May 2014

Nuclear powerhouse

Metallurgist Chuck Edwards on the changing world of uranium

By Peter Braul

There is a little bit of Chuck Edwards in every uranium facility operating in Saskatchewan today. For the last 40 years, he has helped design and build many of the most successful uranium operations on the planet, including the Cigar Lake mine, which began shipping ore in March. To say he has had an influence is an understatement, yet despite the heft of his CV, which includes a term as CIM president and the CIM Distinguished Service Medal, Edwards’ persona might be even more impressive than his professional accomplishments. The force of his personality and his particular sense of style are formidable and as an outspoken supporter of nuclear energy through thick and thin, Edwards has a flair that can make anyone an optimist when it comes to the industry’s future.

CIM: What do you think are the most significant things to happen in the uranium sector lately?

Edwards: Well, there are several exciting uranium exploration projects in the Athabasca Basin. And there’s Cameco getting Cigar Lake into operation. The deposit is very challenging and the mining method is unique. So the fact that they have got it up and running is a creditable achievement.

CIM: What about in processing? Regulators have been considering reducing the amount of ammonia that is allowed into the environment. What would change for uranium operations in Saskatchewan, if that was the case?

Edwards: Uranium mills that use ammonia are going to be challenged because they do have ammonia emissions. The proven other option, instead of using ammonia for solvent extraction stripping and precipitation, is to use sulphuric acid for stripping, and hydrogen peroxide for precipitation. Such mills don’t use ammonia at all, so they’re not affected by the new ammonia regulations. The trend generally is away from ammonia and to making a peroxide precipitation product because the process is ammonia-free. Ammonia mills may find ways to bring the ammonia down; that’s one option. The other option is to retrofit them and shift to the acid strip process, which is doable. That’s what was done at Cameco’s Rabbit Lake mill.

CIM: There are lots of mines trying to save energy nowadays, but I think it would surprise people to hear that the Athabasca Basin uranium mines face potential power shortages. How serious is this situation now?

Edwards: Unfortunately, up in northern Saskatchewan, you wouldn’t say that the uranium operations are really on a grid, because a grid assumes the power can flow to you over multiple routes. They have one line called the I2P line, and it is pretty much at its maximum power now. It is possible to upgrade it by twinning the line or that kind of thing, and SaskPower has an upgrade in progress. But the other problem is that the line is not highly reliable in the summer because there are a lot of lightning strikes. Because it’s on the Canadian Shield and the rock below the power line is not electrically conductive, the line cannot be grounded and so shielded from the lightning strikes (unlike lines built in southern Saskatchewan). So the lightning strikes knock it out, and that happens, on average, between 40 and 50 times every summer.

But all the operations cooperate, and there is one site that basically has the weather station. If it looks like a lightning storm is building up in Alberta, they will send out a warning, and people will start up the gensets. It’s an interesting situation.

CIM: For the industry to grow, mines will need more stable power – what about nuclear? It would seem fitting for a uranium-producing region.

Edwards: Firms in Russia, Argentina, Japan, the United States, and Canada have designs for or are operating little pocket generators, or small nuclear reactors. I had a proposal some time back that one of the operations in northern Saskatchewan put in one of these.

A mine or a mill on its own will need about 10 megawatts of power. A mine and mill combined will need maybe 15 or 16 MW, so my suggestion was to put in a 20-MW mini-nuke, use the power you need on site from that, and feed the rest of the power into that I2P line, which would help stabilize it.

All the uranium mines and mills are licensed facilities, as are nuclear power plants. And they’re all licensed by the same people: the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. It would be easier to get clearance to put a little nuclear power plant on one of these sites than in it would, say, in your or my backyard.

CIM: I saw a presentation recently that made the case that politics is really nuclear energy’s only problem. What do you think of that argument?

Edwards: It’s not politics. The major hurdle for the uranium industry is public perception. And public perception of everything nuclear and everything atomic is fearful. It’s unfortunate that the first use of atomic energy was bombs and not power.

There are different types of radiation and different things are radioactive in different ways, and exposure produces different outcomes, so it’s complex. And most people don’t understand it. A while back, there were some activists here in Saskatoon who wanted the city council to declare Saskatoon a radioactivity-free zone, which of course is impossible. I mean the river here has uranium in it. Most rivers do. All the oceans do.

The major problem for the uranium industry and nuclear power is that most people don’t understand radioactivity but are frightened by it because they can’t see it, they can’t taste it, they can’t hear it, they can’t smell it, and they can’t feel it.

CIM: How has public sentiment changed over the time that you’ve been working in the business?

Edwards: The fact that nuclear power is as green as wind power and solar power has been a boost. I mean, that’s why China and India are building reactors about as fast as they can: because they realize if they keep burning only coal their already poor air quality will only get worse, and so will damage to their citizens’ health.

CIM: What lessons do you think the industry has learned about dealing with the public?

Edwards: You can’t manage the information. You can provide information, but most of the mass media have difficulty interpreting and passing on technical information.

CIM: How does it make you feel that this perspective holds so much sway?

Edwards: I think that it’s getting better. I mean once upon a time, back in the day, there was huge opposition in Saskatchewan to uranium and to uranium mining and milling.

The opposition to the uranium mining and milling has vanished and the support in Saskatchewan is fairly high. Interestingly enough, the further you go away from the mines and the mills, the less support there is. There is less support for the uranium industry in Regina than there is in Saskatoon, simply because I think the people further from the operations don’t see the benefit as much.

CIM: So education is really important, which leads me to ask you about the young engineers you mentor. Does the fact that you work in uranium make it harder to find good recruits?

Edwards: I have never seen anybody in our industry think that the difficulty in hiring people is because it’s uranium. One of the problems we have out here is that the Prairie provinces, especially Saskatchewan, are seen in Vancouver and Toronto as a bit of a backwater. And so, we have trouble attracting people to Saskatoon. Once you get them here, it’s “Wow! This is great.”

I’ve been around long enough that some of the people that I first met as students are now mill superintendents and mine managers and VPs. I don’t take credit for that happening, but I get a huge happiness out of it.

Saskatoon has changed, too. Thirty years ago, it was still in many ways a small prairie town, quite conservative and mildly socialist. If you were doing well, many people believed you were stealing from somebody else. That attitude is gone. Being successful here now is a good idea, it’s not frowned upon.

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