The growing global fight against climate change is turning the eyes of investors on Saskatchewan thanks to the province’s inventory of high-grade uranium.
Used to power nuclear energy, uranium’s popularity is growing as world powers move to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.
“It is becoming a much more favourable alternative energy source because of its very low carbon footprint in helping mitigate climate change,” says Ross McElroy, chief geologist and president of Fission Uranium, a Kelowna, B.C.-based junior exploration company.
McElroy was recently meeting with nuclear energy producers in China, where a firm bought a 20 per cent stake in Fission.
Saskatchewan, already the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, is poised to grow with the re-emergence of nuclear energy.
While Kazakhstan is the largest global uranium producer, the ore mined in Saskatchewan is of a much higher grade.
At the centre of the story is the Athabasca Basin in the province’s north where mining and production of uranium has been underway for more than 63 years, says Gary Delaney, chief geologist with Saskatchewan’s Geological Survey with the Ministry of the Economy.
“Uranium mining in Saskatchewan started in 1953 in the Uranium City area and subsequently in 1974 in the Athabasca Basin after the discovery of high grade deposits there. In total we’ve produced over 344,000 tonnes of uranium.”
Roughly 400 kilometres from east to west and about 200 kilometres from north to south, the Athabasca Basin has the most plentiful high-grade deposits of uranium in the world. It is also home to the world’s largest operations, run by major players such as Cameco Corporation and AREVA Resources Canada, whose parent firm is a French multinational energy company.
“Of all the uranium mined so far in the province, over 85 per cent of that has come from the Athabasca Basin and more specifically mostly the eastern part of the basin,” Delaney says. “That’s where McArthur River, Cigar Lake and Rabbit Lake — the big powerhouse mines — are located.”
But now companies are looking at the virtually untouched western part of the basin.
“There have been at least three major discoveries in the southwestern Athabasca basin in the last three or four years, and that’s certainly drawing a lot of attention,” says Delaney. “And there’s still tremendous geological potential for new discoveries.”
That’s where Fission made its major discovery just over three years ago. The find, called Patterson Lake South, has uncovered at least 108 million pounds of ore, says McElroy.
“That’s in the upper echelon of deposits in the Athabasca Basin, just on its size alone,” McElroy says. “But the one characteristic that we have that’s unique to every other deposit is its close proximity to the surface.”
While development has been ongoing, demand for uranium has been anything but steady. And the price for a pound (uranium’s standard unit) has reflected demand, which in turn drives development of new mining operations in the basin, McElroy says.
“When I started in the uranium business in the mid-’80s, uranium was $16 US a pound, and it was heading lower, eventually bottoming at about $7 a pound.”
The price crept upward over several years until a massive run-up in the mid-2000s that peaked in 2007 at about $140 a pound. It fell back with the 2008 stock market crash and then rose again until 2011. Then the Japanese nuclear disaster hit. The price plummeted after a tsunami sparked by a massive earthquake led to the partial meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
The disaster spurred a rethink. Interest in developing more nuclear capacity around the world disappeared as nations put projects on hold to assess risks.
But many of the anxieties over nuclear power have now subsided as governments realize its downsides can be mitigated. More importantly, the concerns are being outweighed by the risks posed by burning fossil fuels, which drive climate change. There are more nuclear reactors being built now than prior to the Fukushima incident. Now the spot price of uranium has rebounded to around $28 per pound, according to UX Consulting Co.
While Fission’s discovery continues to grow, production is still about a decade away. But the long process is worth the time and effort, McElroy says.
“Because the deposits here in Saskatchewan are incredibly high grade, the economics are more attractive than anywhere else in the world.”