On the Yellowcake Trail Part One: History of Uranium Mining in Canada

Anna Tilman

"Say it with flowers" by Otto Schade. Photo by Gary Knight CC, cropped from original

This article is part of a series – On the Yellowcake Trail – that tracks all aspects of uranium in Canada, from mining and milling to processing and use, throughout its eighty-year history. The series begins with the history of uranium in Canada, from its initial discovery to the rapid development of mines that placed Canada as the prominent world leader in uranium production. Each mine has a story and each story has a common thread and legacy.

download the complete series as a PDF

Yellowcake is the bright yellow uranium powder produced when raw uranium ore is crushed and purified. It is actually a mixture of uranium oxides, mostly U3O8 (urania), and ranges in colour from yellow to orange to dark green. It is this yellowcake that is packaged in steel drums, traded and sent across the world to be further proc­essed, converted to different forms, enriched and used in the manufacture of nuclear fuel or bombs.

The yellowcake trail is lined with environmental devastation, sickness and death. The nuclear industry has always been a law unto itself, sheltered by governments promoting the industry as a safe and clean means of sat­isfying the insatiable demand for energy. Yet no insur­ance company in the world will sell liability insurance to a nuclear power plant. Nuclear scientists and engineers strongly endorse nuclear power, caught up in their fascina­tion with the unique properties of uranium and the power it unleashes.

Nuclear (radioactive) waste is deadly to human be­ings in amounts as small as a millionth of a gram, and we have produced it in hundreds of thousands of tonnes. It is already leaking out of totally inadequate containment, not only from mine sites, refineries and nuclear power plants, but also from nuclear weapons programs. There is no way to get rid of it and it remains lethal for millions of years.

For decades, Canada has been the world’s largest producer of uranium, home to the richest ore bodies, the largest uranium mine in the world, and the largest publicly traded uranium mining company – CAMECO (Canadian Mining and Energy Corporation). As Canadians, we need to understand the detrimental impacts of uranium mining, processing and use to our country and to the health and environment of communities affected by these operations. At every stage there is polluted air, land, and water, wreaking permanent destruction on the health and environment of communities – especially, na­tive communities, their food sources, and their natural habitat.

Once exploration and mining starts, there is no end – the mines can be closed and abandoned as often is the case, but the radioactive tailings remain.

Early History of Uranium in Canada

Canada’s foray into uranium mining began in 1930, when a prospector for Eldorado Gold Mines discovered pitchblende, a uranium-bearing mineral, on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, about 450 kilometres north of Yellowknife. The ore body was one of the richest known uranium deposits in the world.

At that time, radium, a radioactive decay product of uranium, thought to be a miracle cure for cancer, com­manded prices as high as $75,000 per ounce in the 1930s. Uranium itself was only incidental and of no economic in­terest. So in 1932, Eldorado built a radium refinery in Port Hope, Ontario, 5000 km away from Port Radium, the mine on Great Bear Lake.

It took about 74 tonnes of ore to yield little more than 3 grams of radium. Dene men from the local community of Déline, the only inhabited community on Great Bear Lake, were hired to carry cloth sacks of radioactive ore to the shipping sites. The community later became known as a “village of widows.”

By 1940, World War II was underway. The horrors of radium poisoning were revealed. The overheated and glutted radium market collapsed. All radium mines were closed, including Port Radium. German scientists had already discovered that uranium atoms can be split (fis­sioned), releasing vast amounts of energy. So uranium took centre stage in the world and acquired strategic importance.

In 1942, the federal government bought out all shares of Eldorado and established Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited as a Crown corporation with a national monopoly on prospecting, mining, and processing uranium. Port Ra­dium was re-opened in 1942 in secrecy and was contracted to supply uranium to the US army for the “Manhattan” project to build the first atomic bomb and, after the war, to the US Atomic Energy Commission.

The Port Hope refinery played a critical role in all war activity. It was the only facility in North America for refin­ing radioactive materials such as uranium. The huge piles of refinery residues dumped in the harbour and around the town provided an easy source of uranium. Along with the uranium sent from Port Radium, rich uranium concentrates from the Belgian Congo that had been secretly stockpiled in New York were refined at Port Hope.

The Port Radium mine was decommissioned in 1984, but a further clean-up of an estimated 1.7 million tonnes of radioactive mine tailings has only recently been ordered, after more than 60 years.

