Athabasca Basin: The Leading Jurisdiction for High-Grade Uranium
Canada is among the top producers of uranium, providing 10% of the total global supply in 2021. Within Canada, the Athabasca Basin has the majority of the country’s uranium reserves.
The Athabasca Basin is spread across two provinces: Saskatchewan and Alberta. The majority of the region lies in Saskatchewan, covering nearly 100,000 square kilometres. In terms of rock formations, the basin is filled with sedimentary rocks, mostly sandstone. The uranium deposits are found in faults at the boundary between the sandstone and the basement beneath it.
Uranium in The Athabasca Region
The Athabasca Basin has many “high-grade” uranium deposits. The minimum grade of uranium for economic use is ~0.03 wt.% (percentage by weight in a given sample).
Many large uranium deposits in the Athabasca Basin have above 10 wt.%, report Guoxiang Chi et.al. Only 0.2% of the deposits listed in The World Distribution of Uranium Deposits (UDEPO) database have over 5% or uranium, according to a 2015 IAEA report. The majority of the deposits captured by UDEPO have a grade range of 0.01 to 0.20 % U.
Moreover, conventional deposits in the Athabasca Basin are commonly in the 100,000 to 1000, 000 tU (tonnes of uranium) range – only 1.7% of the listed deposits are of this size, adds the IAEA report. Most deposits in the database are in the 300 to 5,000 tU range.
History of Uranium Exploration in The Athabasca Region
The El Dorado gold mining company was the first to discover uranium in Canada in the 1930s, according to the World Nuclear Association. Larger-scale exploration started in the early 1940s to fill the need for the radioactive material in the military industry.
Post-war, the government started allowing private companies to explore for uranium. This led to the discovery of several viable deposits and the development of treatment plants across the country.
The first major discovery in the Athabasca Basin was at Rabbit Lake in 1968. Mining at the site started in 1975. This was followed by Cluff Lake in 1980 and Key Lake in 1983. The three sites produced most of Canada’s uranium resources until 2000. The large McArthur deposit was discovered in 1988, and mining began in 1999. Currently, the Cigar Lake mine, which started in 2014, is the main production site in the country.
Uranium Production and Resources
Canadian uranium production peaked in 2016, reaching 14,022 tU. During the three years from 2014 to 2016, the total production included contributions from three sources – McArthur River, Cigar Lake, and Rabbit Lake. Rabbit Lake and McArthur River projects stopped contributing in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Currently, Cigar Lake is the sole producer, with 4,693 tU in 2021, making it the largest producing mine in the world that year.
Cigar Lake is the largest high-grade uranium mine in the world. It has proven & probable reserves of 82,720 tU, with 15.9% U3O8, and measured & indicated resources of 32,500 tU, having 16.24% U3O8. The mine was temporarily closed twice during 2020 because of the pandemic.
McArthur River is one of the largest uranium mines in the world. It has proven & probable reserves of 142,000 tU and an average ore grade of 9.60% U3O8. Moreover, the measured & indicated resources of the mine are 1,850 tU, with 3.8% U3O8. The mine was closed because of dropping uranium prices; however, Cameco – Canada’s largest uranium producer – has plans to reopen it soon because of a resurgence in demand.
Mining at Rabbit Lake started in 1975. While the mine does not produce uranium anymore, it still has indicated reserves of 29,200 tU, having 2.39% U3O8. Other notable uranium resources in the region include the McClean Lake, Wheeler River Phoenix & Gryphon, Arrow, Shea Creek, etc.
Uranium Mining Companies in Athabasca Basin
Cameco is the established mining company in the region. However, multiple other companies are actively exploring for uranium:
Denison Mines Corp. (NYSE: DNN, TORONTO: DML)
Dension is a Toronto-based uranium exploration and development company. It has an interest in several projects, including the Wheeler River project, Midwest, Waterbury Lake project, and the McClean Lake Uranium Mill.
The Wheeler River project has two deposits: Phoenix and Gryphon. The 2018 pre-feasibility study showed probable reserves of 23,000 tU at an average grade of 16.22% U for Phoenix and 19,000 tU at 1.5% U for Gryphon. The company has a market cap of US$987.3 million as of November 18, 2022.
NexGen Energy Ltd. (NYSE: NXE, TSX: NXE)
NexGen energy is headquartered in Vancouver, and it’s involved in uranium prospecting, development, and acquisition. The company has a market cap of US$2.1 billion as of November 17, 2022.
NexGen’s large-scale Rook I project includes uranium mines and mills. The Arrow Deposit has measured reserves of 80,600 tU at 4.35% U3O8, indicated resources of 18,150 tU at 1.36% U3O8, and inferred reserves of 31,000 tU at 0.83% U3O8.
Iso Energy Ltd. (TSX: ISO, OTC: ISENF)
Saskatoon-based iso energy is a uranium exploration and acquisition company holding multiple assets in the Athabasca Basin. The company has a market cap of $367.52 million as of November 17, 2022.
Iso energy has prioritized four of its properties – Larocque East, Thorburn Lake, Radio, and Geiger. The Larocque East contains the recently discovered Hurricane zone, an area with high uranium mineralization, ranging from 30.9% to 67.2% U3O8.
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