Uranium Mining in Canada

Prospecting, the search for valuable minerals, holds a romantic place in the history of Canada. Early discoveries of uranium were made in the traditional method by grizzled prospectors braving the wilderness on foot and canoe. But modern times have led to modern methods. Today, aircraft specially equipped with radiation detectors fly low-level surveys over areas that, based on geological maps, appear promising. Once an area has been identified as having potential, field crews investigate it on the ground using hand-held radiation detectors such as Geiger-Muller counters. Water, soil, and vegetation samples are also collected and analyzed for their uranium content.

Considerable detective work is required to find uranium deposits. For example, if uranium-bearing boulders are discovered, geologists will reconstruct the movement of past glaciers to determine from where they may have come. If uranium deposits are hidden deep underground, geophysical methods such as electrical-resistivity surveys are conducted to find materials like graphite, which are good conductors of electricity and are often associated with uranium deposits. Once the search has been narrowed to a small target area, drill rigs are brought in, often by float-planes, and extract rock cores from the subsurface. Chemical analysis of the samples determines whether uranium is present in economic concentrations and helps define the size and shape of the ore body.

Uranium ore
Uranium ore.

Canada has been a major world producer of uranium since the global demand for this material developed. Today, the only producing area is northern Saskatchewan, although other areas have been active in the past. Canada is the world’s leading exporter of uranium and hosts three of the top ten producing mines in the world. To place this into perspective, Canada’s production of 11,180 tonnes of uranium oxide (U3O8) in 2007 contained more than twice the energy available from Canada’s total annual oil production. Total world production of uranium oxide that year was 48,680 tonnes. Canada is the world’s largest producer of natural uranium providing 20% of total world production from its Saskatchewan mines in 2009.