Cameco’s Cigar Lake mine has begun production. After a catastrophic flood in 2006, the mine has taken 8 years to get into production. Meanwhile China is building 28 nuclear reactors today that will use uranium as fuel, and planning to build a thorium reactor in a decade.
The mine is located in northern Saskatchewan, at 58 degree N latitude. The ore is being transported to the McClean Lake mill, located 70 kilometres to the northeast, which is operated by AREVA Resources Canada Inc., a minority owner of the mine. The mine is owned by Cameco Corporation (50%), AREVA Resources Canada Inc (37%), Idemitsu Canada Resources Ltd. (8%), and TEPCO Resources Inc. (5%). Cameco is the project operator.
The Cigar Lake has proven and probable reserves of 537,100 tonnes at an average grade of 17.4% U3O8. When the mine is in full production in 2018, it’s expected it will be producing 18 million pounds of uranium concentrate a year. The uranium deposit at Cigar Lake is expected to be one of the richest in the world, but getting to this point hasn’t been cheap — as of late last year, the capital costs were around $2.6 billion.
The mine uses a complex slurry process to extract the deposit from the underground mine. The thickened slurry is pumped the the surface and transported to the mill by truck. The mine will employ about 600 people.
China will be a major buyer of uranium to feed its 17 operating rectors. It has 28 under construction. Meanwhile China has kicked off an ambitious thorium reactor project with the the recruitment of 140 PhD scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. It then had plans to reach 750 staff by 2015. The Chinese appear to be opting for a molten salt reactor – or a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) — a notion first proposed by the US nuclear doyen Alvin Weinberg and arguably best adapted for thorium. “The thorium blueprints gathered dust in the archives until retrieved and published by former Nasa engineer Kirk Sorensen. The US largely ignored him: China did not.” (see source b)
A key potential benefit of a thorium reactor would be a higher-temperature operation of the unit along with its atmospheric-pressure operation both offer a better safety profile and the ability to use process heat to drive a Fischer-Tropsch process—a known, proved means of turning carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons—that is, synthetic oil products (such as diesel fuel.) Thorium may at least do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas, but on a bigger scale, for much longer, and with near zero carbon dioxide emissions.
Congratulations to the Cameco team for finally being able to open the mine.
It is interesting that the leading edge research on the next generation of nuclear reactors is centred in Asia—China and India. The concept and early research originated in the US in the 1960s but went nowhere. The west has all but abandoned the nuclear energy industry. The US has not built a reactor in 40 years and Canada sold off its CANDU assets a couple years back. It is somewhat ironic that thorium reactors promise to offer a profoundly ‘green’ source of long term energy but the research lead is being taken up by the ‘bad boy’ of the environment - China.