Uranium exploration underway in the Côte-Nord region (North Shore), particularly in the Sept-Îles area, is raising many questions among the public. Here are the main questions we have been asked in the past few months.
What is uranium? >>
What are its possible uses? >>
What grade (concentration) of uranium is found on the Côte-Nord? >>
How does uranium exploration work? >>
What about radon emanations during uranium exploration work? >>
During uranium exploration work on the Côte-Nord region, can neighbouring water sources be affected? >>
During uranium exploration, what are the risks to public health? >>
What are the requirements with regard to uranium exploration? >>
Is it true that workers in the Lake Kachiwiss area (north of Sept-Îles) wear hazmat suits or special protective clothing? >>
What is uranium?
It is one of the most abundant elements in nature. Uranium in itself is not very radioactive. It is a very dense metallic element, more widespread than precious metals such as gold or silver.
What are its possible uses?
Uranium is mainly used as an energy source to generate electricity. But it is also used:
- in smoke detectors;
- as fuel for submarines and ships;
- to produce radioactive isotopes for use in nuclear medicine, mainly for radiation therapy; and
- to control bacteria in food preservation.
What grade (concentration) of uranium is found on the Côte-Nord?
Deposits on the Côte-Nord region have low concentrations of uranium. None of the mines currently in operation in Canada have such a low grade of uranium. Most of the uranium mines in operation around the world have a grade of more than 0.1% uranium, which is almost ten times the concentration observed on the North Shore.
At the Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune (MRNF), the lower limit for uranium deposits is 425 ppm U, that is, 500 ppm or 0.05% U3O8 (uranium in oxide form). On the Côte-Nord, the main deposit in the news is the one at Lake Kachiwiss, held by Terra Ventures. That deposit has historical resources (not N.I. 43-101 compliant) of 18.3 Mt at 0.015% U3O8 (3.3 kt U3O8). A deposit held by Uracan in the Baie-Johan-Beetz area, Double S, contains historical resources of 74 Mt at 0.012% U3O8 (8.9 kt U3O8). In both cases, the uranium concentrations are very low.
In comparison, the Cigar Lake deposit in Saskatchewan, an underground mine project under development, contains total reserves of 497 kt at a grade of 20.67% U3O8 (102.7 kt U3O8). Furthermore, although the Midwest open pit deposit contains 345.5 kt at 5.47% U3O8 (18.9 kt U3O8), its development was delayed because of a drop in the price of uranium and an increase in production costs. In Nunavik, the Kiggavik deposit contains resources of 27.9 Mt at 0.24% U3O8 (67 kt U3O8), which is a considerably lower grade than the Saskatchewan deposits, but is 20 times as high as the Lake Kachiwiss project.
Saskatchewan, the world’s largest producer of uranium, accounts for 30% of world production. Its McArthur River deposit, the world’s largest, has proven reserves of 531.5 kt at 17.49% U3O8 (93 kt U3O8) and probable reserves of 280.6 kt at 26.33% U3O8 (73.9 kt U3O8).
How does uranium exploration work?
The first stages of uranium exploration involve geophysical instruments, geochemical analysis of rocks and lake-bottom and stream sediments, and drilling. Since no rocks or soil are moved by geophysical surveys, they have no impact on the environment and health in terms of radioactivity. Considering the grades observed on the North Shore (< 0.02% U3O8) and the volume of rock moved during geochemical and drilling work, the effects of mineral exploration on health and the environment are minimal. When work is not carried out directly on a lake or river, it has little or no impact on the environment. Therefore, the workers on the project at Lake Kachiwiss do not need to take any special precautions.
For drill core transportation, the International Atomic Energy Agency has a regulation for the transport of radioactive material. The core must be wrapped according to stringent standards for transportation.
What about radon emanations during uranium exploration work?
