Uranium from Rare Earths Deposits

(Updated 24 August 2015)

  • A large amount of uranium is in rare earths deposits, and may be extracted as a by-product. 
  • Higher uranium prices and geopolitical developments have enhanced the economic potential for recovering these.

In addition to the 5.4 million tonnes of uranium in the world's known recoverable resources, there are substantial amounts comprising what is known as 'unconventional resources'. One of these is rare earths, in relation to which China has a preeminent position as supplier. This gives rise to commercial pressure for development of other deposits outside China. Some of these contain significant uranium mineralisation.

Rare earth elements (REE) are a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the 15 contiguous lanthanides plus the lighter scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are considered REE since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar physical and chemical properties. The REEs have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. Most REEs are not in fact rare. However, because of their geochemical properties, REE are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms. REEs are often found together, and are difficult to separate. One of the minerals involved in the progressive discovery and identification of REEs was samarskite – containing uranium. Many more contain thorium.

Economically and geologically there is a distinction between light REE, or cerium earths (scandium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium – elements 21, 57-64) and heavy REE, or yttrium earths (yttrium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium – elements 39, 65-71). Samarium, europium and gadolinium can fall into either category, or with terbium and dysprosium form a middle REE category. In 2015 Greenland Minerals said that neodymium, dysprosium, terbium, europium and yttrium were critically important for clean energy uses and had high supply risk. Resources are usually reported as rare earth oxides (REO).

Large orebodies of the cerium earths are known around the world, and are being exploited. Monazite includes cerium, and associated light REE. Corresponding orebodies for heavy REE or yttrium earths tend to be rarer, smaller, and less concentrated. Most of the current supply of yttrium originates in the "ion adsorption clay" ores of Southern China. Some of these provide concentrates containing about 65% yttrium oxide, with the heavy lanthanides. Uranium ores from Ontario have occasionally yielded yttrium as a byproduct. Xenotime incorporates yttrium and heavy REEs.

Since 1998 China has produced over 80% of the world's REE, mostly from Inner Mongolia, and the proportion is now higher. All of the world's heavy REE (such as dysprosium) come from China. Most REE is by-product from Chinese sources such as the polymetallic (iron-REE-niobium) Bayan Obo deposit in Baotou city with reserves of at least 48 million tonnes of REE grading about 6%, but predominantly light REE. There are also limited surficial clay deposits in southern China, and two in Jianxi province are exploited: Longnan, with heavy REE similar to xenotime, and Xunwu, with light REE particularly lanthanum but with little cerium. 

China cut back exports of all REE from the 35,000 t level in 2010, and banned exports of terbium and dysprosium. This led to recommissioning of Molycorp's Mountain Pass mine in California, and enhanced interest in bringing new orebodies into production, including Lynas' Mount Weld in Western Australia (now about 11,000 t/yr), Nolans Bore in Central Australia and Kvanefjeld in Greenland, the latter two with significant uranium content with the rare earth oxides (REO). 

In April 2011 China's Ministry of Industry & Information Technology (MIIT) under the National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC) set a production quota for REO of 93,800 tonnes, up 5% on 2010, with a quota on REO smelting of 90,400 tonnes. No new mining licences were to be granted before mid 2012. MIIT said that no extra production beyond the quotas would be allowed. From 2011 Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) acquired five rare-earth separation companies licensed by the Inner Mongolia government. It is now known as Baogang, based in Hexi Industrial Zone, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, and with 73,500 t/yr processing capacity claims 40% of the domestic REE market. Its main asset is the Baiyunebo mine.

This was part of the national government's effort to consolidate China's rare-earth sector, gain more influence over pricing in the global market and ensure sustainable growth in the industry. The Ministry of Land and Resources said that 15 southern cities with abundant heavy REE resources have signed agreements to cooperate in regulatory enforcement, and this may be under Baotou, at least in Fujian and Jiangxi provinces with heavy REE. In 2014, the State raised the limit, which increased rare earth production by 14.5% to 95,000 tonnes, representing 86.4% of the global total. Exports in 2014 totalled 29,000 tonnes, yielding 36% lower revenue that 2013: $370 million. In 2015 the six major REE companies are expected to merge. These include Rising Nonferrous Metals Group (RNM), China Non-ferrous Metal Industry Engineering & Construction (NFC, working with Greenland Minerals), Zhong Ke San Huan and Grirem.

