Uranium Mines & Mills in Canada

Uranium Mines and Mills in Canada

About uranium and why it is mined

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element used for fuel in nuclear power reactors. Canada is one of the world’s largest uranium producers, accounting for 18 percent of global production. Ninety percent of Canada’s production is exported. Uranium is mined to provide raw ore which is processed at a milling facility to recover the uranium concentrate. The uranium concentrate is then processed further to create fuel for nuclear power reactors.

How the CNSC regulates uranium mines and mills

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is responsible for regulating and licensing all existing and future uranium mining and milling operations in Canada. The CNSC’s work is undertaken in accordance with the comprehensive requirements of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA) and its related regulations, which reflect Canadian and international safety standards. The CNSC and its staff focus on health, safety, security and the environment, and ensure Canada implements its international obligations on the safe use of nuclear materials.

Licensing of uranium mines and mills

The CNSC’s licensing process for uranium mines and mills follows the stages laid out in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases. Using this lifecycle approach to licensing, the CNSC issues a separate licence for each new phase in the lifecycle of a uranium mine and mill. The CNSC exercises rigorous regulatory oversight and ensures that each licensee has a financial guarantee in place for each facility – at all phases – to cover its eventual decommissioning costs. In addition, under the CNSC Cost Recovery Fees Regulations, the CNSC charges back to the licensee all costs associated with the regulatory activities.

Did you know?

The CNSC will only
issue a licence if it is
satisfied the proposed
nuclear facility or activity
is safe for the health,
safety and security of
persons and
the environment.

At each licensing stage, the CNSC determines whether the licence applicant is qualified and has made adequate provisions for the protection of health and safety of person and environment. Applicants must also demonstrate the required measures to maintain national security and implement Canada’s international obligations for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In addition, some projects may also require an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Surface exploration for uranium is exempt from NSCA requirements because it poses low risks. Each province or territory is responsible for regulating and monitoring exploration activities within its jurisdiction and informing the public about those activities. Advanced exploration activities, such as exploration ramps through mineralized zones fall within the regulatory framework of the CNSC, and a licence is required before these activities can proceed.

Currently, all operating uranium mines in Canada are located in northern Saskatchewan, although new projects are proposed for Quebec and Nunavut. As with other major facilities, operating licences for uranium mines and mills are issued for specific time periods, usually from five to eight years. Renewals of existing licences and all proposals for new mining and milling activities require Commission Tribunal approval.

CNSC compliance activities at uranium mines and mills

CNSC staff perform compliance activities for operating and decommissioned mines and mills. Compliance activities include facility inspections, application requests, review of licensee reports and environmental and radiation data analysis. Inspections are  conducted with other regulatory agencies, such as the provincial or territorial departments of Environment and Labour, Northern Saskatchewan Environmental Quality Committee and representatives from other federal government departments (for example, Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans).

Quick facts

  • In 2010, CNSC inspectors
    conducted an average of
    five inspections at each
    operating uranium mining
    and milling site.
  • Personal alpha dosimeters
    are worn by workers to
    measure their exposure
    to radon progeny, with
    measurements reviewed
    regularly by CNSC staff
    and submitted to Health
    Canada’s National
    Dose Registry.

In addition, CNSC inspectors work closely with provincial inspectors from the Ministry of Labour to monitor the licensees’ occupational health and safety programs, including radiation protection, to ensure workers are safe. For example, the CNSC regulates radon in uranium mines and mills and requires engineering design and control processes to remove radon to limit exposures to workers. Radon is naturally produced by the decay of uranium and is released into the air when uranium ore is mined and milled. Radon gas produced during mining and milling is continuously monitored, controlled, and safely ventilated away from the workers. Presently, worker exposures to radon in the uranium mining and processing industry are as low as, or only slightly greater than, public exposure from natural radon.

Licensees are required to notify the CNSC of significant events or situations outside the normal operations described in their licensing documents or due to public interest. Such events rarely, if ever, result in significant effects on the health and safety of people or the environment. Significant events are reported to the Commission Tribunal via early notification reports (ENRs), which, depending on the nature and severity of the event, may be followed up with detailed compliance assessments, corrective actions and/or regulatory action.

The most recent analysis of regulatory performance for worker health and safety and environmental performance shows that:

  • Personal dose records from operating mines and mills from 2006 to 2010 show that radiation doses to workers are well below regulatory limits.
  • In 2010, underground hard rock mining (which includes uranium mining) showed a decrease in the percentage of workers injured with lost time (1.17% in 2010 compared to 1.36% in 2009). A lost-time incident is when a worker suffers a workplace injury that results in time away from work.
  • In 2010, there were 20 reportable events, which included events such as spills of nuclear or hazardous material, worker injuries, etc., for Cameco or AREVA Resources Canada’s five active mine sites, eleven of which were from the McArthur River Operation, three from the Cigar Lake project, and two from the Rabbit LakeMcClean Lake and Key Lake sites. In comparison, there were 23 reportable events in 2009 and 29 in 2008.
  • In 2010, all instances of uranium mining effluent discharge were below the regulatory limits, as defined by the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations.

New and proposed uranium mining and milling projects in Canada

New uranium mine and mill projects are currently being proposed in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nunavut. Before the CNSC can consider a licensing decision regarding any project proposed project, an environmental assessment (EA) may have to be completed in compliance with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The purpose of an EA is to identify the possible environmental effects of a proposed project and determine whether these effects can be mitigated before the project is allowed to proceed. The CNSC’s licensing process for new uranium mines and mills follows the stages outlined in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases. EAs can also be completed for new projects at existing nuclear facilities.

The CNSC has initiated EAs on the following uranium mining and milling projects:

Read more about the status of new nuclear projects in Canada.

Closed or decommissioned uranium mines and mills in Canada

There are fourteen closed or decommissioned uranium mines and mills in Ontario, two in the Northwest Territories, and four Saskatchewan. These sites are either decommissioned, being studied for remediation plans, or are being monitored over the long term. CNSC staff conduct regular inspections at these sites. Their work includes inspecting containment structures, tailings facilities, revegetation and general site performance. Some of these sites are in varying states. Some were completely decommissioned with Atomic Energy Control Board (CNSC’s predecessor) or CNSC approval, while others were abandoned by the mining operators without conducting remediation activities. These sites are now being assessed for remediation options. Lessons learned from these sites are being applied to current operations to ensure that environmental effects at current uranium mine and mills are mitigated and sufficient funds are identified for site closure and remediation.

Financial guarantees ensure funds for decommissioning

Financial guarantees are now required for all uranium mine and mill operations. During all phases of the facility’s lifecycle – siting, construction, operation and decommissioning – the licensee must always have a financial guarantee to ensure sufficient funding for the safe and long-term management of the eventually decommissioned site.

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