(Updated 23 July 2014)
- Uzbekistan has considerable mineral deposits, including uranium.
- It is the world’s seventh-ranking uranium supplier, and is expanding production.
- Japanese and Chinese joint ventures are active in uranium development, especially focused on black shales.
Uzbekistan was a significant source of Russian uranium supply until independence in 1991. Uranium production until then took place in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with little regard for national borders and much of the treatment being in Tajikistan. Today, most uranium is mined in the middle of the country, with Navoi as the centre, linked to mines by railway.
The country's total electricity generation in 2011 was 52 TWh, with 40 TWh from gas and 10 TWh from hydro.
According to the 2011 Red Book, Uzbekistan has 96,000 tU in Reasonably Assured Resources plus Inferred Resources, to US$ 130/kg U. National uranium mining company Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat (NMMC) in 2011 identified 101,000 tU in permeable sand and gravel beds, plus 36,000 tU in carbonaceous-siliceous formation including black shale deposits, which have so far not supported commercial production, and foreign expertise is being sought for them. In February 2014 Goskomgeo (State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources) reported resources of 138,800 tU in sandstones and 47,000 tU in black shales.
Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat is part of the Uzbekistani state holding company Kyzylkumredmetzoloto, and undertakes all uranium mining in the country, as well as gold mining and other activities. Until 1992, all uranium mined and milled in Uzbekistan was shipped to Russia. Since 1992, practically all Uzbekistani uranium production has been exported to the USA and other countries through Nukem Inc. A total of 100,000 tU had been produced to the end of 2002.
In 2008 South Korea's Kepco signed agreements to purchase 2600 tU over six years to 2015, for about US$ 400 million. In May 2014 China’s CGN agreed to buy $800 million of uranium through to 2021, and China customs was reported as saying that Uzbekistan was second only to Kazakhstan as a uranium supplier to the country. In 2013, 1663 tU was supplied to China.
During the Soviet era, Uzbekistan provided much of the uranium to the Soviet military-industrial complex, with anniual production peaking at 3800 tU in mid 1980s. Five "company towns" were constructed to support uranium production activities: Uchkuduk, Zarafshan, Zafarabad, Nurabad, and Navoi, with a combined population of some 500,000. They remain centres of five mining districts. Uranium industry employment in 2005 was put at about 7000, though some 65,000 were employed by NMMC overall in 2012.
NMMC commenced operation focused on uranium and gold in 1958 in the desert region of Central Kyzylkum province, particularly the Uchkuduk deposit (mined underground and open pit from 1964), which led to the discovery of subsequent deposits of similar kind. In 1966, underground mining began at the Sabyrsay deposit in Samarkand and in 1977 at the Sugraly deposit near Zarafshan. In 1978, ISL was initiated at the Ketmenchi deposit. In 1975 the Sabyrsay deposit was being mined by ISL. Underground mining continued to 1990 and open pit to 1994, but mines are all now in situ leach (ISL). Uranium-bearing solutions are sent by rail to the central hydrometallurgical HMP-1 plant in Navoi for final recovery of U3O8 product. This plant was commissioned in 1964 and developed through to 1983. Bacterial leaching was introduced in 2011.
NMMC has produced over 2000 tU per year since 2004, and in 2012 production was about 2400 tU. Completion of Alendy, Aulbek and North Kanimekh mines in 2013 was expected to increase uranium production significantly. In 2013 exports to China doubled to 1663 tU.
NMMC has several divisions, the Northern and Central ones plus part of #5 are in the Kyzylkum Desert region of Navoi province.
Northern mining directorate
Centred on Uchkuduk, the Northern mining district 300 km north of Navoi was established to mine uranium at Uchkuduk, from 1961, by underground and open pit mines, with ore treated at the central plant in Navoi. Since 1965 ISL uranium mining has been used at Uchkuduk and since 1995, at Kendyk-Tyube. There is also a 450,000 t/yr sulfuric acid plant at Uchkuduk (possibly in conjunction with a copper smelter). Resources are 51,000 tU, and annual production 700-750 tU.
