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An Inside Look At Cameco’s Smith Ranch Uranium Facility

Cameco Corp (NYSE: CCJ) is the 800-pound gorilla of the uranium sector. Cameco is to uranium what Wal-Mart is to retailing, and what Saudi Aramco is to petroleum. On a percentage basis, Cameco dominates its sector more so than either of the two. Cameco probably has more clout in turning off the electricity now powering your computer than any other company in the world. This week, the spot price of uranium rose to $40/pound, for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president. That should help grow the uranium business in Wyoming by leaps and bounds.

In Part 5, we look at the largest U. uranium producer, Cameco-owned Power Resources. Understanding ‘In Situ Leach’ Uranium Extraction “It took $284 million Canadian to build, and it operated with 546 people,” said Patrick Drummond, Plant Superintendent for Cameco subsidiary Power Resources’ Smith Ranch facility. He was pointing to Kerr McGee’s Smith Ranch underground mine on the wall across from desk, which was later converted into an ISL operation, first run by Rio Algom.

“This operation cost US$44 million to build and 80 people to start.” Drummond was referring to the In Situ Leaching (ISL) uranium extraction facility, known as Smith Ranch. “That should give you the scale of the ISL versus an underground mine,” he explained. The aging, but sprightly, Drummond knows his uranium. He’s worked in underground mines, open pit mines, and uranium mills since 1980. From 1996 to the present day, he’s worked in Wyoming for Power Resources at the company’s ISL uranium extraction facility. “I started off in the coal mines in Scotland,” boasted Drummond, who claims he can spot a coal miner in a bar, just by looking at the veins in his hands. “I worked up in Elliot Lake and the massive underground mines up there.” Clasping his hands and looking down, he seemed to apologize, “It’s also a massive environmental problem to clean up, a major undertaking. Quirk Lake was one of the bigger mines up there.

It cost a lot of money to clean it up.” The New Face of Wyoming’s Uranium Mining is the ISL uranium extraction method, also known as solution mining. The differences between mining uranium underground and an ISL operation are both minor and vast. Both methods mine uranium beneath the surface. So both methods are underground mining. However, that is where the similarities end. “With underground, you bring up the ore, grate it, crush it, and extract the uranium from the ore,” Drummond explained the basics of underground uranium mining. “That ore becomes waste, which is known as tailings. You then have to service these big tailings and then decommission.” ISL is the new breed of mining.

“With ISL, we don’t do that,” continued Drummond in his day-long lecture to our editorial team during a VIP tour of the Smith Ranch facility. “To mine underground with ISL, you drill the holes where the uranium is and extract the uranium from the underground ore,” he said. “Then, you process that into yellowcake.” It’s not all wine and roses for Drummond, though. He pines away for his underground mines, “From a mining perspective, it’s not mining so it is not as exciting. Drummond laughs, “ISL is like a water treatment plant. We take water out and remove some ions.” He makes it sound so simple, “We remove the water from the underground and remove the ions, being the uranium ion. Then, we put the water back under the ground.” All of the water goes back into the ground? Actually no.

Drummond explained, “We take our water out and we put 99 percent back in. The one percent we call ‘bleed.’ It’s a control function.” Drummond cites more comparables, “To start an underground mine, it would take a year to do the shaft before you could start mining. Then, there’s the development cost of the mill complex. You have all that outlay of cost before you can get any benefit. It’s expensive to do underground -- $200 million plus – because of the upfront development costs.” From his perspective, the miner in Drummond has come to like solution mining. “ISL is easier.


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