Orano’s Cluff Lake project: A milestone for uranium mining
After producing over 28,123 tonnes of uranium concentrate during its operation from 1979 to 2002, Orano Canada’s Cluff Lake project has reached the end of its mining life cycle through remediation. This comes after a decade of the site being fully decommissioned and open to the public.
On May 11, 2023, following a virtual public hearing held two months prior, the regulating body of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) announced its decision to revoke the uranium mine licence held by Orano for the Cluff Lake project of northwestern Saskatchewan within Treaty 8 territory.
Orano began pursuing this application in 2020 with the intention to transfer the site to the Government of Saskatchewan’s Institutional Control Program (ICP), which is designed to ensure properties are monitored and managed in perpetuity. Additionally, the CNSC granted an exemption from licensing to the province to enable the acceptance of the site into the ICP.
Orano Canada, a subsidiary of the French nuclear energy company, the Orano Group, and headquartered in Saskatoon, Sask., has been exploring for uranium, developing mines, and producing uranium concentrate for over 55 years. The company operates the McClean Lake mill, an advanced facility which allows for processing of high-grade uranium ore without dilution.
This transfer marks a significant milestone for Canada’s mining industry as Cluff Lake will be the first modern uranium site to be transferred to the province through the ICP. Currently, only the Contact Lake gold property and several satellite sites of the historic Beaverlodge uranium project have been successfully transferred.
In addition to an assurance fund to cover costs related to unexpected events, as part of the ICP, Orano will provide funds for long-term environmental monitoring and maintenance of the site, and engagement with rightsholders. The process is also designed to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of future generations by meeting national and international standards and requirements.
In making its decision to revoke Orano’s licence, CNSC considered oral and written submissions from the company, CNSC staff, and twelve public intervenors. Its Participant Funding Program (PFP) allocated resources and invited interventions from Indigenous groups and communities, members of the public, and stakeholders.
Additionally, an independent funding review committee considered the applications and the CNSC awarded up to $201,699 to six organizations for their participation including the following: the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Birch Narrows Dene Nation, Clearwater River Dene Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Métis Nation Saskatchewan, and the Ya’thi Nene Land and Resource Office representing seven Athabascan communities.
After reviewing all technical submissions and these interventions, the CNSC concluded that the Cluff Lake project met the established decommissioning objectives and criteria. Furthermore, the site is considered passively safe for the long term. The CNSC determined that exempting the province from licensing does not pose unreasonable risks to the environment, health and safety of persons, national security, or international obligations.
The success of Cluff Lake is a point of pride for Orano, because at the beginning of the site’s operational phase Canada’s current decommissioning standards were still in their infancy with modern reclamation standards not being introduced until the late 1990s.
“The best demonstration of responsible mining is the remediation management,” Nicolas Maes, president of Orano Mining said in a statement. “The decision of the CNSC is recognition of Orano’s expertise in sustainable mine closure, which is part of our DNA,” added Maes.
Ongoing environmental monitoring shows that Cluff Lake’s decommissioning was successful with water quality meeting objectives, and the fish, animals, and plants harvested on site are determined to be safe for consumption.
“I am grateful to our dedicated staff for their commitment to this project from the first days of exploration in the 1970s, through operations, decommissioning, and monitoring to today ensuring that the project was responsibly managed such that the land is now available for local traditional use,” Jim Corman, president and CEO of Orano said.
“We are also appreciative of the Indigenous, Métis, and other community members who shared their knowledge of the lands. We have many employees who remember the days of working at Cluff Lake and we celebrate the successful decommissioning of the project,” added Corman.
The transfer of the project site to Saskatchewan’s ICP demonstrates a successful transition from mining operations to environmentally-sound decommissioning and reclamation. As Canada continues to play a significant role in meeting the world’s demand for uranium, it is important that such transitions and present operations are carried out in a similarly responsible manner.
Although, most of the decommissioning and reclamation activities usually occur after the completion of the operating phase of the project, Orano actively pursues “progressive decommissioning and reclamation” efforts at the McClean Lake operation.
“We do as much work as possible reclaiming the former working areas at site while we are still operating,” Corman said.
These initiatives include work to proactively re-slope, seed, and vegetate the various site waste rock piles to prevent unnecessary run off and erosion. A shredder has been used to begin removing unused buildings while reducing landfill waste.
Orano continually optimizes its site environmental monitoring program adapting to changing conditions ensuring that the monitoring and sampling programs are performed in the appropriate locations and frequencies necessary.
“At Orano Canada, we are committed to progressive decommissioning and reclamation as part of our strategic ambition to be a responsible player in terms of health, occupational safety, community involvement, environmental protection, and business ethics,” Corman explained.
“Our Cluff Lake project is a prime example of how responsible resource development can demonstrate that mining can be viewed as a temporary use of the land. We are proud of Orano’s expertise and leadership in sustainable mine operations and closures that stems from our commitment to stakeholder engagement and returning the land to its natural state,” added Corman.