Since the rapid decline of uranium prices in the early eighties and the political changes in the late eighties, the situation has changed very much. Uranium is now no longer produced for political reasons without concern for cost, and only the most cost-effective production centers survive. Furthermore, the large stockpile accumulated during the Cold War era is now being sold on the market. The most recent figures available are those for the year 1992: They indicate the new situation; but the changes were still in course in 1992.
Production (tonnes U)
Immediately after the end of World War II, the Soviets started exploration and mining of uranium in the historic mining provinces in the Ore Mountains. Subsequently, Wismut developed the largest uranium mining province in Europe in the Southern part of the German Democratic Republic.
"Wismut" is the short name of the mining company in East Germany. From 1946 to 1953, it was a Soviet stock corporation; so the complete name was "SAG Wismut", where SAG stands for Sowjetische Aktiengesellschaft. From 1954 to 1991, it was a Soviet-German stock corporation (50%/50%); so the complete name was "SDAG Wismut", where SDAG stands for Sowjetisch-Deutsche Aktiengesellschaft. In December 1991, the company was completely taken over by the government of then united Germany and was converted to a limited company; the name thus is now "Wismut GmbH", where GmbH stands for Ltd. But during all these years, the company was usually referred to as simply "Wismut".
Between 1946 and 1990, Wismut produced a total of around 220,000 tonnes of uranium. During peak times, production exceeded 7000 tonnes per year. For subsequent processing, all uranium produced was delivered to the Soviet Union. Initially, the uranium produced was exclusively used for nuclear weapons; later it was also used for nuclear power plants.
Wismut's staff in the early years is estimated to have been up to 100,000, among them many in forced labour. In the mid-eighties, the staff figures were around 27,000. More than 400,000 people have been working with Wismut at one time or another.
At the end of 1990, uranium mining was discontinued as a consequence of the German unification. Since 1991, Wismut carries out the work necessary for shut down and reclamation with drastically reduced numbers of employees (late 1994: 4600). The government estimates the clean-up period at 10 - 15 years, at costs of DM 13 billion (US$ 9.3 billion). Since no reserves were saved by the former operators, the clean-up has to be funded from the Federal budget.
In the beginning, Wismut's uranium mining focused on the locations Johanngeorgenstadt/Aue/Schlema in the Saxonian part of the Ore Mountains, later also on Ronneburg in Eastern Thuringia, and Freital/Dresden-Gittersee and Königstein near Dresden. In addition to these major sites, there exist many other places where uranium was explored or temporarily mined.
The contents of uranium of the ore extracted by Wismut was 251,000 tonnes; the amount of uranium produced in concentrate form from the ore was lower, due to production losses. The production figures of the various regions are shown in the following table [Hähne1993]:
|Ore deposit type||location||production|
|Hydrothermal||Ore Mnts./Vogtland||103,000 t|
|Sedimentary metamorphose Paleozoic||Ronneburg||113,000 t|
|Carbonate Zechstein||Culmitzsch||12,000 t|
|Lower Permian coal||Dresden/Freital||4,000 t|
|Cretaceous sedimentary||Königstein||19,000 t|
The uranium was mined in open pits and in underground mines. The largest open pit called "Lichtenberg" is located near Ronneburg. Its initial depth was 240 meters; after being partly refilled, the depth was still 160 meters at an open volume of 80 million m3 in 1990. After depletion of the ore deposits located near the surface, mining continued at this place to depths of 500 meters. In the Ore Mountains, depths of 2000 meters were even reached; due to the high temperatures at these depths, the mines had to be air conditioned at high cost.
During the early years, the ore extracted was processed in small mechanical processing plants located near the mines. From the 1950's, processing was concentrated in two large uranium mills including chemical treatment in Crossen near Zwickau and Seelingstädt near Gera/Ronneburg. In addition, two smaller mills were in operation in Freital and Dresden-Gittersee until 1962.
A special case is the Königstein mine. This underground mine was switched to in-situ leaching in the early eighties: the ore was no longer removed from the deposit, but sulfuric acid was injected into the ore deposit to leach the uranium on site.
