By Richard Johnson | IDN-InDepth NewsReport
PARIS (IDN) - The French nuclear company Areva achieved a record uranium production of 9,760 tonness in 2012 – up from 9,142 tonnes the previous year – enabling the company to retain its place as the world's second-largest corporate uranium producer. The world leader is Kazatomprom of Kazakhstan, with a 2012 production share of nearly 12,000 tonnes.
The company stated in a press release on February 18 that its mining sites in Kazakhstan and Niger beat their all-time highs for the second consecutive year in 2012. Katco, a joint venture owned 51% by Areva and 49% by Kazatomprom, accounted for 3,661 tonnes uranium (53 tons more than in 2011) of Areva's total. In Niger, Areva's 63%-owned subsidiary Somair contributed 3,065 tonnes (339 tonnes up on 2011), while Cominak, in which Areva holds 34%, added 512 tonnes from a total mine output of 1506 tonnes.
According to information gathered by the World Nuclear News, Areva's interests in the McArthur River-Key Lake operations in Canada produced 2,270 tonness uranium, while Trekkopje in Namibia produced 251 tonness. Trekkopje's pilot phase produced its first uranium concentrates in January 2011, but the project was placed under care and maintenance at the end of 2012 after Areva announced that it would postpone the full launch of the mine pending an improvement in market conditions.
Kazakhstan has been an important source of uranium for more than fifty years. In the period 2001-2011 production rose from 2,022 to 19,450 tonnes per year, making Kazakhstan the world's leading uranium producer. Mine development has continued with a view to further increasing annual production by 2018. Production capacity is around 25,000 tonnes uranium per year, but in October 2011 Kazatoprom announced a cap on production of 20,000 tonnes uranium per year. Of its 17 mine projects, five are wholly owned by Kazatomprom and 12 are joint ventures with foreign equity holders, and some of these are producing under nominal capacity.
Kazakhstan has no national electricity grid, but a northern grid links to Russia and a southern one links to Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Electricity production was 72 billion kWh in 2009, 82% coal-fired. In 2012 capacity was 20 GWe. In 2012 the government's energy system development plan had 150 billion kWh/yr production in 2030, with 4.5% of this from nuclear. The government plans investment in electricity production and grid of $7.8 billion by 2015, and foresees $64 billion by 2030.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), another important producer of uranium is Namibia, which has two significant uranium mines capable of providing 10% of world mining output. Its first commercial uranium mine began operating in 1976. There is strong government support for expanding uranium mining and some interest in using nuclear power.
Uranium was discovered in the Namib Desert in 1928, but it was not until intensive exploration got under way in the late 1950s that much interest was shown in Rossing. Rio Tinto discovered numerous uranium occurrences and in 1966 took the rights over the low-grade Rossing deposit, 65 km inland from Swakopmund.
Two other significant deposits found in early exploration were Trekkopje, a calcrete deposit 80km NE of Swakopmund and near Rossing, and Langer Heinrich, a calcrete deposit discovered in 1973 by Gencor, 80 km inland from Walvis Bay and 50 km southeast of Rossing.
In April 2011 the Namibian government announced that its state-owned mineral exploration company, Epangelo Mining Ltd, would have exclusive control over new strategic minerals developments, including uranium. However, this does not apply retrospectively or amount to nationalisation of existing mines or leases. Paladin and Kalahari have both expressed confidence that their assets are not at risk of expropriation, and in April 2012 Epangelo agreed to buy a share of the Etango project and pay a corresponding share of development costs.
WNN reports that a task force was formed in May 2010 by Epangelo and Russia's ARMZ, which briefly seemed to threaten existing developments, but the government gave strong reassurance then. New exploration licences will be granted only to Epangelo, and others interested will need to negotiate farm-ins with it, to become joint-venture partners.
Over 2011-12 a Strategic Environmental Assessment was undertaken over the whole uranium province inland from Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. This addressed the whole region and all the projects, and is to result in a Strategic Environmental Management Plan to be implemented by the government and individual project companies
Niger and Gabon
Areca’s yet another partner Niger has two significant uranium mines providing 7.5% of world mining output from Africa's highest-grade uranium ores. Niger's first commercial uranium mine began operating in 1971. here is strong government support for expanding uranium mining.
Uranium was discovered at Azelik in Niger in 1957 by the French Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minières (BRGM), looking for copper. The French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) initiated further studies. Further discoveries in sandstone followed including at Abokurum (1959), Madaouela (1963), Arlette, Ariege, Artois & Tassa/Taza (1965), Imouraren (1966) and Akouta (1967). In the midst of this, Niger became independent of France in 1960.
In 1964 the coal deposit of Thirozerine was also discovered. It is currently operated by SONICHAR and produces electricity for the northern Agadez region, including the uranium mines.
Historically, uranium mining in Gabon has been closely linked with Niger due to the role of the French Atomic Energy Commission and Cogema (now Areva NC).
Production is first sold to the partners in proportion to their equity at an 'extraction price' determined by the government, notionally based on operation costs, but somewhat higher. From February 2012 the extraction price is CFA 73,000/kgU ($145/kgU), paid in Euros. The partners then sell or use it, in the case of the government, through a trading company.
WNN notes that Niger is the world's fourth-ranking producer of uranium. In 2011 it produced 4351 tonnes uranium, and cumulative production from the country was 114,346 tonnes to the end of 2010. About 62,000 tonnes of this was from underground, and 52,000 tonnes from open pit mining.
Uranium is mined close to the twin mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, 900 km north-east of the capital Niamey (more than 1,200 km by road) on the southern border of the Sahara desert and on the western range of the Air mountains. The concentrates are trucked to ports in Benin and exported for conversion, mostly to Comurhex in France.
Areva's senior executive vice president for mining activities Olivier Wantz described the company’s 2012 figures as a "remarkable collective performance" in line with the objectives of the company's long-term strategic plan, Action 2016. The plan was drawn up by the company in 2011 to mitigate mounting losses stemming from problems with reactor construction projects in Finland and France, the downgrading of uranium assets at the Namibian project and the effects of the Fukushima accident on the uranium and reactor construction markets. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 19, 2013]
Photo: Trekkopje mine in Namibia | Credit: Areva