the desperate junior miners who, for whatever reason, did not manage (or were so high-spirited not even wanting) to sell their less overwhelming uranium find to some experienced mining company, and now are left with the problem of having to develop it on their own – something they were not prepared to do and they have no idea how it is accomplished. There is only a remote chance for success, if they
- headhunt experienced staff from real miners, and
- contract experienced consultants to do all the planning work and prepare the extensive documentation required for the licensing process, while at the same time making the host country believe that they are a world-renowned experienced company that knows what it is doing, and
- contract experienced consultants to convince the investor community to surrender some hundred million dollars to the company (and, at this moment, the TSXV-listed company switches to the more serious Toronto stock exchange – TSX).
- “senior producers” or “senior operators” (mining companies that actually produce uranium)
- there exist around two dozen uranium miners, with operations at several sites and/or in several countries, the biggest ones being Areva, Cameco, Rio Tinto, Kazatomprom, Atomredmetzoloto, BHP Billiton, Navoi, Paladin Energy Ltd, General Atomics, and their subsidiaries; some of these are state-owned, or, at least majority state-owned: Areva (France), Kazatomprom (Kazakhstan), Atomredmetzoloto (Russia), Navoi (Uzbekistan).
In the last few years, major uranium consumers without sufficient domestic uranium resources have developed frantic activities to get access to uranium resources abroad, in particular Russia, France, India, China, Japan, and Korea. Unless they acquire direct interests in foreign uranium deposits (often in Africa and Asia), they buy shares in companies holding interesting deposits. So, there may in fact stand other interests behind that inconspicuous ASX-listed “junior miner” roaming around your backyard.
Many companies are public listed (i.e. their securities are publicly traded) and therefore have some publication duties, while private companies are less transparent – an infamous example being General Atomics with its subsidiaries Cotter Corp. (Colorado, USA) and Heathgate Resources(Australia).
An extensive list of companies is available at Uranium mining and exploration companies; major companies have entries with links to owners and subsidiaries.
Why are they doing this?
- the state-owned “senior producers”:
- to supply their home country with the raw material to fuel its ambitious nuclear power programme,
- the other “senior producers” and the “near-term producers”:
- avowedly to save the world by supplying the badly needed raw material for generating nuclear power, but actually to make money by selling the uranium produced,
- the average “junior miner”:
- avowedly to save the world by searching for the badly needed raw material for generating nuclear power, but actually to make money by selling their company once they hopefully have found a new deposit of some sort,
- some particular “junior miners” (difficult question: which is which?):
- avowedly to provide the venturesome investor community with brilliant investment opportunities, but actually to just milk that community
Is it dangerous?
In addition to the hazards connected to any form of mining, uranium mining presents some specific hazards to miners, residents, and environment. The kind and severity of these hazards depend on the stage the project has reached and on the mining technology used. For details, see Impacts from Uranium Mining and Milling.
What can stop them?
- A moratorium or ban
- In some jurisdictions, legislation has been passed that prohibits uranium mining (such as in the states of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia), but in most other cases, any ban on uranium mining is just a government policy, moreover often only a temporary one. For a current overview look here: Moratoria and Bans on Uranium Exploration and Mining
A policy is, of course, an easy subject to change with each new government coming into office, but laws are subject to change, as well.
- Changes in the mining law aiming at improved involvement of local stakeholders
- Although mining laws tend to outlast centuries untouched (the U.S. Mining Law has been withstanding hard as granite any attempts for a reform since 1872!) there is a remote chance to get at least some minor changes done. In 2010, for example, the Slovak parliament approved legal changes in the geological and mining laws, in response to a petition against uranium mining signed by over 113,000 people. The changes are giving local communities, municipal and regional authorities more information access and powers to stop or limit exploration of uranium deposits and to stop proposed uranium mining.
- Regulations requiring the company to take full responsibility of the impacts of its operations
- This can already be the unexpected imposition of the requirement to prepare an expensive Environmental Impact Assessment even for exploration activies, as sometimes occuring in Canada; in the case of the Garry Lake exploration project in Nunavut, the company was no longer interested in proceeding with the project under such conditions.
Experience with actual mines shows that companies still can get away without appropriately resolving all liabilities resulting from their operations, even in countries that meant to have taken measures to avoid this. Therefore, the U.S. state of Colorado, for example, has taken action twice in the last years to impose additional requirements, passing legislation and regulations for groundwater protection at in situ leach uranium mine sites, and legislation to force uranium mills to clean up existing messes before launching new projects. While such regulations are meant to assure a responsible behaviour of the company, they can deliver the death-blow to projects that are a shaky affair for other reasons already.