Central mining directorate
In the Zarafshan or eastern mining district, about 200 km north of Navoi, Sugraly was mined underground from 1977 and then ISL to 1994, when it was closed. NMMC had a joint venture with Areva to redevelop the Sugraly deposit with reported 38,000 tU resources, but this appears to have lapsed. Sugraly is a thick deposit with complex mining and geological conditions and high carbonate content. Resources are 50,000 tU, with no current production.
Mining directorate #5
The mining district #5 mostly in Bukhara province, west of Navoi and headquartered in Zafarabad, close to Navoi was set up in 1971 by another entity in Bukhara province and became part of NMMC in 1993. It mines the Bukinay group of uranium deposits by ISL methods. Mines include North & South Bukinay (from 1970), Beshkak (from 1978), Istiklol, Kukhnur, Lyavlyakan (from 1998), Tokhumbet (from 2004) and South Sugraly. District resources are 52,000 tU, and annual production 1000-1200 tU and rising to 2100 tU
Southern mining directorate
The Southern mining district in Samarkand province, southeast of Navoi, and headquartered at Nurabad, was founded in 1964 to mine the Sabirsay uranium deposit by underground methods, which continued to 1983. ISL then took over, and continues to be the main mining method. The operation was transferred from Tajikistan to NMMC about 1994*. Other mines are Ketmenchi (ISL since 1978), Jaarkuduk, Yogdu, Shark and Ulus. Resources are 13,000 tU, and annual production is 600-650 tU.
* In Soviet times, to 1992, the Leninabad Mining and Chemical Combine located at Chkalovsk, a few kilometres southeast of Khujand (Khodjend/ Khodzhent), Sughd province, northeren Tajikistan, on the Syr Darya River in the western part of the Ferghana Valley, is to the east of Uzbek’s Samarkand province. The Combine incorporated seven mines and several plants, notably Combine No. 6 (Uranium Plant V), and it processed up to 1,000,000 tonnes of uranium ore per year to produce yellowcake for the Soviet nuclear power and defence industries. A lot of this was at the central plant. Reportedly, Chkalovsk once had the capability to convert uranium concentrate into uranium hexafluoride. It was established in 1945 as a large-scale hydrometallurgical uranium enterprise, based on the uranium deposits of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Uranium mining ceased in Tajikistan in 1992, and the Combine became the industrial association Vostochnyy Eastern Combine for Rare Metals (IA Vostokredmet) which is a significant industrial complex specialising today in underground and heap leaching of metals. There are considerable amounts of uranium tailings and disturbed areas from the combine’s operation – over 100 square kilometres overall in Tajikistan, according to a Russian estimate in a 2002 IAEA report. See Appendix.
Mining directorate #2
In MA#2 at Krasnogorsk, Parkent region, Tashkent province in the east of the country, the Chauly uranium deposit was previously mined, but the focus there is on phosphorite now. It became part of NMMC in 1995.
New mines: Northern and Central
NMMC has started mining the major new Northern Kanimekh deposit, northwest of Navoi, costing US$ 34 million. Northern Kanimekh ore occurs 260 to 600 metres deep with 77% of uranium reserves present at 400-500-metre depth. This requires a special approach to building wells and uranium mining process. The pilot plants at Northern Kanimekh and Alendy were commissioned in 2008-09 and the two commercial mines were completed at the end of 2013, and are expected to achieve full capacity in 2015.
NMMC also built a pilot plant for ISL at Yarkuduk and Tokhumbet deposits. It has started operation of the US$ 21 million Aulbek ISL mine in central Kyzylkum, which ramped up to 2013, and also Meilysai and Tutlinskaya ploshad, costing about US$30 million. Over 2008-12 NMMC invested US$165 million in upgrades to expand the existing mining and processing capacities, renew the fleet of process equipment, and establish up to seven new mines. "As part of an increase in uranium production up to 2012, the expansion and reconstruction of sulfuric acid production, at a cost of about $12 million, will be carried out. Implementation of the program will make it possible to increase uranium production in 2012 by 50%". Early in 2009 the Uzbek president said that the world economic crisis would slow all this development, though full commissioning of the Aulbek, Alendy and North Kanimekh mines in Central Kyzylkum at the end of 2013 would increase NMMC production by 40%.
In August 2013 NMMC suspended construction of Meilysai and Northern Maizak mines in central Kyzylkum due to high carbonate content in the ore rendering ISL inefficient.