Considering rare earths alone, China has 55 million tonnes (47.7%) of the world’s 115 million tonnes of economic resources for rare earth oxides (REO), followed by the USA with 13 million tonnes (11.3%), according to Geoscience Australia 2012 data, which excludes Greenland (now 11 Mt including inferred resources). The largest REE deposit in the world is the Bayan Obo/Baiyunebo deposit in China, with at least 48 million tonnes of REO.

Particular deposits and projects

Mountain Pass, California
Molycorp Inc’s Mountain Pass deposit was discovered by a uranium prospector in 1949. It dominated worldwide REE production from the 1960s to the 1990s, and has been recommissioned to again be a major producer from 2014. Molycorp was spending $781 million on modernising and expanding its plant, which reached 19,000 t/yr capacity in 2012 – slightly more than US demand - and 20,000 t/yr in 2014. However, sales in the third quarter of 2014 were only 3356 tonnes, and in June 2015 it had accumulated debt of $1.7 billion and was filing for bankruptcy, as its major lender called for it to come up with “a limited operations plan”. Remaining resources in carbonatite are about 1.6 million tonnes REE averaging 8.24%, with 5% cut-off. It produces both heavy and light rare earth concentrates. The company makes no mention of uranium as by-product, but thorium is present in monazite.

Kvanefjeld, Ilimaussac complex, southern Greenland
Kvanefjeld is the main REE deposit with major potential for uranium production, with Sorensen and Zone 3 orebodies in the same Ilimaussac intrusive complex. It was investigated intensively over 1955-86, then dropped for commercial reasons. Greenland Minerals & Energy acquired the project in 2007 then with a JORC-compliant resource then of 43,000 tU at 0.022% U with 6.5 million tonnes of REO at 1.07% in Lujavrite. About 3.6% of REOs are terbium, dysprosium and yttrium, i.e. 'heavy'. 

The full Kvanefjeld project uranium resource (JORC compliant) is now (May 2015) estimated at 228,000 tU in four deposits: Kvanefjeld, Sorensen, Zone 3 and Steenstrupfjeld. This includes 36,600 U measured resources at 0.0257 %U, 66,000 tU indicated resources at 0.0215 %U (all in the Kvanefjeld deposit), and 125,000 tU inferred resources (in the first three deposits), all with 0.015% U3O8 cut-off, and 11.14 million tonnes of REO including 0.40 million tonnes of heavy REO. Also 2.42 Mt zinc as sphalerite. Relative to other world REO deposits (especially China), Kvanefjeld has a high proportion of terbium through to lutetium (elements 65-71). There is considerable further mineral potential in the immediate area – including up to 600,000 tU according to IAEA estimates.

The maiden ore reserves (JORC compliant, May 2015) are 43 Mt proven with 352 ppm U3O8 (12,834 tU) and 500 ppm heavy REO, and 64 Mt probable with 368 ppm U3O8 (19,970 tU) and 490 ppm heavy REO. These are in the upper part of the Kvanefjeld deposit.

The mine and concentrator with flotation circuit will produce a REE-U concentrate plus zinc concentrate and fluorspar by-products. Then the refinery will employ atmospheric sulfuric acid leach to produce uranium oxide by-product, then stronger acid leach followed by solvent extraction recovery, and precipitation to separate REEs. Primarily it will produce a critical rare earth concentrate (Nd, Pr, Eu, Dy, Tb, Y), with lanthanum and cerium by-products. Production is envisaged as 7900 tonnes of critical mixed REO per year, 434 tU, 15,100 t lanthanum and cerium oxides, 15,000 t zinc concentrate and 16,000 t fluorspar per year. 

The concentrator is planned to be at the head of Narsaq Valley adjacent to the mine, and the refinery about one kilometre down the valley. A new port will be at the bottom of the Narsaq Valley. The company is now finalising the environmental and social impact assessment and preparing an application to the government for later in 2015 to proceed with the project. Construction could commence in 2015 with first production in 2018.

Start-up costs for a 3 Mtpa plant are estimated at $1121 million for mine, concentrator and refinery, plus $240 million for infrastructure in the May 2015 feasibility study. Unit production costs are low – $8.56/kg for the exported concentrate after by-product credits, compared with an anticipated market price of ten times this, and an incremental cost of $6/lb U3O8 for the uranium. Metallurgical flowsheets for both concentrator and refinery were developed in 2013, and have been modified since in discussion with NFC.