- Denial of necessary licences by relevant authorities
- Although this sounds rather unlikely, it does happen from time to time, for example: In 2008, the State of Arizona denied mining permits for the Canyon mine and the Pinenut mine, for inadequate pollution controls, and the Czech Environmental Ministry denied a request for mining of the Osečná-Kotel deposit. In 2007, the State of Nebraska denied an aquifer exemption required for the expansion of the Crow Butte in situ leach uranium mine, and applications for uranium prospecting licenses were denied in Donegal (Ireland), Billingen (Sweden), and at several sites in Finland.
However, any decisions taken by the authorities may be challenged by appeals, so, the denial of a permit often leads only to a temporary halt of the project.
- A Court ruling
- Although most mining laws are made to give mining the absolute priority over anything else, there is a remote chance that courts acknowledge a reason to prohibit a particular mining project. In 2010, for example, a high court halted a uranium mine project at the Quebrada de Humahuaca World Heritage site in Argentina.
- Veto of Traditional Owners
- In Australia’s Northern Territory, Jeffrey Lee, sole member of the Djok clan and senior custodian of the large Koongarra uranium deposit, has decided never to allow the ecologically sensitive land to be mined. He rather wants the land to become incorporated into the surrounding Kakadu National Park. While Lee’s approval is mandatory for the mining project to proceed, the situation is more complicated at the Jabiluka uranium deposit (also surrounded by Kakadu National Park), where the Mirarr clan had given its consent in 1982 under disputed circumstances. After long negotiations, current owner Rio Tinto agreed in 2004, not to start mining against the Mirarr’s declared will, but reserved the right to approach the clan again from time to time.
- Poor economic feasibility
- Mining of a known deposit may be uneconomic for a number of reasons, such as: small or scattered deposits, deposits that are difficult to mine, an unfavourable mineralogy of the deposit that makes it difficult to extract the uranium from the ore, poor infrastructure in the area, or, for small mines without a mill, high cost of the ore transport to a mill site (currently a common problem in the USA).
- Changes in the larger context
- The Kylleng mining project in Meghalaya, India, for example, is no longer urgent, and has been postponed, as the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 has agreed to allow India to import uranium, although the country is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (viewdetails).
- Atomredmetzoloto gets in the way
- This is what happened to Khan Resources Inc. with the Dornod project in Mongolia, or, what almost happened to Extract Resources with the Husab (ex Rössing South) project in Namibia. However, this only terminates the original company’s involvement in the project, the project as such will continue under its new developer.
- The company gets in its own way
- A prominent example is Marathon Resources that had its exploration license at Mount Gee in South Australia suspended in 2008 in response to the company’s poor environmental record. The license was reinstated only three years later.
- Local and environmental opposition
- This often is a contributing factor to the postponement of some project, but rarely the sole factor for its abandonment. In 2010, the state government of Meghalaya, India, for example, decided to keep uranium exploration in the Balpakram National Park in “abeyence” after protests of environmental and other local organizations. But elsewhere, even the status of a National Park cannot stop the progress of uranium mining projects, such as in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory, where the uranium sites are excised from the Park, and in particular in Namibia, where the government declared in 2010 its determination to permit uranium mining in protected areas, such as the Namib Naukluft Park.
Who else is involved?
- Shareholders of the company
- interested in … ehm, well…
- Landowners, including Traditional Owners
- partly interested in sales profit, royalties,
- partly fearing impacts (economic, health, environmental, social,…),
- as custodian: maintaining the status quo
- Federal government, state government, local government
the government is involved in several – partly conflicting – roles:
- as minority owner of the mine (for example in Niger, Malawi, Mongolia):
- influence on mine management decisions,
- interested in economic benefit
- as patron:
- interested in development of the area (roads, electricity network, water supply, health services, …),
- interested in improvement of the country’s export ratio, taxes, royalties, employment opportunities,
- they should also worry about any long-term liabilities that may result from the mining activities (because it is them, who’ll have to deal with these), but surprisingly they quite often don’t (…in view of some presumed short-term benefit)
- as regulator:
- development of regulatory framework,
- licensing of the mine,
- supervision of mine operations and decommissioning
- as custodian:
- care for protection of natural reserves and environmental quality during planning, construction and operation,
- long-term surveillance and maintenance after decommissioning of the mine
- as minority owner of the mine (for example in Niger, Malawi, Mongolia):
- Local businesses and their organisations:
- Local residents:
- partly interested in jobs and development of the area,
- partly fearing impacts (health, environmental, social,…)
- Environmental organisations
- interested in … – well, you guess it!