The drilling work underway, with the volume of rock handled, does not measurably increase radon levels in the environment. Radon already escapes naturally through fractures and soil pore spaces and is rapidly diluted in outside air. Although radon can penetrate into and remain trapped in enclosed, poorly ventilated areas, this is not likely to occur during mineral exploration. In inhabited areas where the bedrock contains more uranium, such as certain granites rich in radioactive elements, radon, being denser than air, can accumulate in the lowest and least ventilated spaces of buildings or houses. In that case, it can reach concentrations that exceed Health Canada’s guideline level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre of air (Bq/m 3). This phenomenon has no relation to mineral exploration.
To inform the public about this issue, the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (MSSS) is developing a Québec strategy for protecting public health against radon, in cooperation with various departments and agencies (see http://www.msss.gouv.qc.ca/sujets/santepub/environnement/index.php?radon (in French)).
Health Canada also provides information about radon, related health hazards and resources available to control radon levels in dwellings (see http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/radiation/radon/index-eng.php).
During uranium exploration work on the Côte-Nord, can neighbouring water sources be affected?
Most holes are drilled right through the water table. However, to our knowledge, there is no drilling being carried out on lakes or rivers at this time. It is worth mentioning that, in areas of the Côte-Nord where uranium exploration is concentrated, the environment and water already contain a certain amount of contaminants as a result of millions of years of erosion of rock containing uranium. There is not enough volume of material mobilized during exploration work to significantly increase this natural contamination rate. According to standards in Saskatchewan, the world’s largest uranium producer, the grades observed at Lake Kachiwiss are low (< 0.05% U3O8) and the drill holes do not require any special measures. When grades are higher than 1% U3O8, the government of Saskatchewan asks mining companies to seal drill holes with cement.
For further information, please contact the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs (MDDEP), which has the expertise in terms of drainage. (see http://www.mddep.gouv.qc.ca/ministere/rejoindr/renseign-en.htm)
During uranium exploration, what are the risks to public health?
Uranium exploration does not pose a risk to public health, as recently mentioned by the Direction de santé publique de la Côte-Nord. Uranium exploration methods do not significantly modify the natural environment. Therefore, there is practically no risk of producing an increase in natural public exposure to radioactive substances simply due to mineral exploration.
What are the requirements with regard to uranium exploration?
Basic uranium exploration work does not require a prior certificate of authorization from the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs (MDDEP) unless the work is carried out on a riverbank or in a body of water because, in all other situations, environmental impacts are generally minor, whether for uranium or other metals. For advanced exploration work requiring trenching, excavation or stripping, a certificate of authorization must be obtained and the waste generated must meet the requirements of the MDDEP’s Directive 019 sur l’industrie minière and of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
If a proponent wants to mine a uranium deposit, the project must be stringently analyzed within the legal process of environmental impact assessments set out in MDDEP regulations. The Direction de santé publique (public health directorate) of the region concerned will be asked to issue a notice of acceptability for the project with regard to public health. The opening of a uranium mine must also be submitted to a stringent assessment carried out by the CNSC, which will exercise its customary vigilance with regard to public health.
Should individuals, groups or municipalities ask for public hearings to be held, the Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks must direct the BAPE to hold such hearings, which would then include:
- a presentation of the project and anticipated impacts by the proponent;
- a question period for the proponent and experts to answer questions about project impacts;
- the filing of briefs by interested citizens and groups in which they can express their concerns;
- the BAPE’s submission of the commission’s report and findings to the Minister.
For further information about the process leading to probable authorization of a uranium mine, contact the MDDEP’s information centre. (see http://www.mddep.gouv.qc.ca/ministere/rejoindr/renseign-en.htm)
At this time, there are no mines planned on the Côte-Nord region. The companies interested in this commodity are only at the exploration stage.
Is it true that workers in the Lake Kachiwiss area (north of Sept-Îles) wear hazmat suits or special protective clothing?
According to the information obtained from Terra Ventures, which is conducting exploration work in this area, the workers do not wear hazmat suits, but wear rain suits when the weather calls for it. The concentrations of U3O8 observed (< 0.02% U3O8) are too low to pose any threat. It is not until concentrations reach roughly 1% U3O8 that drilling work requires special precautions for worker health, which is not the case on the Côte-Nord region.