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Stepping out of the shaft and into the underground workings at Cigar Lake, it is hard to believe that anything ever went wrong here.
The Northern Saskatchewan mine looks pristine and ready to go. A massive jet boring system 480 metres below the surface has begun extracting uranium ore from the deposit by pumping water upward at supersonic speed. Other tunnels are filled with a dizzying network of storage, piping and processing infrastructure to handle the incredibly rich ore and deal with the incredibly poor ground conditions.
Along with the nearby McArthur River mine, this is easily the richest uranium operation in the world, with grades that are more than 100 times the world average. In terms of complexity, it’s roughly a million times the world average. It took 33 years of work to move Cigar Lake from discovery to production. The very fact it exists is a credit to human technology and engineering.
But until recently, it didn’t feel like such a triumph. When a crew tried to step out of that same underground shaft in February 2010, they could barely take a step.
“They found a metre of mud right through the mine. Just complete mud,” recalls Tim Gitzel, the chief executive of Cameco Corp., which built the mine and owns half of it. “They couldn’t even get the cage down because there was so much mud.”
The crew was the first one to enter the mine after a devastating flood in 2008, that that came on the heels of one in 2006. The two disasters cast a black cloud over Cameco and made a lot of people wonder if the Saskatoon-based company could ever get this mine working properly.
Recovering from those floods was a monumental task, and a lot of the credit has gone to Mr. Gitzel, who joined Cameco in 2007 and helped the company get its eye on the ball after numerous operational failures.
He is quick to defer credit to his employees: “A lot of them are good Saskatchewan farm people who don’t take no for an answer,” he says. “They came up with some of the most innovative solutions to stop the water flow that I’ve ever seen.”
Cigar Lake, named after the cigar-shaped water body it borders, was discovered in 1981 by geologists working for France’s Areva SA, which is a minority owner in the mine. A corporation was set up to develop the project in 1985, and the early 1990s were spent trying to figure out how to extract the uranium.
Even then, the companies knew they had a problem because the ground conditions were so terrible. The ore body, which is roughly 450 metres deep, is overlaid with highly unstable sandstone.
“The sandstone is very fractured rock and completely saturated with water,” says Vincent Martin, head of Areva’s Canadian unit. “In some ways, mining in that is like being in a submarine at 450 metres depth.”
The companies realized the only way to safely mine the deposit was to go under it and drill upward. After studying a few options, they settled on an innovative process called “jet boring,” which they finally implemented more than 20 years later.
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