International ventures, black shales
Russia: In January 2006 Techsnabexport (ARMZ subsidiary) signed a memorandum of understanding with NMMC and Goskomgeo (State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources of Uzbekistan) to set up a uranium mining joint venture based on the Aktau deposit. Initially, it was planned that the joint venture would start operations late 2006, but after four years' negotiation no agreement could be reached and Russia withdrew in mid 2010. Aktau's probable resources are estimated 4,400 tons of uranium accessible by ISL and with treatment of 300 tU/yr production envisaged at Navoi. However, the ore is complex and this has apparently deterred establishment of the project. Goskomgeo invited ARMZ to consider its black shales, but ARMZ declined on the basis that no treatment process was known for them.
In 2007 Russia offered to enrich Uzbekistan uranium in the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk.
Japan: In September 2006 a Japan-Uzbek intergovernmental agreement was aimed at financing Uzbek uranium development and in October2007 Itochu Corporation agreed with NMMC to develop technology to mine and mill the black shales, particularly the Rudnoye deposit, and to take about 300 tU/yr from 2007. A 50-50 joint venture was envisaged, but no more was heard until February 2011 when Itochu signed a 10-year "large-scale" uranium purchase agreement with NMMC.
In mid-2008 Mitsui & Co. signed a basic agreement with the Uzbek government's Goscomgeo (State Geology and Mineral Resources Committee) to establish a joint venture for geological investigations regarding the development of black-shale uranium resources at the Zapadno-Kokpatasskaya mine, 300 km NW of Navoi.
In mid-2009, and further to an April 2007 MOU, Goscomgeo and the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) signed an agreement for uranium and rare earths exploration in the Navoi region, focused on ISL-type sandstone deposits and black shales, with a view to a Japanese company taking a 50% interest in any resources identified and developing them. In February 2011 a further broad agreement was signed between the two. In August 2013 JOGMEC was granted a 5-year licence to explore for uranium in two sandstone deposits, Juzkuduk and Tamdiykuduk-Tulyantash, for five years with rights to mine, following a July agreement with NMMC.
China: In August 2009 Goscomgeo and China Guangdong Nuclear Uranium Corp. (CGN-URC) set up a 50-50 uranium exploration joint venture: Uz-China Uran, to focus on the black shale deposits in the Boztau-skaya area in the central Kyzylkum desert of the Navoi region. Some 5500 tU resources are reported. Over 2011-13 CGN-URC was to develop technology for the separate production of uranium and vanadium from these black shale deposits with a view to commencing production from them.
The Uzbekistani State Committee for Safety in Industry and Mining (Gosgortekhnadzor) supervises ministries engaged in mining.
The Nuclear Regulations Inspectorate under Gosgortekhnadzor has responsibility for the control and supervision of the research reactors and all nuclear and radioactive materials (including spent fuel) in Uzbekistan.
There are two research reactors, a 10 MW tank type operating since 1959 at the Institute of Nuclear Physics, Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Tashkent, and a small 20 kW one operated by JSC Foton in Tashkent.
The state enterprise Scientific Production Centre Urangeologiya undertakes exploration in new areas.
Uzbekistan is a party to the NPT and in 1998 ratified an Additional Protocol agreement with the IAEA. It has also ratified the Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty, with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
OECD NEA & IAEA, 2012, Uranium 2011: Resources, Production and Demand ("Red Book")
Burykin, A.A., Iskra, A.A., Karamushka, V.P., 2002, Radiation Legacy of the USSR Enterprises for Mining, Milling and Processing of Uranium Ores: Conservation, Decommissioning and Environmental Rehabilitation, IAEA TecDoc 1280.
The Radiation Legacy of the Soviet Nuclear Complex: an analytical overview. Egorov, N.N., Iovikov, V.M., Popov V.K., Parker F.L., 2014, Technology & Engineering.
