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UNFC brings fresh thinking to sustainable uranium resource management

Mining and production of useful energy fuels such as uranium usually proceed as if in a factory assembly line. Exploration geologists locate the resources, which are then mined by mining engineers, following which chemical engineers and metallurgists process the mined ore to produce the refined uranium fuel. All these operations proceed under the watchful eyes of safety and environmental experts. However, current realities are forcing the industry to view the life cycle more holistically, where mineral production supply is transformed into a value generating service, rather than a sequence of commodities.

Discovering “new economic resources”

The recently concluded International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UNECE Workshop  on “Unconventional Uranium Resource Assessment, UNFC  Classification and Reporting with Particular Emphasis on Uranium as Co-  or by Product” in Salta, Argentina, 6-10 November 2017, deliberated on how uranium resources could be transformed into value that could be beneficial to countries, companies and society. About 100 participants from over 30 countries participated in the discussions that considered how the United Nations Framework Classification for Resources (UNFC) could be used to discover “new economic resources” that can be associated with uranium mining.

Minerals, including uranium, are experiencing a period of extremely low prices.  While cost cutting is seen as an easy solution, there are other pressures. There is public demand to reduce the carbon footprint and to perform better on social and environmental fronts. New technologies are taking over all sectors including the mining industry. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become the “standard model” for all activities by which governments, industry and the public call for improved performance. This offers an opportunity to uranium miners to consider how concepts such as “comprehensive recovery” and “zero waste” could be a harbinger for producing co- and by-products, including rare earth elements, niobium and tantalum and other key elements, in an integrated manner together with uranium.

Moving beyond old systems and models

Mineral commodities or products are not the only outputs from mining operations. There could be a whole suite of services that could help drive the attainment of the SDGs - fertilizers and soil amendments, clean water, innovative land use to produce renewable energy - the list is long. UNFC, which is the resource management system that considers all energy and raw material resources equally, is ideally suited to aid this process of rediscovering how mining could fit in a new local socio-economic framework. The advantage when seen through the lens of UNFC is that the mining sector can not only help discover new economic resources but it can also assist to shape the entire mineral value chain - the policy and legal framework, regulations, fiscal aspects, revenue management and sustainable development implementation.

Participants in the workshop agreed that it would be impossible to realize the SDGs if the industry continues to depend on old systems and models. Mineral industries are struggling to exist, while public trust is eroding. Assuring productivity and growth, while satisfying all stakeholders has become a challenge. 

“About 25% of the known world uranium resource is considered to be recoverable as by- or co-products, rather than from uranium-only mines, and there is significant potential for an increase in uranium supply from this type of source”, said Martin Fairclough, Uranium Specialist, IAEA. “Using UNFC, these resources could be properly assessed and accounted for, thus promoting more sustainable pathways for production”. 

Searching for new integrated models of functioning

Case studies from Argentina, Egypt, Jordan, Malawi, Mongolia, Nigeria and Paraguay on various applications of UNFC all served to show uranium exploration and production in a different light. The potential to break the traditional mining mindset was further demonstrated by other unconventional ideas from Brazil, the Philippines, Thailand and South Africa.

“Application of UNFC contributed to a better understanding of the availability of reliable nuclear and associated critical material resources”, said Luis Lopez, International Cooperation Project Manager, National Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina. “This is especially important also for renewable energy in Argentina, and helps in understanding where the focus should be in the future”.

The workshop provided awareness of the presence of uranium in a wide range of metallic mineral deposits, and to potential exploration, mining and recovery opportunities in situations not traditionally considered. Assessment of the undiscovered resources and how project feasibility should be conducted are some of the topics that were discussed. The conclusion was that uranium, as well as any other mining and raw material production, should break away from the assembly-line concept of functioning and try to mold a more integrated model of functioning.

For further information on UNFC or UNECE’s Expert Group on Resource Classification, please visit: http://www.unece.org/energy/se/reserves.html