Uranium in Central Asia
(updated March 2013)
- Central Asia has considerable mineral deposits, including uranium.
- Exploration and mine development is proceeding in countries which have not hitherto supplied uranium, and also where mining has been suspended for some years.
Please note: The country papers on Kazakhstan and Mongolia should be consulted for information in those areas.
This paper will deal with other countries in central Asia where uranium deposits having JORC or NI 43-101 compliant resources are known or understood to exist.
The Mailuu-Suu district, in the Jalal-Abad Province in southern Kyrgyzstan was a significant Soviet uranium mining area where more than 10,000 tonnes of uranium was produced between 1946 and 1967. The Kara Balta Mining Combine was set up in the 1950s to mine and treat this ore. In 1997 it became a joint stock company and in 2007 the 72% state equity was purchased by the Renova Group - see below.
Monaro Mining NL based in Australia had eight exploration licences in the Kyrgyz Republic which are prospective for uranium. These projects include Aramsu, Utor, Naryn, Sumsar, Sogul, Djurasay, Hodjaakan, and Gavasai (the last few including base and precious metals). A number of other companies including Canada's Uranium One are also actively exploring for uranium. Nimrodel has leases in the Mailuu-Suu area.
Monaro in January 2008 signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese resources group Sinosteel for it to take over exploration of its Kyrgyz projects, under which it could eventually own up to 60% of two new uranium mines in the country. At the end of 2009 Monaro reported that it had sold a 75% interest in its Kyrgyz Project to Gate Bridge Co Ltd based in Hong Kong and owned by a consortium of HK and Chinese investors. Monaro will retain a 25% free-carried interest until such time as Gate Bridge generates a pre-feasibility study on any of the licence areas.
Raisama Ltd based in Australia has a 75% interest in the Kashkasu project, west of the historic uranium mines, with uranium mineralisation spread over 2.6 km strike length. China's Hebai Mining has a 10.94% interest in Raisama.
Several of the licences have CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) defined resources. However, these do not conform to JORC or NI 43-101 standards and a significant amount of further work is required before JORC-compliant resource statements can be reported.
Kyrgyzstan's Kara Baltinski Mining Combine processes ore from Kazakhstan's Zarechnoye joint venture at the refurbished Kara Balta mill near Bishkek. It holds a 0.67% share in that JV. The Kyrgyz government accepted a tender from a Russian resources investment group, Renova, for its 72% stake in the company in March 2007, which led to an agreement in October 2008 with the Kazakh-based Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) to provide $150 million to develop the mill and properly emplace 50 years of tailings accumulation. Kara Balta then contracted with Russian-Kazakh Zarechnoye JV and Kazatomprom in Kazakhstan for toll milling. The mill resumed production in August 2007 and has increased annual production from about 800 tonnes of uranium to 2574 tU in 2009, exceeding for the first time historic output levels. This production is all counted as kazakh. Further plans involve tailings re-treatment and disposal.
See mention in Uzbekistan, Southern district.
According to the 2011 Red Book, Uzbekistan has 96,000 tU in Reasonably Assured Resources plus Inferred Resources, to US$ 130/kg U. According to the Uzbekistani State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources (Goskomgeo) in 2008, the country’s "explored and estimated uranium reserves" are 185,800 tonnes. Some of this is in black shale deposits, which have so far not supported commercial production, and foreign expertise is being sought for them.
Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat (NMMC) is part of the Uzbekistani state holding company Kyzylkumredmetzoloto, and undertakes all uranium mining in the country. Before 1992, all uranium mined and milled in Uzbekistan was shipped to Russia. Since 1992, 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. However, uranium industry employment in 2005 was put at about 7000.
NMMC commenced operation focused on uranium and gold at the end of the 1950s in the desert region of Central Kyzylkum province. Early uranium mining was underground (to 1990) and open pit (to 1994), but is now all in situ leach (ISL). Bacterial leaching was introduced in 2011.
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 a central plant in Navoi. Since 1965 ISL uranium mining has been used at Uchkuduk and at Kendykijube. There is also sulfuric acid production in the district (possibly in conjunction with a copper smelter). Resources are 51,000 tU.
Resources in the Zarafshan (also 'eastern') mining district, about 160 km north of Navoi, are 50,000 tU. 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.
The Central mining district #5 at 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 Bukinai, Beshkak, Istiklol, Kukhnur, Lyavlyakan and Tokhumbet. District resources are 52,000 tU.
The Southern mining district at Nurabad, Samarkand province, 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. It was transferred from Tajikistan to NMMC about 1994. Other mines are Ketmenchi (ISL since 1978), Shark and Ulus. Resources are 13,000 tU.
MA#2 at Krasnogorsk previously mined the Chauly uranium deposit but appears to be focused on phosphorite now. It became part of NMMC in 1995.
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 startup uranium mining facility at Northern Kanimekh was commissioned in November 2008 and is expected to achieve full capacity in 2013.
NMMC has also started building a pilot plant for ISL at Alendy and Yarkuduk depositsand 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 planned to invest 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%". However, early in 2009 the Uzbek president said that the world economic crisis would slow all this development.
NMMC produced 2320 tU in 2007 from the Northern, Central and Southern mining districts.
In January 2006 Russia's 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 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 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.
In 2007 Russia offered to enrich Uzbekistan uranium in the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk.
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.
OECD NEA & IAEA, 2008, Uranium 2007: Resources, Production and Demand ("Red Book")
NMMC web site
Reports for Western Prospector Group and Denison Mines