History of Uranium Production in Canada
Uranium was first discovered in Canada in the mid-1800s on the north shore of Lake Superior. However, uranium ores first came to public attention in the early 1930s when the Eldorado Gold Mining Company began its operations at Port Radium, Northwest Territories (Great Bear Lake), to extract its radium content. Demand for uranium began with the initiation in 1942 of an Allied nuclear-weapons program, the Manhattan Project.
The strategic nature of such material resulted in a ban on prospecting and mining of all radioactive materials across Canada. In 1943, the federal government took over the Eldorado Company and formed a new Crown corporation - Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited - which later became Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. Uranium exploration was restricted to the joint efforts of Eldorado and the Geological Survey of Canada.
A wartime ban on private uranium prospecting was lifted in 1947, which led to a renewal of activities in the industry and to the discovery in late 1940s and early 1950s of major deposits in northern Saskatchewan (Uranium City) and near Elliot Lake in northern Ontario.
At the end of the 1950s, 23 uranium mines and 19 processing plants were in operation. Canadian uranium production peaked in 1959, when more than 12,000 tonnes of uranium were produced. Uranium yielded C$330 million in export revenue, making it the country’s most exported ore of its time and Canada’s fourth major export after newsprint, wheat and timber.
The level of uranium exploration waned in the 1960s with the decline of military demand but was revived in the 1970s by expectations of nuclear power growth. It was not until the mid-1970s that price levels and market activity were sufficient to prompt a significant expansion of exploration and development. In 1977, the price of uranium reached a historical high, and a second burst of exploration resulted in major discoveries in the Athabasca Basin of northern Saskatchewan.
In the 1980s, Canada emerged as the world's leading producer and exporter of uranium, with about 80% of its annual uranium production destined for export, principally to the US, Japan and Western Europe.
Between 1970 and 1984, the uranium market was dominated by a primary production that exceeded the real need of nuclear reactors. The production of U3O8 largely decreased between 1985 and 2003.
After the closing of Elliot Lake’s last uranium mines in the mid-1990s, the Athabasca Basin became and remained the only source of uranium in Canada. Following the Three Mile Island incident, the overproduction of uranium brought down the price that reached a historical low in 2001 with US$7/lb.
In 2005, renewed interest for the uranium industry was in the air. Due to the perception of imminent scarcity, the price of uranium skyrocketed to US$136/lb U3O8 in 2007, which also revived the uranium mining sector. Canada currently has three active uranium mines and three mills, with another mine under construction, all located in northern Saskatchewan. Hundreds of uranium exploration projects are also active throughout the country. With known uranium resources of about 572,000 tonnes of U3O8, as well as continuing exploration, Canada will have a significant role in meeting future world demand. The country is the world’s second largest uranium producer, preceded by Kazakhstan. (WNA, 2012)
World Nuclear Association. 2012. Uranium in Canada.
World Nuclear Association. Brief History of Uranium Mining in Canada.
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. 2012. Uranium Mines and Mills in Canada.
L’Encyclopédie canadienne. Uranium.
Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune. 2005. L’uranium : un vent d’optimisme.
Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune. 2007. L’exploration de l’uranium au Québec – une mise à jour.