The Port Hope refinery continues to operate today as the oldest uranium refinery in the world.

The Postwar Cloak of Secrecy

When an industry develops as a result of war and mili­tary security, as the nuclear industry has, then it comes as no surprise that the industry is enveloped with secrecy, that the public are not being informed, that governments cod­dle, protect and cover up for the industry.

It was the US-led development of the atomic bomb and the subsequent nuclear arms race in the 1940s that really resulted in the nuclear industry and uranium mining taking off. The US government sought a reliable supply of urani­um for its nuclear weapons program; the Canadian federal government willingly assisted. Canada became the leading uranium exporter in the world.

The ban on private prospecting was lifted in 1947. By the early fifties, Canada was the scene of the most dramatic and widespread prospecting boom in its history. Thousands of radioactive strikes were reported. By 1959, 23 mines with 19 treatment plants were in operation in Canada, spread across Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Ontario. Some of these operations were small, others were huge. But they all share a common fate: a legacy of waste and contamination of waterways that continues to today.

Beaverlodge: During its lifetime from 1953 to 1982, the Eldorado mines at Beaverlodge, north of Lake Athabasca in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan, produced over 20,000 tonnes of yellowcake. The abandoned mines have yet to be reclaimed although there are currently proposals to carry out studies to this effect. Dam failures have been releasing tailings into Lake Athabasca.

Rayrock: This underground uranium mine, located 145 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife in the Northwest Ter­ritories, was operational for only two years, from 1957 to 1959, at which point it was abandoned by its owners. Dur­ing its operations, the mine yielded only 207 tonnes of ura­nium concentrate (yellowcake). Over 70,000 tonnes of ra­dioactive tailings were “contained” in two basins, with the potential to leak metals, both radioactive and stable. The site also emits radon gas. In the 1990s, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs remediated the site, and it will be monitored once every 10 years for a further 100 years.

Bancroft: This area in Ontario southeast of Algonquin Park was the site of radium mining in the 1920s and 1930s, and went through two uranium booms from 1956 to 1964 and from 1976 to 1982. Its three underground mines, all of which were abandoned, produced about 6,700 tonnes of uranium oxide.

Elliot Lake: The “Uranium Capital” of the world, the Blind River-Elliot Lake area of Ontario had 12 uranium mines by 1960. All mining was underground at a depth of 170 to 950 metres. The low grade ore was plentiful. These mines accounted for about 80% of all uranium produced in Canada.

Within about twenty years of operation, more than 30 dams, built to contain uranium tailings, failed, dump­ ing nuclear waste and chemical toxins into the Serpent River watershed which flows into Lake Huron. By 1976, the entire Serpent River system including more than a dozen lakes, was badly contaminated for 80 kilometres or so downstream. The Serpent River system was identified by the International Joint Commission as the largest single contributor of radium contamination to the Great Lakes.

By 1996 when the mine finally closed, over 120,000 tonnes of yellowcake had been produced from the Elliot Lake mines, but over 170,000,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings are left behind.

Boom & Bust

The post-war phase of Canadian uranium production peaked in 1959 when more than 12,000 tonnes of uranium was produced. But as fast as it began, the boom came to an end when, in November 1959, the US Atomic Energy Commission decided to purchase all its supplies from US sources and not to renew any Canadian contracts.

Over the next few years the number of mines declined to four. Uranium production in the Bancroft area and at Beaverlodge ceased in 1982 and the last of the Elliot Lake mines closed in 1996.

The “nuclear” appetite had declined. Grassroots peace movements sprouted up around the globe, demanding some form of control and disarmament of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, came into force in 1970. Canada’s position, as expressed by then Prime Minister Trudeau, was that no uranium from Canada would be used for weapons.

The Dawn of Nuclear Power

A new era for uranium developed in the latter part of 1960s, spurred on by the demand for electricity-generating nuclear power.

The first nuclear power plant in Canada, the Nuclear Power Demonstration Plant at Rolphton, Ontario, was op­erating by 1963, using the CANDU (Canadian Deuterium-Uranium) design principles. The first large-scale commer­cial nuclear power station, Ontario Hydro’s Pickering reac­tor, was operational in 1971.

But this time Saskatchewan became the new uranium capital of the world. In 1988, the richest uranium find in the world occurred at McArthur River. The mine started production in 1999.

