Decision approaches on Terrafame uranium extraction permit

11 June 2019

There are "no radiation safety-related obstacles" for granting multi-metal company Terrafame a permit to recover uranium as a by-product from its Sotkamo mine, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (Stuk) has told the government. The government will now make the final decision on whether to issue the permit.

Terrafame currently produces nickel, zinc and cobalt at its mine and metals production plant at Sotkamo (Image: Terrafame)

State-owned Terrafame submitted its application for large-scale recovery of uranium to the Ministry of Employment and Economic Affairs in October 2017. The company plans to refine the recovered uranium into yellowcake, a semi-finished uranium oxide product used to manufacture fuel for nuclear power plants.

Following a safety assessment of Terrafame's application, Stuk today submitted a statement to the ministry saying it believes Terrafame's plans for uranium extraction meet the relevant requirements under Finland's nuclear energy legislation. "The nuclear and radiation safety risks caused by the production of uranium to the environment and the residents in the area are minor," the regulator said.

"In practice, minor risks mean that the radiation exposure of the employees at the uranium recovery plant is minor and the production of uranium will not expose members of the public to additional radiation," noted Jarkko Kyllönen, senior inspector at STUK. "The licensee is responsible for the radiation safety of the plant, its employees and its surroundings. Stuk's duty is to oversee that such responsibilities are fulfilled."

The ore extracted at Terrafame's Sotkamo mine in north-eastern Finland contains varying quantities of uranium, with the highest concentrations at around 15-20 mg/kg. As a comparison, the average concentration of uranium in Finnish soil and rock is about 4 mg/kg. According to Terrafame's estimate, the ore processed by it annually contains about 300 tonnes of uranium, half of which dissolves during bioleaching. A uranium extraction plant would be able to recover about 135 tonnes of this uranium, according to company estimates.

"According to the Nuclear Energy Act, the final product of a recovery plant is categorised as nuclear commodities," said Kyllönen. "Therefore, the final product is included in the scope of international nuclear material safeguards. This regulatory control ensures that the product does not end up in the wrong hands."

In addition to the government's permission, in order to start uranium recovery Terrafame also requires a uranium sales permit from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It will also need a permit from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) to transport uranium abroad for processing. Terrafame noted it already has the relevant chemicals permit and environmental permit. The company estimates that, once all the required permits are granted, uranium recovery could begin towards the end of this year.

Although the uranium concentrations in the ore mined by Terrafame are low, the company says it would be possible to recover "sufficient amount of uranium for commercial purposes, using modern methods".

Terrafame was granted permission in December 2017 by Stuk to recover a small quantity of uranium while it experiments with chemical processes it will use in the actual uranium recovery plant. Under that permit, the company could produce up to 600 litres of process solution containing a maximum of 6 kg of uranium.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News