The company had been seeking partners for the refinery, then envisaged offshore, and in March 2014 signed an agreement with NFC, a subsidiary of China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Group (CNMC) to provide concentrates of heavy REOs to NFC’s new 7000 tpa rare earth separation facility in China, now under construction. A further agreement with NFC was signed in April 2015. NFC's participation in the rare earth industry comes through its subsidiary Guangdong Zhujiang Rare Earths Company, which was the first group to carry out full separation of 15 rare earth elements in China, and is recognised globally as a leader in rare earth separation technology. Uranium is not included in the NFC agreement.

A year after the Greenland government allowed the company's feasibility studies to include uranium, in December 2011 it amended the company's exploration licence to include uranium. The company could then apply for a mining licence including uranium, with a view to first production in 2016, followed by a long mine life. The company is conducting detailed discussions under confidentiality agreements with several international consortia regarding development scenarios and their funding. In November 2012 the Greenland government voted unanimously to support the project, including uranium, and in October 2013 it repealed the long-standing policy banning uranium development. It noted that it is Denmark's responsibility to ensure that international conventions, such as non-proliferation, are respected. Denmark is pursuing this, and both states expect to have a cooperation agreement for the mining and export of uranium finalised in 2015. The Additional Protocol to Denmark’s safeguards agreement with IAEA, specifically for Greenland, entered into force in March 2013.

The company is involved with the EU-funded EURARE programme, designed to support the development of REO deposits in Europe. The Kvanefjeld project was selected by EURARE as a major one for demonstration of REO production, and a 26-tonne ore sample (about 1.3% REO) was processed over 100 hours at the beneficiation pilot plant in Finland by simple froth flotation to yield 2 tonnes of concentrate. The next test work stage will produce 15% REO, then the pilot plant hydrometallurgy at Aachen in Germany to give a mixed carbonate of 60% REO. At Aachen a separation plant will sort the Pr+Nd from La & Ce and from other materials. The products will be evaluated.

Eco Ridge, Elliot Lake, Ontario
Pele Mountain Resources Inc has received mining leases for its Eco Ridge uranium and REE orebody in Canada, 11 km east of Elliot Lake. In the decade to closure of the Stanleigh mine at Elliot Lake in 1996, the area produced REE as a commercial by-product of uranium production. The Eco Ridge deposit contains a full range of REE at 0.164% grade, including 9.5% heavy REE (including scandium, europium and gadolinium in this category, 7.4% if excluding them). Uranium grade is 0.041% U with cut-off grade 0.024%. Some 65% of the heavy REE report in the uranium leach solution without any additional milling cost. The deposit includes indicated resources of 36,600 t REO and 8690 tU, plus 56,900 t REO with 14,500 tU inferred resources (NI 43-101 compliant). An underground mine is envisaged, using underground bio-leaching and surface heap leaching, the ore being moved to the surface in haul trucks. The leachate from underground and surface will be piped to the processing facility where it will be clarified and processed in a solvent extraction circuit. Solvent extraction raffinate will be recycled to the two leach operations. 

A preliminary economic assessment in 2012 suggested uranium production of 10,500 tU over 11 years. However weakening REE prices coupled with the need for hardrock underground mining meant that the Eco Ridge project was deferred in favour of processing monazite at Elliott Lake, focused on neodymium and praseodymium. The monazite would come from mineral sands tailings in other countries. In March 2015 Pele announced an agreement with Sheng Kang Ning (Shanghai) Mining Investment Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of Shenghe Resources, to develop monazite processing facilities to recover REE at Elliott Lake.

Teasdale Lake, Elliot Lake, Ontario
Appia Energy reports 3080 tU indicated resources and 7750 tU inferred resources in connection with rare earths.

Round Top, Texas
Texas Rare Earth Resources Corp earlier signed an agreement with Areva to take up to 116 tU per year by-product uranium from its Round Top heavy rare earth project in Hudspeth County, Texas. The 2013 preliminary economic assessment includes no uranium product and only a recommendation to perform a preliminary review of uranium potential, though 37,000 tU is identified in all classes of REE resources in rhyolite (with 70% being heavy REE). A 2015 agreement establishes a joint venture with K-Technologies Inc to develop processing technology for REE.