Saskatchewan became the sole province in Canada producing uranium and remains so today. Ontario’s ura­nium mining period seemed to have ended.

The two key players in uranium mining in Canada are AREVA, a French owned company, and Cameco, a private Canadian company. AREVA is the largest nuclear power generating company in the world, and ranks third in total uranium production. Cameco was formed in 1988 from two crown corporations, Eldorado Nuclear and Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation.

The Athabasca Basin – Unique

The Athabasca Basin, an area of about 100,000 square kilometres, is located primarily in Northern Saskatchewan, spanning the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The Basin ad­joins the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the largest fresh­water deltas in the world, providing habitat for water birds, including the endangered whooping crane, and wood bison. Canada’s largest national park, Wood Buffalo National Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes part of the Delta.

When it comes to ore bodies, the Athabasca Basin is unique. The largest and richest uranium deposits in the world are found here. Most ore deposits of uranium worth mining are in the order of 0.1% to 2%. But ore bodies in the Basin far exceed those grades (ranging from about 0.5% to over 20%). For example, the McArthur River mine is the highest-grade uranium mine in the world, averaging about 22% uranium, more than 100 times richer than most mines.

Mining in the 1980s and 1990s was primarily by the open-pit method as the deposits were near the surface. Sur­face mining is more economical than underground mining and, combined with the very high ore grade found in the Athabasca Basin, made this uranium very competitive in world markets. In the words of the nuclear industry, “The high ore grade also requires that great care be taken to en­sure radiation protection for workers.” At the McArthur River mine, which produced 8,500 tonnes of yellowcake in 2007, remote-control raise-boring methods are used for mining.

Mining Kingdom, Uranium Rush

One fifth of all mineral explora­tion programs in the world will be done in Canada, well over half by foreign companies. With uranium re-emerging as a star mineral commod­ity, the uranium rush is on. Uranium prices have gone from a low of $7 per pound of yellowcake (U3O8) in 1968 and 1990 to the current price of about $78.

Active exploration for uranium is underway in Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and of course, the eastern, central, and western Athabasca Basin, where over forty companies are ac­tive.

The exploration for uranium, mostly on or near First Nations land, is encountering fierce opposition from many communities and organi­zations. In some cases, this has led to the imprisonment of protestors, such as the highly-publicized arrest and imprisonment of a former Ardoch Algonquin chief in Ontario, after he refused to obey a court order to stay away from a proposed mine site on traditional territory.

In Canada, mining is usually governed by provincial regulations. Uranium production is under federal jurisdiction via the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission which regulates uranium mines and mills. There are significant variations in provincial re­strictions on exploration and mining uranium. For example:

  • British Columbia has a long-standing moratorium on uranium mining and exploration. It was first introduced in 1980, and has been re­cently renewed.
  • Nova Scotia established a moratorium in 1982, but there are some indications that the province may lift it.
  • In July 2008, New Bruns­wick enacted new regulations to limit uranium exploration and the stak­ing of claims on municipal land, and in watersheds and fields with private wells or within 300 metres of private homes.
  • On April 8, 2008, the Nu­natsiavut Government placed a three-year moratorium on mining and de­velopment of uranium on Labrador Inuit Lands. The moratorium does not apply to exploration. The issue is to be revisited after March 31, 2011.
  • In 1990, residents of Baker Lake in the Thelon Region of the Nu­navut voted to ban uranium mining and exploration in their region. How­ever, in September 2007, the ban was overturned.
  • 20 Ontario municipalities, including Ottawa, have called for restrictions, including moratoria, on the explora­tion and mining of uranium.

Leaving No Stone Unturned

The nuclear industry, including prospectors and min­ing companies, leaves no stone unturned in their search for uranium. Since uranium is ubiquitous, any place is fair game for exploration, provided the price of uranium war­rants it. Resistance to their operations can be easily over­come, particularly when governments are favourable to their operations.

In the words of Donna Dillman, a well-known activist in the struggles against uranium exploration in the Shar­bot Lake area in Ontario, “Currently, there are numerous groups in Canada and around the world resisting uranium exploration and mining. So it is essential that we come to­gether as one voice. When we do this, and only then, will the media and government give the issue the importance it deserves.”

Anna Tilman is an independent researcher and a Board member of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health


Watershed Sentinel Original Content

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital