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No. 200: Exploitation of radioactive minerals in Greenland

Hansen, V., Søndergaard, J., Asmund, G., Aastrup, P., Gustavson, K., Garcia, G., Nymand, J. & Larsen, M.B. 2016. Exploitation of radioactive minerals in Greenland. Management of environmental issues based on experience from uranium producing countries. Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 244 pp. Scientific Report from DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy No. 200 http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR200.pdf

 

Summary

In October 2013, Greenland lifted the so-called zero-tolerance policy for extraction of radioactive minerals. The decision was made at the time when a mining project was under development at Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit) in South Greenland, a deposit that besides rare earth elements, flour and zinc contains the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. The project at Kvanefjeld is now at a stage when an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report and an application for exploitation license are currently being assessed by the Danish Centre for Environment and Energy (DCE) and Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (GINR).

DCE and GINR are long-time advisors to the Greenland authorities on environmental issues. This advisory includes evaluation of EIA reports on mining projects. DCE and GINR’s evaluation of the EIA reports shall ensure that the EIA reports give a correct and thorough description of the environmental impacts of the project. The final EIA report and the so-called ‘White Book’, containing comments on the report from public consultations, will later form the basis for the Greenland Government (Naalakkersuisut) to decide for or against a mining project, to define the environmental requirements for the project and whether it has to be modified.

In relation to the possible exploitation license, DCE and GINR provide recommendations on how to set the environmental requirements and conditions in order to minimize any adverse environmental effects. Since previous mining projects in Greenland have not involved exploitation of radioactive minerals, there was a need to build up specific knowledge at DCE and GINR on environmental issues and management associated with mining and milling of radioactive minerals.

In the beginning of 2014, a collaboration project between DCE and GINR was initiated with the purpose of gathering  information  and knowledge on environmental issues  and  management of  radioactive  minerals  mining and milling  worldwide  that  can  potentially  be  used  in Greenland. The project was continued through 2014, 2015 and 2016. The project was not specifically focused on Kvanefjeld but on mining and milling of radioactive minerals in Greenland in general, both as main product and by-product associated with mining of other minerals. The project was funded by the Environment Agency for Mineral Resources Activities (EAMRA).

This report is prepared to EAMRA and presents the outcome of the project until this date. The report includes more than 200 pages of information gathered at meetings and workshops, through available literature and on field trips to former and existing uranium mines in Germany and Australia, respectively. Examples of the management of environmental and health practices at uranium facilities operating in the Arctic and elsewhere in the world are given in Appendix A. The  intention  of  the  report  was  for  it to be a compendium  with  relevant  background information to be used as a checklist for issues to consider in future projects involving mining and milling of radioactive minerals in Greenland.

Not all the information gathered here will be relevant to all potential future mining and milling projects in Greenland but will provide a foundation of knowledge that can be targeted towards the specific project, taking site-specific factors such as ore-composition, mining type, extraction methods, local environmental conditions, proximity to settlements, etc. into account.

Different topics and recommendations for specific requirements for all uranium production phases are presented in the ten chapters of the report.

Chapter 1 gives an introduction to the report and the different chapters in detail.

Chapter 2 provides a review of uranium production worldwide, different mining methods and steps involved in the production of uranium for use in civilian power generation. Past and modern practices of uranium mining are presented and examples of environmental management at uranium facilities are given. A short description of uranium production and key environmental issues in a range of different countries is provided in the associated appendix.

Chapter 3 presents a review of the international regulatory framework governing uranium mining and milling. This includes safety standards and recommendations from organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Commission on Radiological Protection and work and findings of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. In the chapter, examples of the regulatory framework governing uranium production in Australia, Canada and the United States are given.

Chapter 4 provides a programme for environmental protection. A description of various methods to prevent and reduce the generation of dust and the release of radioactive contaminants into the environment is provided.

Chapter 5 describes the requirements for a radiation management plan (RMP). The purpose of this plan is to minimize the overall release and effects of radioactive contaminants from the mining and milling activities. The RMP should be an integrated part of any project involving mining and milling of radioactive minerals and should cover all phases of a project from construction to mining and milling, decommissioning, rehabilitation and long-term monitoring and care.

Chapter 6 presents a brief description of yellowcake production flow, quality assurance and control and the requirements of a waste management plan. The waste management plan is targeted specifically at the management of waste products associated with the mining and milling of radioactive minerals. Waste products include all kinds of tailings, waste rock and mine water that can potentially release contaminants into the environment.

Chapter 7 describes requirements for environment monitoring near mines involving mining and milling of radioactive minerals. Monitoring of air, water, soil and biological material for radioactive contaminants in the receiving environment is included as well as monitoring requirements for mine effluents. The requirements for setting threshold values for a specific project are discussed.

Chapter 8 presents requirements for environmental and health protection associated with production, packing, storage and transportation of uranium concentrate, so-called yellowcake. The chapter was prepared for the case that uranium-containing minerals will be processed into yellowcake in Greenland. The recommendations by the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Nuclear Transport Institute for the safe transport of radioactive materials are also included.

Chapter 9 provides information related to decommissioning and rehabilitation of mining areas associated with the mining and milling of naturally occurring radioactive minerals. Requirements for decommissioning and rehabilitation plans are also included.

Finally, Chapter 10 describes available scientific knowledge on potential sources and pathways of radiation exposure associated with mining and milling of radioactive minerals as well as methods of dose assessment in the environment.

This report contains information that can assist when setting the environmental requirements and conditions for potential new mines involving mining and milling of radioactive minerals in Greenland. It is important to note that this report focuses on the environmental protection and only deals superficially with radiation protection of workers and members of the public as this is not within the authority of EAMRA nor the advisory field of DCE and GINR.

For openness and transparency to the public in Greenland, the report will be made available through EAMRA. Thus, this report may be also used as a useful teaching or training guide by general public, politicians, authorities, education, industry and other stakeholders in Greenland and or international that are seeking detailed information or improving their understanding of all topical areas related to uranium production activities.

Given the present knowledge available, it is obvious that a well-developed regulatory framework and an implementation programme are required to operate a uranium mine in an environmentally safe manner. Experiences from Canada, Australia and the U.S. show that it is possible to operate modern uranium mines without major environmental problems. In contrast, experiences from uranium mines in other countries, for instance Namibia prior to 2012, show that lack of a complete legislative and regulatory framework and absence of programmes for implementation of environmental and health standards are some of the factors that could lead to environmental contamination and potentially pose health risks to residents in settlements near the mine.