Nolans Bore, Northern Territory, Australia
This is a deposit of light REE with 7500 tonnes uranium content at 0.016% U with 1.2 Mt REO grading 2.6%, about 135 kilometres north of Alice Springs, NT. It also contains 5 Mt of 12.9% P2O5 and 0.27% thorium (Dec 2014). Arafura Resources intended to develop it as a REE mine and plans to rail its concentrate at Whyalla, South Australia where it would be processed to produce 20,000 t/yr REO, 130 t/Uyr, plus phosphoric acid and gypsum co-products. The combined neodymium/praseodymium (NdPr) content of the ore means that NdPr oxide wolud generate 77% of projected revenue, though these are both light REE. The thorium would be separated as an iron-thorium precipitate and transported back to the Nolans Bore mine site in NT for long-term storage as a possible future energy source. A feasibility study is proceeding.

Dubbo Zirconia Project, New South Wales, Australia
Alkane Resources' DZP has REE as potential by-product of zirconium production – 700,000 t zirconia as measured resources in 2011. These have 0.75% REO and 0.014% uranium – about 4200 tU, and the same in inferred resources. The 2012 reserve figures also have 0.75% REO at same tonnage but do not include uranium.

Zandkopsdrift, South Africa
Frontier Rare Earths in 2011 reported NI 43-101 resources of 950,000 t REE (56% indicated resources) at this deposit in the Northern Cape Province. The resource includes 47 ppm U, which is more likely nuisance than by-product. Frontier has signed a definitive agreement with KORES to develop the project as a partner with Frontier, initially taking 10% equity but with option to go to 50% and to take a proportional amount of production. KORES is to arrange project finance for the entire development.

Steenkampskraal, South Africa
During the 1950s and to 1963 about 50,000 tonnes of monazite concentrates were extracted which had between 3.3 and 7.6% thorium. Great Western Minerals Group through Rare Earth Extraction Co Ltd expects to resume rare-earth oxide production at its 74%-owned Steenkampskraal mine. In 2013, NI 43-101 indicated resources including the old tailings dam totalled 32,000 t TREO with 8% heavy REO, and 42,100 t TREO inferred resources. The updated figures included 176,000 t monazite as indicated and 278,000 t inferred resources. Thorium will be extracted from the mixed rare-earth chloride concentrate, and stockpiled at a rate of about 360 t/yr. Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd (STL) has the rights to this thorium and is planning to refine it, in collaboration with Thor Energy in Norway. (STL is also designing a 100 MWt high-temperature pebble bed reactor – HTMR100 – to use the thorium.)

Cummins Range, Kimberley region, Western Australia
This is a deposit of light REE with inferred resource TREO of 85,000 t at 1.74%, uranium content of 0.0145% (600 tU), and 11.2% P2O5 at 1% cut-off. Subject to proving further resources, Navigator Resources Ltd contemplated developing it as a REE mine with uranium by-product, but is now delisted. It is similar geologically to Mount Weld, but with greater uranium content. It has 127,000 t TREO inferred resources at 0.5% cut-off.

Olympic Dam, South Australia
BHP Billiton’s large Olympic Dam mining operation accesses a huge orebody, with the world’s largest resources of uranium, though this is only a by-product of copper (along with gold and silver by-products). The orebody also contains some 53 million tonnes of REO (predominantly lanthanum and cerium), though these are sub-economic and there are no plans to extract them even as by-product at present. They remain in the tailings (as at many uranium mines).

Mary Kathleen, Queensland
This was a uranium mine in a rare earth deposit, and from which no rare earths were recovered commercially. It operated 1958-63 and 1975-82. The uranium grade was 0.10-0.15%, the REE grade about 4-5%, and the company initially had great difficulty keeping the REE assay in product below specified levels of 0.1%. The REOs ended up in tailings, and in 2015 the Queensland government was seeking expressions of interest in recovering them.

Khiagda, Russian Federation
The Khiagda ISL uranium mine in Siberia is planning to recover REOs as by-product.

Greenland Minerals & Energy,
Molycorp Inc
Pele Mountain Resources
Great Western Minerals Group
Arafura Resources Ltd 
Texas Rare Earth Resources Corp
Alkane Resources
Geoscience Australia, Australian Mineral Atlas, Rare Earths