March/April 2010

Engineering Exchange

Deploying collaborative expertise for performance improvements: UPSAT team carries out its first mission

By H. Ednie

In the solvent extraction plant are (L to R): Luiz Alberto Gomiero, production coordinator, INB Caetite; Chuck Edwards, director, metallurgy, AMEC and UPSAT team member; Heraldo Rangel Junior, process advisor, INB; and Keith Baldry, director, EPA South Australia and UPSAT team member.

In February, the Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB) became the first organization to take advantage of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) new Uranium Production Site Appraisal Team (UPSAT) service. The service gives uranium companies access to world-class experts to help them promote best practices and safety. The inaugural assessment took place at INB’s Caetité uranium production site in the State of Bahia, Brazil.

“The IAEA wishes to assist member states in their efforts to improve the quality of work in uranium mining through introduction of good practice,” says Peter Waggitt, of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section of the IAEA’s Department of Nuclear Energy. “The IAEA also wishes to see uranium mining carried out in accordance with the relevant IAEA Safety Standards to ensure protection for the population and the environment. This all becomes very relevant now as the uranium industry is undergoing a resurgence of activity after about 25 years of relative inactivity. Nuclear power has come back onto the agenda.”

An UPSAT mission provides a peer review of one or more phases of a uranium production operation by an international team of experts. The technical exchange of experience and work practices aims to strengthen the operation’s programs and procedures and aid implementation of new procedures on-site. Performance is measured with reference to the IAEA Safety Standards and best international practices.

Mission Brazil

After discussions with INB, the IAEA appointed Waggitt as project coordinator. Waggitt and his colleagues combed their networks to select people with the right range of skills and experience from uranium mining countries and companies to provide a top quality peer review.  “Everyone on the team had a significant track record in the uranium mining industry, as a consultant, an operator or a regulator,” says Waggitt.

A team of experts was pulled together from four uranium-producing countries: Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic and France. The review focused on a number of major areas: organization and management; general safety; mining and processing engineering; human resources development; waste management; radiation protection; monitoring systems; environmental impact assessment; decommissioning planning; and environmental remediation planning.

Chuck Edwards, director of metallurgy at AMEC Americas Limited, was a member of the UPSAT team deployed to INB. With a long history in uranium production in Saskatchewan, Edwards brought processing expertise to the team.

The INB operation is currently an open pit and heap-leaching operation, but is moving into underground mining with a conventional mill, which will triple its production capacity. The UPSAT team looked at both the present operation’s impacts, capabilities and safety, and the future operation plans. Edwards says for him, the focus was 90 per cent on the future mill.

“I determined pretty quickly that the heap-leaching operation was good — I had very few comments to make — so my focus shifted to the conventional mill they are going to build,” he explains.

Once the UPSAT team was in place, INB created a website for sharing information with the team, as well as background information, reports, plans and papers. An exchange of ideas was initiated well before the mission landed in Brazil. Once there, for the first couple of days on site, the group heard presentations from about a dozen people. “It was open and honest communications, providing us with a wealth of information to process,” Edwards says. “After those initial days, we scattered. I spent most of my time in the mill.”

Costs associated with participating in the UPSAT team are shared. Edwards’ travel and living expenses were covered through UPSAT, and AMEC paid his salary. “At AMEC, we want to be seen as global players in the uranium industry — we want to be a part of these types of missions,” Edwards explains. “And I had a good time, I really did. Brazil is a developing country but it’s certainly going in the right direction.”

The outcome

The resulting UPSAT report will have five sections in all. Edwards’ section on uranium processing includes between 25 to 30 recommendations — some on the flow sheet, some to generate ideas.

Overall, the UPSAT team concluded the Caetité operations are run in a clean and efficient manner without evidence of adverse environmental impact outside the mining licence area, and that the workforce at the facility is well-motivated and conscientious, with a well-developed safety culture.

Areas for improvement of overall performance included further work to reduce risks of environmental impacts in ground water, likely related to the above-ground tailings and waste disposal.

Once INB receives the UPSAT report, it will be analyzed carefully and the actual implementation recommendations studied. “Part of this work has already begun, because ongoing studies are being carried out, based on the discussions held during the mission visit and on the preliminary conclusions stated at the close out meeting of the missions,” says Cesar Costa, licensing and quality manager, Mineral Resources Division, INB, and INB coordinator for UPSAT.

“From our point of view, the mission has proven worthwhile,” Costa continues. “The mission team was a high level selection of experts. We note that INB personnel gained knowledge even just through discussions held during the on-site review process.”

To date, there have been a couple of initial inquiries for further UPSAT missions, but it is still in its early stages yet and IAEA is not announcing details. Waggitt says a few items in the system and methodology may be adjusted in light of the Brazil experience, but nothing major.  He is eager to see UPSAT deployed again.

More details on UPSAT can be found here.

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