(Updated October 2013)
- 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. Most uranium is mined in the middle of the country, with Navoi as the centre, linked to mines by railway. Its 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.
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 is 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.
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. 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.
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 are expected to achieve full capacity in December 2013.
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, ramping 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 will 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 in 2013.
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")