Kazakh uranium mine starts

27 April 2009

Kazakhstan's newest in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mine, Kharasan 1, has been officially opened at a ceremony attended by Kazakh, Japanese and Canadian dignitaries.

The 24 April ceremony was led by Kazakh prime minister Karim Massimov and attended by official delegations headed by Japanese and Canadian diplomats, representatives from the companies involved in the Kharasan 1 project, and Kazakh dignitaries.

The mine is expected to produce 180 tonnes of uranium in 2009, reaching its full capacity of 3000 tonnes of uranium per year in 2014. It is expected to operate until 2053. The mine has taken three years to build and is operated by LLP Kyzylkum, which is in turn owned by Kazakshtan's national atomic company Kazatomprom (30%), a consortium of Japanese power companies (Tepco, Marubeni, Toshiba, Chubu Electric, Tohoku Electric and Kysushu Electric, between them holding 40%), and Canadian uranium company Uranium One (30%). A total of $432 million has been invested in the project to date.

Kharasan 1 is the northernmost of two uranium deposits at Kharasan, and according to Kazatomprom has been difficult to develop thanks to its situation on the bank of the Syr-Darya river in a remote, undeveloped desert area. Infrastructure developments including the construction of a bridge over the Syr-Darya river, and construction and improvements of roads, rail links and power transmission lines were completed as part of the project, as well as the construction of a field camp for 280 personnel at the mine.

Work has also begun on the construction of a 500,000 tonnes per year sulphuric acid plant to ensure the supply of the reagent which is vital to the in-situ leach process, whereby uranium is dissolved from host rock and the solution pumped to the surface through wells for processing. Shortages of sulphuric acid led to Kazakh uranium production below projected figures in 2007, although the opening of a new acid plant in mid-2008 eased the pressure.

Kazakhstan has some 15% of the world's uranium resources and is a major producer of uranium, third behind Canada and Australia in terms of production. Its 2008 output of 8521 tonnes was 28% up on 2007's production of 6637 tonnes, and it has ambitious plans to increase its uranium output to 15,000 tonnes per annum by 2010.