New 'Comprehensive' Approaches to Uranium Mining and Extraction

Workshop Participants and Experts at the Nuclear
Physics Laboratory, University of Cadi Ayyad,

23 November 2011 | Renewed interest in uranium as a fuel source for nuclear power comes at a time when many countries are also reviewing their policies on mining and mineral exploitation. In some there is a commitment to dual mining, i.e. extraction of both products and co-products; in others a more ambitious policy of ‘comprehensive extraction’ is being pursued.

This approach aims at maximum returns from any sustainable mining operation by extracting any source of interest in the mining process, e.g. rare earth elements, thorium and uranium. Comprehensive extraction is gaining ground rapidly not just for strategic and environmental reasons but also for more immediate commercial gains. The close geological connection between uranium and phosphate resources makes the pairing a natural combination for those looking at dual mining.

This is the background of IAEA International Workshop and African Regional Training Course on uranium recovery from phosphates and phosphoric acid held in Marrakech, Morocco, on 31 October to 4 November 2011.

Under the patronage of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Moroccan Association of Nuclear Engineers (AIGAM), the National Electricity Office (ONE) and the National Research Centre (CNESTEN) over 50 representatives from some 30 countries joined a large number of colleagues from the host country for a five-day training programme.

Presentations on a wide variety of current initiatives on extracting uranium from phosphates and phosphoric acid included an overview of a major new project in Brazil that will yield 1500 tonnes uranium per year as of 2015. This is a result of a unique joint venture between the phosphate industry and the Brazilian government company Industrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB), which may point to broader future convergence between the phosphate and nuclear energy industries. The Santa Quitéria deposit in Brasil has an estimated 11% content of phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5) and about 1000 ppm of U respectively in the ore.

Benefitting from a wide variety of presentations and opportunities to network, participants also enjoyed a half day study visit to the local nuclear research laboratory at the University of Cadi Ayyad, Marrakech, as guests of Course Director Professor Moulay Ali Misdaq, and a day at the National Center for Energy Sciences and Nuclear Techniques (CNESTEN) near Rabat.

In addition to its work in preparing Morocco for potential entry into the nuclear energy family, CNESTEN is active in a wide range of peaceful uses of nuclear technology such as geological mapping, characterisation of minerals for mining, biological analysis, dating archaeological samples, and neutron-radiography. Training and fellowships are special features of CNESTEN’s work bringing visitors from all over Africa and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

"This was a particularly successful capacity-building workshop" commented Scientific Secretary Mr. Harikrishnan Tulsidas, an IAEA nuclear technology specialist. "We brought together a large group of experts and trainees, researchers and practitioners, regulators and industry to encourage dialogue and networking as well as technical and scientific training. And the enthusiastic feedback we got from everyone encourages us to plan more meetings of this kind."

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