MAC: Mines and Communities

Kazakhstan bakes biggest yellowcakes on earth

Published by MAC on 2010-06-19
Source: Reuters

While debate rages over the wisdom of starting up new uranium mines in Africa, few people recognise that the biggest single player in this "radiation game" is to be found in Eastern Europe.

It is here that Kazakhstan citizens bear not only the burden of increase mining, but also what is possibly the worst nuclear legacy on earth. For recent story see:

Kazakhstan: true uranium potential

By Robin Paxton


14 June 2010

TAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -With a twist of his wrist, Jerry Grandey prised open a 400 kg drum of yellowcake to mark the official launch of Kazakhstan's latest uranium mine.

Grandey, chief executive of Cameco Corp, admits to being an anti-nuclear activist in his youth. His company is now among the leading foreign investors in Kazakhstan's fast-growing uranium sector.

Kazakhstan surpassed Canada last year as the world's largest uranium miner. With more than 15 percent of global reserves, the Central Asian state is poised to become the primary supplier of the metal to a new generation of nuclear reactors worldwide.

"The uranium potential of Kazakhstan is remarkable," said Gregory Vojack, an Almaty-based attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP who advised state nuclear firm Kazatomprom on a $500 million Eurobond last month. The issue was eight times oversubscribed.

Global uranium consumption is forecast by the World Nuclear Association to reach 91,537 tonnes by 2020 and 106,128 tonnes by 2030, increases of 33 percent and 55 percent respectively from the 68,646 tonnes forecast for this year.

The need for new mines will be exacerbated when Russia's 20-year 'Megatons to Megawatts' programme to export uranium from decommissioned nuclear weapons expires in 2013.

This will remove 24 million pounds of reactor-quality uranium from the market, about 13 percent of world consumption, which has helped restrain uranium prices by bridging the gap between supply and demand.

Kazakhstan produced 13,900 tonnes of uranium last year, more than a quarter of world output. It expects to produce 18,000 tonnes this year and more than 25,000 tonnes by 2015.

The country has attracted foreign investors like Areva and Toshiba Corp. But it is not without risk: investors were shocked when the man once hailed as the architect of such partnerships began a 14-year jail term in March.

Mukhtar Dzhakishev had led Kazatomprom since 1998 before his arrest last year on charges of corruption, theft and the illegal sales of assets to foreign companies. He denies the accusations.

Kazakhstan says his arrest was part of its attempts to root out corruption from key industries, but the incident has fuelled speculation of an intensifying power struggle within the political elite.

Kazatomprom is now headed by Vladimir Shkolnik, a former industry minister. Duisenbay Turganov, vice-minister of industry and new technologies, said the Dzhakishev case would have no bearing on the state company's future plans.

"Neither our strategy nor our overall direction are changing," he told an investment forum in Almaty this month.

Competition for Assets

The uranium boom is good news for the residents of Taikonur. Once populated only by Russian geologists, the town was largely abandoned when the Soviet Union fell. It has been revived by an influx of ethnic Kazakhs seeking well-paid work in the mines.

The Inkai mine employs around 500 people earning an average monthly wage of around $1,200, more than double the national average. Just down the road, Canadian miner Uranium One runs another mine, South Inkai, in partnership with Kazatomprom.

"There is competition for employees, as there are six mines in the region now," said Glen Hein, director of safety, health, environment and quality at Inkai.

This competition extends to national level, as international miners vie for a share of the lucrative business. But Kazakhstan has made it clear it will not let anyone invest in its uranium.

"We don't need portfolio investors," said Nurlan Ryspanov, vice-president for production at Kazatomprom, which owns a 10 percent stake in U.S.-based reactor builder Westinghouse.

"We need co-investors who, by entering the uranium business, will bring with them new technologies and capabilities for us to enter new phases of the nuclear fuel cycle."

These conditions relate to Kazatomprom's ambition to take its uranium through the entire nuclear fuel cycle by 2020, a process that requires building a reactor near the Caspian Sea.

Another key step in the process will be construction of a plant to convert the yellowcake produced at Inkai into gas form, the stage prior to enrichment. Cameco and Kazatomprom will complete a feasibility study on the project by the end of 2010.

The World Nuclear Association says there are 439 nuclear reactors operating worldwide today. Plans exist to build 57 more. China is constructing 23, Russia 10 and South Korea six.

Soviet Legacy

Inkai, like most Kazakh mines, produces uranium via the in-situ recovery method. Drill rigs bore holes into the steppe to recover uranium in an acid solution, which is concentrated in several stages before being dried to produce yellowcake.

The technique avoids the need to dig shafts or pits, cutting mining and land reclamation costs and reducing the risk of injury to miners.

The Kazakh uranium industry wasn't always so modern. The country inherited decaying Soviet infrastructure and output fell by 75 percent in the years following independence.

Grandey has seen these changes: he spent two summers in the late 1980s travelling around the closed nuclear cities of the Soviet Union; places that were either omitted from the map or deliberately placed in false locations to confuse the West.

For many, this legacy is hard to shake. More than 1 million people who lived next to the Semipalatinsk atomic bomb test site were affected by radiation resulting from the Soviet Union's test explosions of about 500 bombs between 1949 and 1989.

"Semipalatinsk has made people radiation-phobic, though it's less of a problem now than it was," said Timur Zhantikin, who chairs the Nuclear Power Committee in the Ministry of Industry and New Technologies. The test site closed two decades ago.

He says people still need to be educated on the advantages of nuclear energy, but that Kazakhstan can use its Soviet legacy to its advantage. Building a reactor will be easier, he said, because the country has already dismantled a Soviet-era plant.

And while opposition to nuclear power persists among some lobbies in Australia, the only country with more uranium in the ground than Kazakhstan, the Central Asian state is likely to advance its position as the world's largest uranium miner.

"Australia has had a love-hate relationship with uranium," said Bob Steane, Cameco's chief operating officer. "Kazakhstan has set out a very clear path."

(Editing by James Jukwey)

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