On a stretch of land in northern Saskatchewan, a cluster of buildings mark the entrance to the Cigar Lake uranium mine. After being discovered in 1981, the Cameco and AREVA officially marked the start of production Wednesday with a ribbon cutting and underground tour.
“It’s a very exciting day for us here at Cameco, here at Cigar Lake,” Cameco president and CEO Tim Gitzel said.
“It’s a mine that has taken us many years to bring into production but today, here we are producing.”
Gitzel and the representatives from the company’s partners used a pair of giant scissors to cut a ribbon in front of a blue elevator that later took them down about 480 metres below ground into the mine for a tour.
It was a long journey to get to the ribbon cutting, according to Gitzel.
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with when we started with this mine,” he said. “(It’s) a very challenging mine, the geology is challenging, the conditions underground are challenging.”
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with when we started with this mine.” – Tim Gitzel
Discovered in the Athabasca Basin, it is one of the richest uranium deposits ever discovered. The uranium is between a sandstone basin which holds water and granite rock.
“We have really had to adapt and be innovative,” Gitzel explained. “We have invented a lot of new techniques that we are employing to run this mine now. Just a real success story here in Saskatchewan.”
After floods in 2006 and 2008, Cameco and partner AREVA came invented a unique technologies which include freezing the entire ore body to give ground stability and control water. Once frozen, they use a technique called jet boring where high pressure water is used to cut rock into the ore and treat it before extracting it through pipes within the mine.
“We now, as Cameco, have a competitive advantage to anybody that would want to come into the Athabasca,” Gitzel said. “We learned some hard lessons in the past, have applied solutions to those, and today we operate very safely.”
The uranium “slurry” is sent to the McClean Lake mill to be processed and packaged. In 2015, they expect to produce six to eight million pounds of uranium from Cigar Lake and the goal going forward is to hit 18 million pounds by 2018.
Saskatchewan’s Minister of Economy Bill Boyd said the mine production is an important day for all companies involved and the province itself.
“It’s a very important day for employment in Saskatchewan, investment in Saskatchewan and clearly it’s a huge benefit to all of the province of Saskatchewan,” Boyd said.
“It’s a very important day for employment in Saskatchewan, investment in Saskatchewan and clearly it’s a huge benefit to all of the province of Saskatchewan.” – Bill Boyd
“We have a very strong economy in Saskatchewan, centred around the oil industry, agriculture, the mining sector. This just adds dramatically to that diversity that we have in Saskatchewan that is certainly making our province a stand out in employment in Canada these days.”
Cameco has a 50 per cent stake in the mine, AREVA owns just under 40 per cent, and the rest is split between Idemitsu Canada Resources Ltd and TEPCO Resources Inc.
TEPCO had the Fukushima reactors in Japan and nearly five years after an earthquake devastated the area one reactor is coming back on.
“That’s a good sign I think to see that the Japanese are staying in the production business,” Gitzel said.
The other major customers for Saskatchewan uranium are China, India, South Korea, and Russia.