Canadian uranium operations suspended in response to COVID-19

24 March 2020

Cameco is temporarily suspending production at its Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan and placing the facility in safe care and maintenance mode during the COVID-19 pandemic. In consultation with Cameco, Orano Canada Inc is suspending production at its McClean Lake uranium mill, where ore from Cigar Lake is processed. The suspensions at both operations are expected to last at least four weeks.

Cigar Lake (Image: @cameconews)

Cameco indefinitely suspended production at its Key Lake/McArthur River mine in 2018 as part of a long-term strategy to focus on its so-called tier-one assets and align production to keep pace with market signals, purchasing uranium on the spot market when necessary to meet its sales commitments.

"We are in unprecedented and challenging times," Cameco President and CEO Tim Gitzel said yesterday. "In the face of great uncertainty, our first priority is to protect the health and well-being of our employees, their families and their communities." The company's leadership team had, he said, "weighed many factors" in assessing the situation both globally and locally to make this decision, taking into account the "specific and unique circumstances" at Cigar Lake, which is a remote, isolated 'fly-in/fly-out' operation in northern Saskatchewan.

Orano Canada Inc President and CEO Jim Corman said: "Our operations work in tandem, and our communities are all interconnected. This is a difficult time for many, and we understand the concerns we are hearing. McClean Lake will safely be put into care and maintenance within the next few days and we will continue to assess the situation, always keeping health and safety at the forefront."

There are as yet no confirmed cases of the virus at either of the operations, the companies said. However Cameco cited restrictions enacted by the federal and provincial governments, the significant degree of concern among leaders in remote isolated communities of northern Saskatchewan, and the increased challenges of maintaining the recommended physical distancing at fly-in/fly-out sites as critical factors in reaching the decision. "[Having] a substantially reduced workforce on site will enable improved physical distancing and enhanced safety precautions," it said.

At full production, there are typically around 300 people at a time working across the Cigar Lake operation. About 160 employees are at the McClean Lake mill at any one time, following a two-weeks-in, two-weeks-out schedule. Once production is suspended and care-and-maintenance implemented, a workforce of about 35 people at a time will remain on site at Cigar Lake and about 50 at McClean Lake to carry out essential safety-related monitoring and activities.

The Cigar Lake underground uranium mine is owned by Cameco (50.025%), Orano Canada Inc (37.1%), Idemitsu Canada Resources Ltd (7.875%) and TEPCO Resources Inc (5.0%). It is operated by Cameco. Ore from Cigar Lake is ground up and thickened in underground processing circuits before being pumped to the surface as a slurry, which is then transported by truck the 80 kilometres to Orano's McClean Lake mill for processing. McClean Lake currently receives all the ore it processes from Cigar Lake.

The two operations' 2020 production up to 21 March was about 4 million pounds U3O8 (1539 tU), Cameco said.

Cameco said it is "closely monitoring" operations at its Fuel Services Division in Ontario, and will continue to operate them for as long as it remains safe to do so in order to continue a reliable supply of nuclear fuel.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News