The grade of the ores produced by Wismut in the last years was only around 0.07 % uranium, a comparatively low value. Correspondingly, mining cost and amounts of waste and tailings produced were rather high. In 1990, Wismut's production cost was DM 380.50 per kg of uranium [Pfueller1994]; this corresponds to 90 $/lb U3O8, while the world market price was around 10 $/lb U3O8.
In the western part of Germany, several uranium deposits were discovered and explored in the highlands, but no commercial uranium mining developed there. Test mines existed in Ellweiler (Rhineland-Palatinate), Baden-Baden/Gernsbach in the northern part of the Black Forest, Menzenschwand in the southern part of the Black Forest, Mähring and Poppenreuth in Northern Bavaria, and Großschloppen in the Fichtel Gebirge. The only uranium mill was in operation from 1961 to 1989 at Ellweiler. It has produced a total of around 700 tonnes of uranium, mainly from Menzenschwand ores. After protests by environmental activists, it was shut down in 1989, for exceeding radiation release limits from the associated mill tailings dump. In Mähring, heap leaching was continued for some period of time after the shut down of the test mine. At the end of the eighties, all uranium exploration and mining activities in Western Germany were discontinued due to the low uranium market price.
Uranium mining began immediately after the end of World War II in the historic mining province on the Czech side of the Ore Mountains at Jáchymov and surroundings; these deposits were depleted in the sixties. Further deposits were discovered and mined in various areas of Bohemia and Moravia. The annual production was in the range of 2500 - 3000 tonnes of uranium between 1955 and 1988. The total production was 102,245 tonnes from 1946 to 1992. The uranium was shipped to the Soviet Union for further processing. The mining was performed by the state enterprise CSUP s.p. (Ceskoslovensky Uranovy Prumysl s.p.)., which changed its name to DIAMO s.p. in 1992.
The largest uranium province was Príbram; 38.9 % of the uranium was produced there, at an annual production of up to 2000 tonnes. After the political changes, mining was discontinued at this site due to depletion of the deposit. The same happened at the West Bohemian site of Zadní Chodov and at the South Bohemian site Okrouhlá Radoun. The North Bohemian Hamr na Jezere mine with the Stráz pod Ralskem mill is now being decommissioned.
At the South Bohemian site of Mydlovary near Budweis, a uranium mill was in operation, processing exclusively uranium ore that was supplied from other sites.
Uranium mining is still in operation at a reduced production rate at the West Moravian Rozná mine with the associated Dolní Rozínka mill.
In Stráz pod Ralskem moreover, the in-situ leaching technology was used on a large scale: The ore deposit is located in Cretaceous sandstones with grades of 0.08 - 0.15 % uranium. In an area of 5.6 km2, 9340 wells were drilled from the surface into the deposit. Diluted sulfuric acid was injected as a leaching agent through some of the wells, while the uranium bearing liquid was pumped from the others.
After the political changes, it was planned to keep the uranium production at a level sufficient to supply the reactor related uranium needs of the country. The only operating nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, Dukovany (4 x 408 MW), needs 1632 tonnes per year; after the start of the still uncompleted Temelin plant (2 x 892 MW), the demand will approximately double. But, due to the high production cost, uranium mining will now be further reduced.
Uranium mining took place in Poland at various locations in the Sudety Mountains near the Czech border (in the Jelenia Góra and Walbrzych districts) from 1948 to 1963. A total of 26,000 workers was employed in the mines. From 1963 to 1972, a uranium mill was in operation at Kowáry, to process the uranium contained in the waste rock piles of the shut down mines [Norman1993].
The total uranium production of Poland is estimated at 1000 tonnes [OECD1992].
From 1956 to 31 March 1992, mining was performed by the state owned Mecseki Ércbányászati Vállalat (MEV), and since then by Mecsekurán LLC. The number of employees declined from 7454 in 1985 to 1855 in 1992. After the political changes, it was planned to continue production at the level of the domestic nuclear power-plant needs. The Paks plant (4 x 425 MW) has a demand of 420 tonnes of uranium per year. But at the end of 1994, the decision was made to completely shut down the mine until 1997, due to the high production costs [NF 16 Jan 1995].
