Mining to resume at McClean Lake

25 January 2024

More than 15 years after mining was suspended at McClean Lake in Saskatchewan, joint venture partners Orano Canada Inc and Denison Mines Corp have announced that production is to restart using the patented Surface Access Borehole Resource Extraction (SABRE) mining method.

McClean Lake (Image: Denison)

The companies intend to begin mining at the McClean North deposit in 2025, targeting production of 800,000 pounds U3O8 (308 tU, 100% basis) in 2025. Around 3 million pounds U3O8 (100% basis) has been identified for potential additional production from a combination of the McClean North and Caribou deposits from 2026 to 2030.

SABRE is a non-entry, surface-based mining method that uses a high-pressure water jet placed at the bottom of a drill hole to excavate a mining cavity. The cuttings from the excavation process are then air lifted to the surface, separated and stockpiled. This innovative mining method can potentially allow economic access to relatively small high-grade orebodies that are either too small or too deep to be mined economically by conventional open-pit and/or underground mining methods, the companies say.

SABRE also offers operational and environmental advantages compared to conventional mining techniques. It is selective and scalable, which the companies say makes it suited to changing uranium market conditions, with an expected production ramp up of months instead of years. It is less intrusive and has a smaller surface footprint than conventional methods, with lower water usage and power consumption, and - as it is a non-entry mining method - minimises radiological exposure for mine workers.

A five-year SABRE test programme was completed at McClean Lake in 2021, excavating some 1,500 tonnes of ore. Over 2024, the companies said they will prepare the existing SABRE mining site and equipment at McClean Lake for continuous commercial operations, as well as installing eight pilot holes for the first mining cavities planned for excavation. A budget of CAD7 million (100% basis) has been approved for the work.

McClean Lake is in the eastern part of the Athabasca Basin region in northern Saskatchewan, about 750 kilometres north of Saskatoon. The McClean Lake Joint Venture (MLJV) is 77.5% owned by Orano Canada and 22.5% by Denison. Orano Canada is the operator.

Although mining operations were suspended in 2008, the McClean Lake mill, which can produce up to 24 million pounds of yellowcake per year, is Orano Canada's flagship operation, milling high-grade uranium ore trucked from Cameco's Cigar Lake mine. The mill produced 18 million pounds U3O8 in 2022, and Orano Canada's President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Corman said the mill will have sufficient capacity to process the ore from McClean Lake operations as well as continuing with committed planned production from Cigar Lake.

"Our current ability to capitalise on the strengthening uranium and nuclear markets is the result of a long-term investment in R&D within Orano and the MLJV to secure continued activities at the McClean Lake operation well into the future … It's an exciting time for employees, partners, and the industry as we return to a focus on growth," Corman said.

Denison President and CEO David Cates said the restart of uranium mining at McClean Lake is a "notable milestone" after 2008's suspension of mining in response to declining uranium prices. Information from the mining tests of the SABRE method completed in 2021 "suggests an incentive price meaningfully lower than current uranium prices" which has provided "a strong basis" for the restart decision, he added.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News