Several companies involved in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle have announced temporary shutdowns or staffing reductions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the modest increase in uranium spot prices triggered by production cuts could be a silver lining, uranium prices are still below a level that would prompt idled mines to get back in production once public health mandates are lifted.
The uranium market is global, and it should come as no surprise that a global pandemic is having an impact on facilities around the world, including in the following countries.
Canada: Cameco, headquartered in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, announced on April 8 that uranium hexafluoride (UF6) operations at the company’s Port Hope Conversion Facility in southern Ontario would be shut down for at least four weeks.
“While our fuel services facilities have been able to operate safely, it has become increasingly challenging to maintain a sufficient roster of qualified operators for the UF6 plant,” said Tim Gitzel, Cameco’s president and chief executive officer. “The UF6 plant is designed for continuous operation, and we need to prevent unplanned interruptions arising from personnel shortages. Therefore, after weighing many factors, including the state of the pandemic, we made a measured decision to suspend production in a careful, planned manner at the UF6 plant and the UO3 refinery which feeds it.”
Uranium dioxide production at the Port Hope facility will continue, however, as will fuel pellet and fuel bundle production at Cameco Fuel Manufacturing. “Although they may experience workforce fluctuations as a result of ongoing circumstance, they are better able to adapt quickly to changes in staffing levels and more frequent starts and stops in production if required,” the company said.
Cameco’s decision to stop UF6 production followed a March 23 announcement that it had suspended production at its Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan for four weeks, citing the difficulty of maintaining social distancing at the remote site accessed by air. The decision to suspend production at Cameco’s Cigar Lake mine was made in conjunction with Orano’s decision to suspend production at its McClean Lake mill, also located in northern Saskatchewan.
United States: Peninsula Energy’s managing director and CEO, Wayne Heili, said in a press release issued on April 6 that Peninsula would suspend nonessential activities at the Lance in situ recovery (ISR) project in Wyoming.
“The company has assessed the ongoing workstreams at the Lance Project and has made the prudent decision to suspend until further notice any nonessential site activities, including the well completion work and the commencement of a field demonstration,” Heili said.
Peninsula is hoping that the Nuclear Fuel Working Group established by the Trump administration in July 2019 will catalyze future production. “We are not anticipating any development on this front in the near term while the U.S. federal government prioritizes management of COVID-19, but U.S. government officials continue to affirm the national importance of preserving a domestic uranium production capacity,” Heili said.
Silex Systems announced an initial COVID-19 response plan on March 26 that included the suspension of operations at Global Laser Enrichment’s Wilmington, N.C., test loop .
Uranium Energy Corporation announced on March 20 that it had arranged for its teams, including staff based in Corpus Christi, Texas, to work remotely. The company has postponed plans to resume a drilling program at the Burke Hollow ISR project in Texas.
Kazakhstan:Kazatomprom announced on April 7 that staffing at its uranium mining and production sites would be reduced to minimum levels. The staffing reduction is expected to remain in place for three months, and 2020 annual production is expected to decrease by up to 4,000 metric tons (about 17.5 percent) from previous expectations of 22,750–22,800 metric tons. An earlier announcement, issued on March 16, described preventive measures, including remote work and travel limitations.
Namibia: Deep Yellow Limited said that COVID-19 is expected to have minimal impact on its mining operations in Namibia. “The Namibian government has instituted a 21-day lockdown, which is in place until April 17. . . . However, mining and related industries have been declared as critical services. The specific details of this are currently being finalized with the relevant ministries and input from the Chamber of Mines, following submissions by the industry, including Deep Yellow,” the company said in an April 6 press release.