Brief History of Uranium Mining in Canada

Early uranium mining

In Canada, uranium ores first came to public attention in the early 1930s when the Eldorado Gold Mining Company began operations at Port Radium, Northwest Territories, to recover radium. A refinery to produce radium was built the following year at Port Hope, Ontario, some 5000 km away.

Exploration for uranium began in earnest in 1942, in response to a demand for military purposes. The strategic nature of such material resulted in a ban on prospecting and mining of all radioactive materials across Canada. In 1943, the federal government took over the Eldorado company and formed a new crown corporation – Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited – which later became Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. Uranium exploration was restricted to the joint efforts of Eldorado and the Geological Survey of Canada.

Postwar, uranium exploration gathered pace when the ban on private prospecting was lifted in 1947. Deposits around the Bancroft, Ontario, area were discovered by the early 1950s, and the first discovery in Ontario's Elliot Lake region was in 1953. The northern Saskatchewan uranium province was also discovered in the 1950s and Eldorado Nuclear began mining at Beaverlodge in 1953.

By 1956, thousands of radioactive occurrences had been discovered. Several proved to be viable deposits, and by 1959, 23 mines with 19 treatment plants were in operation in five districts. Of these 19, about 11 in the Elliot Lake area, including the largest plants, would come to be operated by Rio Algom Ltd and Denison Mines Ltd. Three other plants were located near Bancroft (in southeast Ontario), three in northern Saskatchewan and two in Northwest Territories.

This first phase of Canadian uranium production peaked in 1959 when more than 12,000 tonnes of uranium was produced. The uranium yielded C$330 million in export revenue, more than for any other mineral export from Canada that year. However, the level of uranium exploration waned in the 1960s, and over the next few years the number of mines declined to four. During the 1960s the federal government supported the domestic uranium industry by initiating a stockpiling program which ended in 1974, after some 7000 tonnes of uranium was purchased at a cost of C$100 million. Uranium exploration was revived by expectations of nuclear power growth, and as a result several new uranium deposits were discovered in northern Saskatchewan's Athabasca Basin, starting in the late 1960s.

Uranium production in the Bancroft area and at Beaverlodge, Saskatchewan, ceased in 1982 and the last of the labour-intensive, lower-grade Elliot Lake mines closed in 1996.

Recent uranium mining

Canada's uranium production in 2001 was about 12,500 tonnes uranium (tU), one third of world mine output, all from mines in northern Saskatchewan. By 2007, the share of world uranium production had decreased to 23%, with just under 9500 tU produced that year in the country. Canada's uranium ore reserves are about 14% of world total.

In 1968, the Rabbit Lake deposit was discovered in northern Saskatchewan, and was brought into production in 1975. In that year Cluff Lake and Key Lake were discovered on the west and south of the same Athabasca Basin, and these started up in 1980 and 1983 respectively. Exploration expenditure in the region peaked at this time, resulting in the discoveries of Midwest, McClean Lake and Cigar Lake. Then in 1988 the newly-formed Cameco Corporation discovered the massive McArthur River deposit.

In the late 1970s, the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation, a provincial crown corporation, had taken a 20% interest in the Cluff Lake development and a 50% interest in Key Lake. In 1988 this merged with Eldorado Nuclear Ltd to form Cameco Corporation, now the world's largest uranium producer. In 1991 Cameco made its first public share issue.

The Federal and Saskatchewan governments have adopted a policy of supporting uranium mining where it can be demonstrated to be environmentally acceptable. In 1991 the Joint Federal-Provincial Panel on Uranium Mining Developments in Northern Saskatchewan (Canada) was formed to study the health, safety, environmental and socio-economic impacts of five proposed uranium mining developments. A Federal Panel was formed to examine a sixth proposal.

Through the 1990s, Cameco's Key Lake was the world's largest high-grade uranium mine, supplying 15% of the world's uranium mine production in 1997. Cameco is also owner and operator of Rabbit Lake, which has been another major producer.

The other uranium mine in operation in the late 1990s was Cluff Lake, owned and operated by Cogema Resources Inc (now Areva Resources) and which ceased production in 2002. Rio Algom's Stanleigh Mine, the last at Elliot Lake in Ontario, closed in mid-1996.

Three new uranium projects became the focus of attention in the late 1990s as reserves in the older mines became depleted. All are located in northern Saskatchewan. Of these three new mines, two use a common treatment plant, at McClean Lake.

The McClean Lake mine commenced operation in mid-1999. It involves four open pits feeding a new mill, and later may have an underground mine. It is operated by Areva Resources Canada.

The McArthur River mine operated by Cameco has enormous reserves of very high-grade ore and opened its underground mine at the end of 1999. Remote-control raise boring methods are used for mining, some 600 metres underground. Ore is trucked to the Key Lake mill, 80 km south.

The high-grade Cigar Lake mine operated by Cameco is also underground, utilising ground freezing and water jet boring, with remotely-operated equipment. Ore is trucked 70-80 km for treatment at the McClean Lake mill. Flooding delayed the project to beyond the planned startup date of 2011, and production commenced in 2014.

Ore from the Midwest underground mine (majority-owned by Areva) is also likely to be milled at McClean Lake nearby if and when it is developed.

Canada: Uranium