Uranium mining resumed in 1978 with the start of the uranium mill at Feldioara near Brasov. All ore produced in the uranium mining provinces of the West-Carpathians, East-Carpathians, and the Banat Mountains was brought to this mill. Peak production was attained in 1986 at 290 tonnes of uranium. Production has declined since then to 120 tonnes in 1992. The total production from Rumanian uranium ore between 1950 and 1992 amounts to 16,850 tonnes, 2350 of which is from the Feldioara mill. At present, the mines of Avram Iancu (West Carpathians), Dobrei South (Banat Mountains), Botusana and Crucea (East Carpathians) are still operating.
The uranium produced is intended to supply the Cernavoda nuclear power plant. This plant is still under construction. It comprises 5 units of the Canadian CANDU type. This reactor type can be operated with natural uranium; an enrichment is not required. Unit No.1 was to be completed in Spring 1995, but the start-up had to be deferred.
The first uranium mines in Bulgaria were underground mines. From 1979, in-situ leaching was also applied, using wells, drilled form the surface. The leaching agent used in most cases was sulfuric acid. From 1981, in-situ leaching was also used to increase the yield from mined out conventional underground mines [Tabakov1993]. From 1981, 23 ore deposits were mined by conventional underground mining techniques, 17 by in-situ leaching from the surface, and 11 by in-situ leaching in combination with conventional mining techniques. In 1990, 70 % of the uranium produced was from in-situ leaching of ore deposits with very low grades of 0.02 - 0.07 % of uranium [Kuzmanov1993]. In the years 1991 - 1992, 14,000 wells in 15 in-situ leaching fields were in operation [OECD1994]. The total area used for in-situ leaching comprised 6 km2 [Vapirev1994].
Official production figures are not available. The total production from 1946 to 1992 is estimated at 21,000 tonnes of uranium [UI1994]; the annual production decreased from 850 tonnes in 1989 to 90 tonnes in 1992 [OECD1994].
On 20 August 1992, the Bulgarian government decided to completely shut down all uranium mining activities until 1995, due to the high production cost of 62 $/kg U (24 $/lb U3O8).
There is no data available on the Ukrainian uranium production. The annual production for 1992 is estimated at 1000 tonnes of uranium [OECD1994]. In April 1995, the Ukrainian government approved a nuclear fuel industry plan, scheduling a threefold increase of uranium production by the year 2003 [NF May 8, 1995].
At present, uranium is only being mined in Russia at the Streltsovsk deposit in the eastern Transbaikal district in Eastern Siberia. The 1992 annual production is estimated at 2900 tonnes of uranium [OECD1994].
In the European part of Russia, a small uranium deposit in the Onezsk district in Karelia is known, but has not yet been mined. The deposits in the Stavropol district and in the Northern Caucasus Mountains are exhausted.
France is the by far largest uranium producer in Western Europe. In 1988, production attained a peak of 3394 tonnes; this allowed France to meet the half of its reactor demand from domestic sources. From 1989, many mines were closed due to exhaustion of the deposits or excessive production cost. Production declined rapidly since then (1992: 2149 tonnes). As a consequence of the shut downs, employment in the uranium industry decreased from 2886 in 1989, to 1443 end 1992. Of the 34 mines and 5 mills in operation in 1986, only 4 mines and 2 mills were left in operation in early 1995, at a total capacity of 1000 tonnes of uranium per year. A further production reduction to 400 tonnes per year is scheduled for 1999 [NF 16 January 1995].
While the state owned firm COGEMA (Compagnie Générale des Matières Nucléaires) already held the vast majority of the uranium mining operations in France, COGEMA now is the only domestic uranium producer, after the aquisition of the uranium activites of the company TOTAL in 1993.
The state enterprise ENU (Empresa Nacional de Urânio) operates a uranium mill at Urgeiriça in the Beiras district, which is supplied with uranium from various mines in the surroundings. The plant with its design capacity of 170 tonnes of uranium per year operates at a rate of only 28 tonnes at present. At present, the uranium is mainly recovered from heap leaching of low grade ores, and in part, also from in-situ leaching.
Since Portugal operates no nuclear power-plants, it has to export the uranium produced. Until 1991, ENU exported 130 tonnes of uranium annually to the French utility EdF; but this contract was not renewed due to the high production cost. ENU therefore urged the Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) to care of the future delivery of the material produced, under the Euratom treaty. When ESA declined to do so, ENU went to the European Court in Luxembourg. [NF 14 May 1990, 29 March 1993, 17 January 1994]