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How Mongolia can use Kazakhstan’s success in uranium

16th of 1, 2017


The Mongolian Mining Journal /Dec.2016 -097/

In recent years, Kazakhstan has become one of the world’s leading countries in exploiting its radioactive mineral resources such as uranium, beryllium, tantalum, niobium, lithium, and rare metals and rare earth elements, reaching a high level of excellence in their exploration and extraction, and in using modern production technology.

State-owned Kazatomprom is the world’s largest producer of uranium, the most important of these minerals. The country’s 14 deposits hold the world’s second largest reserves of natural uranium, and its 22 uranium mines employ 26,000 workers. Kazakhstan’s trade partners include the US, China, India, South Korea, Japan, the European Union and Russia.

Several of Kazakhstan’s uranium deposits were identified and the basis of their future intensive extraction laid when the country was part of the Soviet Union. At present there are 129 recorded deposits, most of them roll front, as in Mongolia. Most of the 22 active mines are owned by Kazatomprom, which does everything from exploring to extracting to exporting.

Most of these mines are in the Syr Darya river’s basin in Kyzylorda State, the two major ones being Harasan–1 and Harasan– 2. With its annual output of 2,000 tons, the expected life of the latter is 40 years. Its uranium grade is 0.021%-1.016%.

Location map of uranium deposits in Kyzylorda State.
 
Mining and processing technology

Underground in-situ leaching, the most common method used, is economically efficient and relatively safe for the environment, as attested by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The liquid concentrate is brought into the surface using compressors and is processed to become “yellow cakes”. This leaves the ore-bearing rocks underground, and also does not require intensive opening of big masses. Besides, the method does not require to strip and dump waste rock which results in big holes in open pit mining.

The advantages of the method are:
   Profitability
    Lower production cost
    Use of advanced technology
    Higher labour productivity
    Ecological safety
    No waste dumps and tailing dams.

It is worth noting that the ramp-up period of the in-situ leaching method is relatively short. The tremendous growth in Kazatomprom’s annual production since the company started using the method is shown below.

 

Stages of uranium processing

1.    Drilling borehole and installation
Building surface infrastructure and installation of slurry pumping and sucking equipment
2.    Pumping sulfur dioxide into ore body through pipe and borehole
3.    As the leaching works; slurry turns into uranium concentrate (oxidation and acidification)
4.    Leached slurry is sucked from the geotechnical area and accumulated. After fine and coarse particles settle at the bottom, the solution is sucked up to a processing plant.
5.    Once the solution enters the processing plant, uranium is absorbed to resin using ion exchange column. This is followed by de-absorbing from the resin to have the higher concentrated liquid yellow cake. Dehydrated yellow cake can be packaged and sold in market.

The next step involves purifying the liquid yellow cakes through precipitation using an accelerating solution, followed by filtering to obtain yellow cake paste (calcination). This paste will be made to react with calcite to have higher-concentrate U3O8 dark blue powder. It will be verified, packed in thick iron barrels and ready for shipping overseas as raw material for nuclear power generation.

Apart from uranium, Kazatomprom has also been successfully developing rare-earth element projects. It owns one of the three beryllium mines in the world. The company uses its own technology to process pure beryllium to make various products. Kazatomprom also has a tantalum factory. The raw material containing tantalum niobium undergoes a sequence of processes, including double and triple electron beam melting, to produce pure tantalum ingots.

International cooperation

Kazatomprom has for long had an agreement with Russia’s national nuclear energy corporation Rosatom to cooperate in working on deposits such as Zarechnoe, Harasan-1, Budenovsk and Inkai.

It also runs a uranium production company called Katko jointly with French state-owned company Areva. Katko uses the output from the Tortkuduk and Moyinkum uranium deposits, and aims at expanding their business by increasing the production capacity and by enriching  the product range.

Most of Kazakhstan’s uranium output is exported to China. Two Chinese companies, China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation (CNEIC) and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), are expected to set up a joint venture to exploit the Semizbai, Irkoli, and Jalpak  deposits of Kazakhstan. The basis of the cooperation will be a unique system of “Own by lending and selling the raw materials”.

A consortium including the Japanese Marubeni Corporation has a joint venture with Kazatomprom in the Baiken-Harasan-2 deposit with 95% private investment. Going beyond just uranium extraction, the JV plans to produce nuclear fuel. Toshiba of Japan and Kazatomprom have agreed to establish a joint rare earth elements company.

Kazatomprom is negotiating with Canada’s Cameco Corporation on working to increase  production at its Inkai mine, to contuct   a mine rehabilitation and to build industry. The two companies have already agreed to build a uranium hexafluoride plant.
China Energy Corporation has been in negotiation with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on uranium for use in nuclear power plants in China. India already imports uranium from Kazakhstan and could import more for a planned nuclear power plant.

Uranium is not radioactive in its natural form. It becomes hazardous only during and after extraction and processing. Waste dumps and tailing dams created by conventional open pit and underground mining methods result in emission of radioactivity into the environment. All uranium extraction projects follow measures to neutralize this as a basic preventive step. Kazatomprom has had an excellent  record of installing and maintaining occupational health and environmental safety programmes.

An opportunity for Mongolia

I recently spoke with Mukhtarkhanovich Baurzhan Ibraev, Chief Director of Production at Kazatomprom to learn more about Kazakhstan’s uranium industry. He had once worked in Mongolia. I also made a study tour of Harasan-2, Baiken-U in Kyzylorda. Ibraev and I spent a very busy and interesting two days together on a road trip. Among the topics we discussed was possible cooperation between Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the uranium sector. 

As a senior mining professional and the first President of democratic Mongolia, I felt sad to see how far Kazakhstan had gone ahead of Mongolia, even though the state of the uranium sector in our two countries was more or less the same in the early 1990s. We are yet to leave the starting block, as Kazakhstan races on. After 20 years of “Stop Mardai”, “Close this”, “Drive out Khan Resources”, “Delay Areva”.... we should realise enough is enough.

The number of nuclear plants is set to increase and the demand for nuclear fuel will rise radically. If we wish to benefit from this, we have to take two quick decisions.

First, we should build a pilot plant based on Areva’s uranium deposit.
Second, we should seek the cooperation of Kazakhstan in developing our radioactive minerals resources. From what I saw, Kazakhstan has the professional resources, equipment and technology. Investments also can be attracted from there and from those already working there.
We can begin with producing the “yellow powder” that is not hazardous for people, livestock and environment.

 

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