The Story of Voisey’s Bay: Today’s Mine (Pt. 3 of 3)
The Story of Voisey’s Bay: Today’s Mine (Part 3 of 3)
Presented by: Equitas Resources, “Nickel exploration in Labrador”
The massive Voisey’s Bay nickel deposit was auctioned off to the highest bidder in early 1996 for $4.3 billion. We have recapped the events leading up to the sale in previous parts of this infographic series on Voisey’s Bay:
We show the events leading up to the nickel discovery in Part 1: The Discovery
We highlight the bidding war for the rights to the deposit in Part 2: The Auction
Voisey’s Bay Today
The discovery at Voisey’s Bay was ultimately significant for three reasons:
- The ore was rich in content. In fact, the famed Ovoid zone had an average grade of 2.8% nickel.
- Much of the ore was near the surface. This would help to minimize extraction costs.
- The deposit was close to tidewater. This reduced the costs associated with transporting ore to ships
The Voisey’s Bay deposit is world-class in terms of its grade and size. With 141 million tonnes of ore, the deposit has significant grades of nickel, copper, and cobalt:
- 1.63% nickel
- 0.85% copper
- 0.09% cobalt
The resource is located in the three main zones: Ovoid, Eastern Deeps, and Reid Brook. The Ovoid represents less than 23% of the total tonnage, but more than 42% of the metal in the deposit.
Mining and Transporting the Ore
The open pit mine at Voisey’s Bay, now owned by Vale, has been in operation since 2005. Recently, underground mining was approved at the site as well.
The ore from Voisey’s Bay is transported via the Umiak I – the world’s most powerful icebreaking cargo ship.
- The Umiak I makes 12 trips a year
- The icebreaker rides over ice that can be 10 metres thick in places
- It has a 30,000 horsepower engine, which is large enough to drive an oil tanker 10x its size
- The Umiak I can carry 30,000 tonnes of nickel-copper concentrate at once (worth $100 million per load)
The Newfoundland and Labrador government estimated that the Voisey’s Bay project will add approximately $20.7 billion to the province’s gross domestic product during the mine’s estimated 30-year lifespan.
Will more of these mines be found in Labrador in the future?
A well-known exploration proverb states that “the best place to find a new mine is next to an old mine”.
That’s why, in a research report by the Newfoundland and Labrador government on Voisey’s Bay it is noted that “this area remains highly favourable for future exploration.”
And as Robert Friedland has said himself:
“Creative people shouldn’t be punished for failure, because in the exploration process we are in the business of drilling dry holes. You can’t keep drilling where you’ve looked.” – Robert Friedland
Visualizing the Uranium Mining Industry in 3 Charts
These visuals highlight the uranium mining industry and its output, as well as the trajectory of nuclear energy from 1960 to today.
When uranium was discovered in 1789 by Martin Heinrich Klaproth, it’s likely the German chemist didn’t know how important the element would become to human life.
Used minimally in glazing and ceramics, uranium was originally mined as a byproduct of producing radium until the late 1930s. However, the discovery of nuclear fission, and the potential promise of nuclear power, changed everything.
What’s the current state of the uranium mining industry? This series of charts from Truman Du highlights production and the use of uranium using 2021 data from the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and Our World in Data.
Who are the Biggest Uranium Miners in the World?
Most of the world’s biggest uranium suppliers are based in countries with the largest uranium deposits, like Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada.
The largest of these companies is Kazatomprom, a Kazakhstani state-owned company that produced 25% of the world’s new uranium supply in 2021.
As seen in the above chart, 94% of the roughly 48,000 tonnes of uranium mined globally in 2021 came from just 13 companies.
|Rank||Company||2021 Uranium Production (tonnes)||Percent of Total|
|3||🇷🇺 Uranium One||4,514||9%|
|6||🇺🇿 Navoi Mining||3,500||7%|
|9||🇦🇺 General Atomics/Quasar||2,241||5%|
|11||🇬🇧 Energy Asia||900||2%|
France’s Orano, another state-owned company, was the world’s second largest producer of uranium at 4,541 tonnes.
Companies rounding out the top five all had similar uranium production numbers to Orano, each contributing around 9% of the global total. Those include Uranium One from Russia, Cameco from Canada, and CGN in China.
Where are the Largest Uranium Mines Found?
The majority of uranium deposits around the world are found in 16 countries with Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada accounting for for nearly 40% of recoverable uranium reserves.
But having large reserves doesn’t necessarily translate to uranium production numbers. For example, though Australia has the biggest single deposit of uranium (Olympic Dam) and the largest reserves overall, the country ranks fourth in uranium supplied, coming in at 9%.
Here are the top 10 uranium mines in the world, accounting for 53% of the world’s supply.
Of the largest mines in the world, four are found in Kazakhstan. Altogether, uranium mined in Kazakhstan accounted for 45% of the world’s uranium supply in 2021.
|Uranium Mine||Country||Main Owner||2021 Production|
|Cigar Lake||🇨🇦 Canada||Cameco/Orano||4,693t|
|Inkai 1-3||🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||Kazaktomprom/Cameco||3,449t|
|Husab||🇳🇦 Namibia||Swakop Uranium (CGN)||3,309t|
|Karatau (Budenovskoye 2)||🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||Uranium One/Kazatomprom||2,561t|
|Four Mile||🇦🇺 Australia||Quasar||2,241t|
|Olympic Dam||🇦🇺 Australia||BHP Billiton||1,922t|
|Central Mynkuduk||🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||Ortalyk||1,579t|
|Kharasan 1||🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||Kazatomprom/Uranium One||1,579t|
Namibia, which has two of the five largest uranium mines in operation, is the second largest supplier of uranium by country, at 12%, followed by Canada at 10%.
Interestingly, the owners of these mines are not necessarily local. For example, France’s Orano operates mines in Canada and Niger. Russia’s Uranium One operates mines in Kazakhstan, the U.S., and Tanzania. China’s CGN owns mines in Namibia.
And despite the African continent holding a sizable amount of uranium reserves, no African company placed in the top 10 biggest companies by production. Sopamin from Niger was the highest ranked at #12 with 809 tonnes mined.
Uranium Mining and Nuclear Energy
Uranium mining has changed drastically since the first few nuclear power plants came online in the 1950s.
For 30 years, uranium production grew steadily due to both increasing demand for nuclear energy and expanding nuclear arsenals, eventually peaking at 69,692 tonnes mined in 1980 at the height of the Cold War.
Nuclear energy production (measured in terawatt-hours) also rose consistently until the 21st century, peaking in 2001 when it contributed nearly 7% to the world’s energy supply. But in the years following, it started to drop and flatline.
By 2021, nuclear energy had fallen to 4.3% of global energy production. Several nuclear accidents—Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima—contributed to turning sentiment against nuclear energy.
|% of Total Energy|
More recently, a return to nuclear energy has gained some support as countries push for transitions to cleaner energy, since nuclear power generates no direct carbon emissions.
What’s Next for Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear remains one of the least harmful sources of energy, and some countries are pursuing advancements in nuclear tech to fight climate change.
Small, modular nuclear reactors are one of the current proposed solutions to both bring down costs and reduce construction time of nuclear power plants. The benefits include smaller capital investments and location flexibility by trading off energy generation capacity.
With countries having to deal with aging nuclear reactors and climate change at the same time, replacements need to be considered. Will they come in the form of new nuclear power and uranium mining, or alternative sources of energy?
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