Steps in the Mining Development Process and Oversight Measures: The Example of Uranium
The opening of a new mine is a big event! Before getting to this stage, numerous steps must be completed, sometimes taking six to ten years. These steps, summarized in the following table, happen according to a complex decision-making process based on geological, mining, metallurgical, economic, financial, environmental, and social criteria. A project that successfully negotiates all these steps and actually leads to a mine opening is an exception.
Mining is also subject to economic and social constraints that can change the viability of the project once it is underway and cause premature closing.
Setting up a mine involves three main phases: exploration, development, and mining. Each of these phases draws on specific specialists, research techniques, and investors, poses its own challenges, and involves various risks and chances of success.
The exploration phase starts with the investigation of vast territories, the identification of anomalies, the discovery of promising indicators, and the characterization of a mineral deposit. Studies intensify during the development stage to make sure that the deposit can be worked profitably while respecting the environment and the local population. With luck, and after many years of work, construction and working of the mine can start. When the deposit is mined out, the mine tailing accumulation area and mining site are rehabilitated in a manner that is acceptable for the environment and the local population.
A highly controlled industry
Like all businesses, mining companies must comply with a series of acts and regulations which control their operations and aim to protect both the environment and the health and safety of the workers and the public. From this flows a whole raft of permits and authorizations that must be obtained. Throughout the process, numerous municipal, regional, provincial, and federal bodies must be informed, give their opinion or permission, and issue authorizations and permits for the project to advance, step by step. Mechanisms for consulting local populations and aboriginal groups are also in place and apply according to the stage of the project, its size, and the scale of its impacts. These consultations are conducted according to established, transparent protocols. The location of the project (e.g., in an urban community; on public or agricultural land, on land covered by agreements, or in a northern environment) also influences the laws and regulations that apply.
The number, importance, and complexity of the authorizations reflect the type of work and the actual and anticipated impacts. The main regulations are based on the Mining Act, the Forest Act (MRNF), the Environment Quality Act, Directive 019 for the mining industry (MDDEP), the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER), and the Act respecting occupational health and safety (AROHH).
When it comes to regulations, controls, and consultations, uranium is a prime example. All uranium mining and processing projects must comply with the acts and regulations that apply to all mining projects, but they are also subject to very strict control by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
The CNSC is the sole authority responsible for regulating the use of nuclear energy and materials under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA). It regulates to preserve the health, safety, and security of Canadians, protect the environment, and comply with Canada ’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Since the mining of uranium, a naturally radioactive element, aims at producing nuclear energy, the mining company must apply to the CNSC for a nuclear activity permit.
The CNSC Tribunal is independent and is the only entity that can issue a nuclear activity permit. Its employees (over 800) examine applications in light of regulatory requirements, make recommendations to the Commission, and oversee the enforcement of the regulations and permit conditions imposed by the Commission. They monitor mining sites and inspect them frequently.
The CNSC specifies that prospecting and exploration for uranium come under provincial jurisdiction and considers that these activities do not pose a threat to health or the environment.
Exploration companies must comply with the laws and regulations that govern the exploration of any mineral substance, including uranium. A number of exploration companies voluntarily adhere to Environmental Excellence in Exploration (E3 Mining), a group overseen by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC). They apply the guidelines set out in the e3plus guide, particularly those that concern protection of the environment and workers. In the case of uranium, the guide is based on best practices in Saskatchewan (the biggest uranium producer in the world), Canada , and around the world.
The extraction and refining of uranium are strictly regulated in Canada. As soon an uranium exploration project reaches the development stage when radioactive material may be extracted or a mineralized zone accessed, the company must submit a permit application to CNSC before starting work. The company must also apply for all other required authorizations.
The CNSC oversees and coordinates the activities of a number of federal and provincial committees and agencies throughout this process. An important part of the process involves an environmental and social impact assessment and the holding of public hearings, often jointly with other bodies. All documents submitted to the CNSC as well as the Commission’s activities are released, and the public is invited to participate in the hearings.
The CNSC has the power to approve or reject a project. The nuclear activities permit is valid for a period of only two to five years. The permit application process must be repeated from the beginning, and the company must prove that it is in compliance with all regulations and CNSC requirements and that it possesses the necessary financial guarantees to rehabilitate all sites affected by its mining operations. No uranium mining can take place without CNSC authorization.
Mining and rehabilitation
Once all the authorizations and permits have been obtained and the CNSC gives the go-ahead, the mining project can move on to the mining phase.
The company must comply at all times, throughout the mining phase and long after the complete rehabilitation of all affected sites, with orders issued by the CNSC and all other bodies.
CNSC provides ongoing oversight and carries out frequent inspections. The CNSC can withdraw a mining permit at any time if the terms have not be respected or for any other cause that may endanger the environment, workers, or the population. At the end of the life of a mine, the CNSC oversees site restoration and rehabilitation. If all activities are up to standard, the CNSC issues its approval and subsequently continues to monitor the site.
From exploration to final site rehabilitation, mining companies (exploration companies and producers) must comply with the acts and regulations in force and are increasingly subject to a highly controlled process that is more respectful of the environment and worker health and safety, and in harmony with community values with respect to sustainable development and collective social responsibility. In the case of uranium, this process includes strict measures to protect workers and the environment for future generations.
Whenever uranium ore extraction is involved, the CNSC is the oversight body with the authority to grant, under strict conditions, a nuclear activity permit following an exhaustive review of the technical file, environmental and social impact studies, and public hearings. The company is monitored by the CNSC throughout the life of the mine and long after it has closed.
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