Uranium mines and mills

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element used for fuel in nuclear power reactors. Canada is one of the world's largest uranium producers. The majority of Canada's production is exported.

Uranium is mined to provide uranium ore which is processed at a milling facility to produce uranium concentrate. The uranium concentrate is then processed further to create fuel for nuclear reactors.

Regulating uranium mines and mills

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is responsible for regulating and licensing all existing and future uranium mining and milling operations in Canada.

The CNSC's work is undertaken in accordance with the comprehensive requirements of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA) and its related regulations, which reflect Canadian and international safety standards.

The CNSC and its staff focus on health, safety, security and the environment, and ensure Canada implements its international obligations on the safe use of nuclear materials.

An ore slurry truck moves uranium ore from a uranium mine to a uranium mill

Licensing process

The CNSC's licensing process for uranium mines and mills follows the stages laid out in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases.

Using this lifecycle approach to licensing, the CNSC issues licences for all phases in the lifecycle of a uranium mine and mill.

The CNSC exercises rigorous regulatory oversight and ensures that each licensee has a financial guarantee in place for each facility - at all phases - to cover its eventual decommissioning costs. In addition, under the CNSC Cost Recovery Fees Regulations, the CNSC charges back to the licensee all costs associated with the regulatory activities.

At each licensing stage, the CNSC determines whether the licence applicant is qualified and has made adequate provisions for the protection of health and safety of person and environment.

McClean Lake tailings management facility and uranium mill

Applicants must also demonstrate the required measures to maintain national security and implement Canada's international obligations for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In addition, some projects may also require an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012.

CNSC compliance activities

CNSC staff perform compliance activities for operating and decommissioned mines and mills. Compliance activities include facility inspections, application requests, review of licensee reports, and environmental, radiation and conventional health and safety data analysis.

CNSC certified inspectors conduct regular inspections at operating and decommissioned facilities. These inspections are shared with employees at the facility, the Northern Saskatchewan Environmental Quality Committee and other regulators. Inspections are conducted with other regulatory agencies, such as the provincial or territorial departments of Environment and Labour, and representatives from other federal government departments (for example, Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans).

An example of an area the CNSC regulates is radon exposure in uranium mines and mills. The CNSC requires licensees have engineering design and control processes to remove radon to limit exposure to workers. Radon is naturally produced by the decay of uranium and is released into the air when uranium ore is mined and milled. Radon gas produced during mining and milling is continuously monitored, controlled, and safely ventilated away from the workers. Presently, worker exposures to radon in the uranium mining and processing industry are as low as, or only slightly greater than, public exposure from natural radon.

CNSC and Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment inspectors assessing a concrete containment structure

Licensees are required to notify the CNSC of significant events or situations outside the normal operations described in their licensing documents or due to public interest. Such events rarely, if ever, result in significant effects on the health and safety of people or the environment. Significant events are reported to the Commission via event initial reports which, depending on the nature and severity of the event, may be followed up with detailed compliance activities, corrective actions and/or regulatory action taken by the CNSC.

For the most recent analysis of worker health and safety, radiation protection and environmental performance read the CNSC staff report on the performance of uranium and nuclear substance processing facilities.

Operating uranium mines and mills

At this time, all operating uranium mines and mills in Canada are located in northern Saskatchewan. AREVA Resources Canada and Cameco Corporation are the licensees of the active mining and milling facilities.

Surface exploration for uranium is exempt from NSCA requirements because it poses low risks. Each province or territory is responsible for regulating and monitoring exploration activities within its jurisdiction and informing the public about those activities. Advanced exploration activities, such as exploration ramps through mineralized zones fall within the regulatory framework of the CNSC, and a licence is required before these activities can proceed.

McClean Lake employee

As with other major facilities, operating licences for uranium mines and mills are issued for specific time periods, usually from five to ten years. Renewals of existing licences and all proposals for new mining and milling activities require Commission approval.

Proposed uranium mines and mills

New uranium mine and mill projects are currently being proposed in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nunavut.

Before the CNSC can consider a licensing decision regarding any proposed project, an environmental assessment (EA) may have to be completed in compliance with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012 (CEA Act).

The purpose of an EA is to identify the possible environmental effects of a proposed project and determine whether these effects can be mitigated before the project is allowed to proceed.

The CNSC's licensing process for new uranium mines and mills follows the stages outlined in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases. EAs can also be completed for new projects at existing nuclear facilities.

Proposed uranium mining and milling projects
Project Location Licensee / Applicant
Postponed - Millennium Mine Project Northern Saskatchewan Cameco Corporation - Millennium Mine Project
Matoush Uranium Exploration Project Chibougamau, Quebec Strateco Resources Inc.
Kiggavik Project Kivalliq, Nunavut AREVA Resources Canada Inc. - Kiggavik Project
McClean Lake Mill: Northern Saskatchewan AREVA Resources Canada Inc.
Key Lake Mill: Northern Saskatchewan Cameco Corporation - Key Lake