How do companies set out to gain the trust of the local population?
- By making promises
- Jobs at the mine, and business opportunities for local businesses
- The big question, however, remains, how many of the jobs will be offered to local people. And, of course, all jobs created are only temporary – as with all mining.
- Improvement of infrastructure (roads, electricity supply, schools, hospitals, etc.)
- This can be an important factor in underdeveloped areas, but the projects undertaken for the purposes of the mine do not necessarily correspond to those which are of highest priority for the local community. And, if the company runs the hospital, residents cannot expect that health effects caused by the mine will be diagnosed impartially.
- Taxes and Royalties
- There are, however, a number of caveats:
- Taxes that are based on the company’s profit possibly will never realize, as the companies do know very well how to avoid them.
- The fraction of the taxes and royalties returning to the area may be rather small, while the major part goes to the central government.
- Towards the end of the lifetime of the mine, the probability increases that the company goes bankrupt and the government is left with the task of cleaning up the mess left by the company. If no sound provisions have been made for this case, the funds required for cleanup may easily exceed those received in taxes and royalties.
- Even, if the company performs the cleanup on its own, there remain liabilities in the long term, such as water treatment, monitoring, and any necessary repairs of the waste encapsulation system.
Agreements can be concluded to assist the companies in remembering their promises. Related to Areva’s Kiggavik uranium mine project near Baker Lake in Nunavut, Canada, negotiations on an “Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement” between Areva and the Kivalliq Inuit Association began in January 2012, in accordance with the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement.
- By making donations
- Voluntary payments (often sponsoring for social and cultural acitvities in the commmunity)
- This is a widely used and very effective instrument to improve the local “climate” in favour of the company.
- Payments under a contract
- Larger and regular payments may be made subject to the signing of a contract, but these come at a price: an example is the deal on jobs, cash payments, and other benefits offered in November 2012 by Cameco and Areva to the northern Saskatchewan community of Pinehouse (Canada) – in exchange for the suppression of any criticism or opposition; after protests, Cameco and Areva signed a revised deal with the community (view details).
How do companies and governments deal with local opposition?
The attitudes encountered can by typified as follows:
- the harsh way: we do have the right to do this, and we will do it – whether you like it or not; you better get out of the way now, or you will be smashed into pieces.
While in the last years such advanced corporate conflict resolution strategy was mostly known from science fiction only *), it was the privilege of Frontenac Ventures Corporation – in symbiotic cooperation with the Canadian Province of Ontario – to bring this approach to real life: at the request of the company, two leaders of an eastern Ontario First Nation community were in 2008 sentenced to six months in jail for a nonviolent blockade of a prospective uranium mining site in North Frontenac. *) Re: Construction of Cottington bypass through Arthur Dent’s house:
Mr Prosser: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept it, this bypass has got to be built and it’s going to be built! […]
Have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you? […]
None at all.”
(Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1979)
- the arrogant way: you stupid, don’t waste our time, we know better what is good for you
- This is the default attitude encountered, if none of the others applies.
- the smart way: we are not the bad guys – you can trust us; times have changed, mining no longer is that dirty business you know from the past; we’ve even got a “responsibility” or “sustainability” section on our homepage now.
- Prominent exponents of this approach currently are Powertech Uranium Corp. with its Centennial mine project in Colorado, and Virginia Uranium Inc. with its Coles Hill mine project in Virginia, USA.
Such attitudes are also subject to change:
Mining company Areva, for example, who had received the 2008 Public Eye Award as one of “the world’s most irresponsible companies”, is all meek and mild now in Nunavut, Canada, to get general assent for its Kiggavik uranium mine project near Baker Lake. The Inuit community had dismissed the project in the late 1980s, but Inuit organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. changed sides in 2007 and reversed its previous ban on uranium mining on Inuit-owned lands. However, there still exists some opposition to the project. In a new turn, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. announced on Feb. 24, 2011, to put its pro-uranium policy on hold.
What can I do?
It’s up to you to find this out. It depends on the political situation in your country, the situation at “your” site and in your community, on your personal talents and skills. Here you’ll only find some background information for your consideration.
What can I find on this site?
For a short overview, look here.