Legacy wastes in Tajikistan
(Source: mostly Egorov et al 2014)
During the Soviet era, uranium ore mined in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan was milled into yellowcake at the Vostochnyy Rare Metal Industrial Association (Vostokredmet), previously known as the Leninabad Mining and Chemical Combine, in Chkalovsk, Sughd oblast, 10 km from Khujand (Khodjend/Khodzhent – the country’s second largest city). The Combine incorporated seven mines and five plants including plant B, and processed up to one million tonnes of uranium ore per year to produce yellowcake for the Soviet nuclear power industry and Soviet military. Reportedly, Chkalovsk once had the capability to convert uranium concentrate into uranium hexafluoride. The mines included Tabashar, Adrasman, Mailisui, Uigur and Tyuya-Muyun. The plant provided the material for the USSR’s first nuclear weapon.
Throughout the period of the Combine's activities 32 million cubic metres of tailings (33.7 Mt) and 2.7 million cubic metres (1.8 Mt) of below-ore-grade material was accumulated in Tajikistan. In 1990 these were stored in nine tailings dumps (a total area of 174 ha and with 250 TBq activity) and 21 dumps of untreated low-grade ores (a total area of 22 ha and with 7 TBq of activity) and rock wastes which are spread over the extensive area of the Combine’s activities. ISL residues 450-600 m deep in two mining departments had activity of 4 TBq. Many of the tailings dams are considered an environmental risk.
Twelve dumps of the mining department No.2 accumulated over 1953-1980 are on the terraces of the Chauli-Sai (Syr Darya?) River 0.3-6.5 km away from Khujand. These total 16 ha and have activity of 4 TBq.
Also close to Chkalovsk and the large-scale Leninabad plant a tailings dump in the town of Gafurov was operated in 1945-1950 in connection with a pilot plant for hydro-metallurgical processing of uranium ores. The 3.9 ha tailings dump is within the area of service and pilot production buildings. It was completely dried and in 1963 its surface was covered with a one-metre layer of inert soil. However, further measures to reduce radon release were being considered in 1991. Then over 1949-1967 a 26.7 ha tailings dump some 2 km from the town of Gafurov was in operation. The volume of waste is 2.6 million cubic metres; its activity is 29 TBq. Half a metre of soil covers the surface. A dump for the tailings from the HMP-1 plant has been in operation since 1963 in the Digmai cavity 4 km from the town of Gafurov. It occupies 69.2 ha and is filled with 19 million cubic metres of waste, the activity of which is 156 TBq.
The Taboshar uranium mine site is in the Ferghana Valley on the southern edge of the Kuramin Mountains close the Uzbek-Tajik border about 40 km due north of Chkalovsk. The site consists of a non-rehabilitated open mine pit, dismantled production buildings, and three tailing sites with 10 million tonnes of low-grade ore. The town of Taboshar with its 12,000 inhabitants is only four kilometres away. A dump of below-ore-grade material and rock wastes with a volume of 1.2 million m3 and an activity of 2.5 TBq remained on the site of the Taboshar mine after its 15-year operation (1950-1965). Four tailings dumps with a total volume of 4.5 million m3 and a total area of 57.4 ha were formed at different times during the operation of a pilot hydrometallurgical plant there over 1949-1965. It treated ores from Meilisui, Uigur and Adrasman mines. The total activity of material in the tailings dumps is 36 TBq.
East in the Ferghana Valley, eight dumps up to 10 km away from the settlement of Charkassar resulted from the operation of the Adrasman mine over 1954-89. Their total area is 3.4 ha and the 292,100 tonnes of waste has a total activity of 0.54 TBq. On the site of the mine only 50 metres from the settlement there is a 3.4 ha tailings dump from operations over 1949-1958. The volume of waste in it is 102,000 m3 with a total activity of 2.4 TBq.
Further east again, in the valley of the Maili-Suu River 15 km away from the town of Mailisai a tailings dump was in operation from 1947 to 1962, and contains 1.34 million cubic metres, with activity of 19 TBq. The surface of the tailings dump has half a metre of soil on it.
Uranium mining and exploration in Tajikistan
Tajikistan stopped mining uranium in 1992, and by law the size of its uranium resources has been considered a state secret. Though the northern region around Chkalovsk may be depleted of uranium, Tajik officials claim that the Pamir region in the south and the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshon region in the southeast may contain substantial uranium resources. In 2008, the Tajik government amended legislation that had prohibited foreign companies from participating in the state's uranium industry, and Chinese, Indian and other foreign companies were discussing potential projects with the government, which has reportedly given China Guangdong Corp. and Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. permission to explore uranium deposits.