“We expect to hire about 100 new employees by the end of this year,” he said. “Our major focus is trying to hire people in the north.”
AREVA currently employs 48,000 people worldwide. One of its major projects consists of the uranium mill in McLean Lake, about 700 kilometres northeast of Prince Albert. The company is currently expanding its operations there.
According to Adams, the production of ore will increase from 12 million to up to 24 million pounds per year with the expansion.
“We expect 18 million pounds of that ore to come directly from Cigar Lake, and then we have the capability to process some more ore from other locations,” he said.
There has been pushback from residents of Pinehouse, a Metis settlement 350 kilometres north of Prince Albert and the site that the Canadian government's Nuclear Waste Management Office is considering to use for storage of spent materials. When asked whether he believed the community was properly consulted with about the plans, Adams said AREVA is “not directly associated with the proposal.”
“This, again, goes back to the Government of Canada’s proposal to find host communities. It’s up to them to educate people about the proposal,” he said. “I do know that as a company involved in nuclear industry, used fuel can be stored safely and effectively.”
The uranium production process consists of a variety of phases. Once mined, uranium is extracted from the ore and concentrated into a powder labelled “yellowcake” or U3O8. It is then converted to hexafluoride or UF6 and made into fuel pellets.
“Naturally, uranium is not as radioactive as it is later on in the process,” Adams said.
According to Peter Prebble, director of environmental policy for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, the most important place where there is radioactivity is the mill tailings.
“After uranium is mined, it’s run through mill facilities in the province,” he said. “In the tailings, the vast bulk of the radioactivity associated with uranium mining is in the discarded tailings … Those tailings will have a long radioactive lifetime.”
Prebble said he believes that mines do a reasonable job while there are operators onsite in minimizing radiation exposure to workers, but his concern is whether the radioactivity in the tailings pits will migrate into groundwater.
In addition, Prebble said, radon can pose a risk to uranium miners because it can be inhaled.
“The amount of radioactivity that’s in the uranium that leaves the site is only a tiny fraction of the amount of radioactivity that’s left in those tailings in the pit,” he said.
According to Prebble, the uranium will become hazardous when it is subjected to fission inside of nuclear reactors. Fission is the splitting apart of uranium atoms in the reactor.
“Then very, very intensely radioactive waste is created that is far more hazardous than the waste in the pit,” he said. “That’s a whole different level of risk, but it doesn’t take place in Saskatchewan.”
AREVA Resources Canada Inc. has its headquarters in Saskatoon. It is the second-largest producer of uranium in the world. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, produces about 20 per cent of the world’s uranium.
Citing the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, Prebble said he believes there needs to be more consideration of possible environmental effects after the material leaves Saskatchewan.
“The nuclear power industry presumes peacetime. They presume that these reactors will never be bombed with conventional bombs,” he said. “If you drop a conventional bomb on one of those waste-disposal sites, you create the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshimas -- not in terms of the explosion, but in terms of the radioactive fallout.”
In response to the effects on uranium mining on the environment, Adams said, “recycling nuclear fuel is something that’s regularly done in other countries.”
“Although we don’t do it in the U.S. or Canada, it’s something that’s been done for decades, and from AREVA’s perspective, is something that produces a good result,” he said.
AREVA transports its product by trucks and specialized shipping containers.
“We’ve been transporting this material for decades and have an excellent safety record,” Adams said. “This is a very safe process and it goes on regularly without incident.”
As well, Adams noted that in addition to a decommissioning process that takes place at each site once AVERA concludes its operations, constant research is done at the sites.
“We do constant testing of the environment of groundwater, air, flora, fauna -- thousands of tests a year near the facilities and away from the facilities,” he said. “We do everything to ensure that there is no significant impact on the environment during or after operations.”