The World Wants Yellowcake (Uranium)
Among some people uranium gets a bad rap due to its use as the explosive material for atomic weapons and yet these folks tend to forget that it has most beneficial uses for mankind, principally as the fuel for nuclear reactors which deliver about 15% of the country’s electricity. Canada is currently the largest producer of uranium in the world, although Australia has the larger proportion of the world’s known deposits. In 2006 of the seventeen countries that mined the element, Canada produced 28%, followed by Australia with 23%. The term ‘yellowcake’ was originally given to uranium concentrate, although the colour and texture today can range from anything through dull yellow to almost black.
Early interest in uranium in Canada took a back seat to the work of Gilbert and Charles LaBine who discovered radium at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories in 1930. Gilbert listed his occupation in Who’s Who as “mine maker.” On this occasion he had seen pitchblende and he was one of the few prospectors who could recognize the mineral. His interest at the time was radium and he was not concerned with the uranium oxide found with this mineral. Interest in uranium languished until twelve years later when the scientific community felt that uranium was the key ingredient to the power offered in nuclear fission.
The National Research Council of Canada established a research project to use uranium with heavy water as a moderator to produce plutonium in an atomic reactor. Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. provided the uranium from its Port Radium Mine and this was followed in 1955 by product from the Gunnar Mine, located on a peninsula on Lake Athabasca, which operated until 1963.Two areas in Ontario drew a flurry of activity in 1949 as prospectors sought uranium. Bancroft has always been a prime spot for rock hounds.
Exploring in Faraday Township, prospector Arthur Shore found what would become the largest property in the vicinity: the Faraday Uranium Mine. A staking rush took place, work was carried out on a hundred sets of claims and this shook down into four uranium mines. The two other significant mines founded hamlets which still exist. Cardiff was set up by Dyno Mines and the Bicroft Mine, the second largest in the camp, had its gathering of houses. A drop in world prices and costly operation in narrow veins saw the end of the Bancroft mines by 1963, although the Faraday reopened for a short time between1976 and 1982. More than 3 million pounds of uranium oxide were produced in the small camp.
The first significant uranium discovery in Ontario took place at what is now Elliot Lake, off the Trans Canada Highway at Blind River between Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie. Sault hotel owner Aimé Breton passed a Geiger counter over ore samples in the Mining Recorder office and the machine came alive with clicks. The sample had come from Long Township on the north shore of Lake Huron. Breton and his
partner Karl Gunterman staked some claims in the area and found that there were other claims which had been staked before them.
Seeking to sell the ground, they met geologist Franc Jobin who traversed the claims but did not find any uranium with prospects of commercial strength. Later Jobin theorized that the surface ore had been leached away and that drilling was necessary to be sure. By then he was working for American promoter Joe Hirshhorn, always a man to take a flier on a promising venture, who funded the project in 1952.The gamble paid off; commercial grade uranium was located between Huronian sedimentary deposits
and the basement rock below.
First into production was Hirshhorn’s Pronto Mine and activity in the area was so intense that the mines themselves worked on a road to access the main highway without waiting for the province to wake up and get in on the bonanza. By 1954 the Ontario government was co-operating with the mining companies to build a model town, Elliot Lake. Five years later the new municipality had thirty thousand residents and called itself “The Uranium Capital of the World.”
The twelve mines had a total of 10,000 employees. Hirshhorn eventually sold out to Rio Algom, now part of Rio Tinto. The mines in its stable were Stanleigh, Nordic, Lacnor, Quirke, Panel and Pronto, which in total mined more than 100 million pounds of uranium. Roman’s group included the Denison, Stanrock and Canmet mines. The other independents were the Milliken, Buckles and Spanish American. Total production from all the mines was more than 270 million pounds.
Somebody once said that anyone who was in Elliot Lake from the beginning must have a liking for roller coaster rides. In 1959 the model town experienced the unwelcome thrill of the downward phase. The American Atomic Energy Commission felt it had enough uranium stockpiled and unilaterally cancelled its contracts. Hundreds of miners left the area to work in places like Wawa and Sudbury and many homes were boarded up.
By 1960 five Elliot Lake mines had closed, and the federal government was forced to prop up the local economy with make-work projects and pay to have uranium stockpiled by mines still operating. Eventually the market picked up, the town was revitalised, and contracts came on stream from the United Kingdom and others involved in atomic energy for peaceful, electric generation purposes. With other regions able to mine uranium more cheaply and the inevitable near-exhaustion of the ore bodies, most area mines closed by 1990 and the last, the Stanleigh Mine, was finished in 1996.
Over their lifetime the mines averaged a respectable two pounds of uranium per ton. The Denison interests reinvented themselves by offering mine closure services and once again it seemed that Elliot Lake was on the way to becoming a ghost town. But using aggressive promotion, the town, which enjoys fine modern homes and a beautiful setting, became a retirement haven and thrives today. Uranium prices are now high enough that the ore at Elliot Lake is considered, by some miners, worth a second look.
Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario. [email protected]
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