Uranium Mining in Canada

A long tradition of Canadian uranium mining

Gilbert-Labine
Gilbert Labine, who first discovered uranium deposits in Canada. Source: Canadian Mining Hall of Fame.

When uranium was first found on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories in 1930, it was little more than a curiosity. But with the discovery of fission in 1938 and the promise of practical nuclear power, global demand for uranium soared. Canada became a world leader in uranium mining.

In the decades since, Canadian mining companies have refined their techniques to extract uranium efficiently while protecting miners and the environment. An independent regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, ensures that uranium mining is safe and secure, and that Canadian uranium is used for peaceful purposes at home and overseas.

Canada’s leadership will carry on well into the future. The country boasts known resources of 485,000 tonnes of uranium – second only to Australia – while exploration to find more deposits continues.

How is uranium mined?

Uranium occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust and in seawater. A metal, it is 500 times more abundant than gold. It does not exist in a pure state. Rather, it occurs in mineral deposits as uranium oxide (U3O8).

Uranium-ore
Uranium ore.

Most Canadian uranium is mined in northern Saskatchewan. The Athabasca Basin has some of the world’s highest-grade deposits. Other promising sites exist in Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories. They have not been mined yet.

There are three ways of mining uranium:

1. Open-pit mining is usually the most practical option when the deposit is less than 100 metres below the surface – for example, at the McClean Lake mine in Saskatchewan. Miners dig a pit in a spiral-step shape, blast the rock, and haul it up in trucks that carry up to 200 tonnes at a time.

McClean-Lake-open-pit
Open-pit mine at the McClean Lake facility. Source: Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

2. Underground mining is more practical for deeper deposits. Miners dig vertical shafts, then hollow out horizontal tunnels through the deposit, blasting the rock, and hauling it to the surface. They take extra care to ventilate the shafts, in order to limit radiation exposure.

McArthur-River-hoist
The main McArthur River head frame, which houses the hoist over the vertical shaft. Source: Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

3. In-situ recovery is not used for mining uranium in Canada. It involves pumping liquids underground, to force dissolved uranium back to the surface.

Uranium for Canada – and the world

Canadian mines supply  about 15% of the world’s uranium. This is far more than Canada needs to power its nuclear plants. Still, the supply ensures that nuclear power can grow in Canada, and that the country is less dependent on foreign sources of power. It is also why Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of uranium. With a growing global demand for clean electricity, uranium exports will continue to boost the Canadian economy.

World uranium production

Sources: 

Canadian Nuclear Association, https://cna.ca/.