Uranium-Radium-Vanadium Ores

SIC 1094

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in mining, milling, or otherwise preparing uranium, radium, or vanadium ores.

Industry Snapshot

In 2010, according to Dun & Bradstreet's Industry Reports, there were 54 establishments in the United States that were primarily engaged in mining, milling, or otherwise preparing uranium, radium, or vanadium ores. These establishments employed 909 workers and generated $2.1 billion in annual sales. States representing the majority of mining or milling operations were Wyoming with 12, Colorado with 10, and Texas with 9. Maryland, New Mexico, and Utah each had 4, and nine other states--seven of which were home to one related establishment and two of which had two--made up the remainder.

Organization and Structure

The collapse of uranium production in the early to mid-1990s was an intensification of the steady decline of U.S. uranium mining since the late 1970s. Import pressure remained strong. In fact, 83 percent of U.S. demand for uranium was satisfied through imports in 1998--imports as a share of domestic consumption rose from a low of 26 percent in 1983 to 51 percent in 1988, 45 percent in 1989, and 80 percent in 1990--mostly from low-cost producers such as Canada and Australia. Net imports fluctuated around zero in the 1960s and 1970s, as the government tried to maintain self-sufficiency, but the U.S. market was swamped by imports in the 1980s. In 1998 Canada supplied 34 percent of the United States' foreign-origin uranium, while Russia supplied 14 percent, Australia supplied 13 percent, and South Africa and Uzbekistan both supplied 6 percent. The United States sold 15.1 million pounds of uranium to foreign suppliers and utilities in 1998.

In addition to the relatively high cost of mining uranium in the United States, which has hurt the industry's competitive position worldwide, the U.S. uranium industry has always relied heavily on federal government subsidies and protection to keep its markets afloat. Thus, as federal support for the industry was gradually removed, the industry's viability quickly came into question. Because uranium is a one-market commodity, the fall in nuclear-powered electricity generation negatively affected the uranium market. Even uranium inventories held by U.S. utilities continued to fall in the 1990s. This growing supply-demand gap sent prices plummeting, creating, from the industry's perspective if not a social perspective, unwanted additions to inventories from nuclear disarmament.

The federal government remained a primary producer and purchaser of uranium ores. To counteract the import dependency, the United States instituted restrictions on imports from former Eastern Bloc countries--mainly Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Radium is a white metal that does not occur in a free state; it must be refined from pitchblende and occurs naturally only as a disintegration product in the radioactive decay of thorium, uranium, or actinium. Radium itself continues to decay into radon, bismuth, polonium, lead, or thallium. Radium was important for radiation treatment of cancer, but it has been replaced by other isotopes that can be produced at a lower cost and have greater effectiveness in treatment. It was also used for petroleum prospecting but has been replaced in this application. Radium coating of instrument dials and clock faces to make them glow in the dark ceased in the 1930s, when the toxicity of the paint was found to cause cancer and anemia in workers.

Vanadium, a mineral that is found in the same ores as uranium, is primarily a one-market commodity used as an alloy in iron and steel. Small amounts of vanadium can produce high-strength steel for bridges, buildings, pipelines, and automobiles due to the weight savings it brings to these applications. Steel production, which typically accounts for about 90 percent of vanadium demand, began its recovery in the first half of 1992. Vanadium consumption in the United States for the first half of 1995 increased about 10 percent over that in the same period of 1994. Though consumption in the tool steel sector fell 16 percent, consumption in the full alloy sector was up 9 percent. With the cost and mining of vanadium so intertwined with uranium, both industries are strongly affected by U.S. government policy. Vanadium is also seen as a strategic and critical mineral for defense, energy, and transportation industries, and thus import dependence is a perennial concern. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in 1998 carbon steel accounted for 38 percent of domestic vanadium consumption (an estimated 4,700 metric tons), high-strength low-alloy steel accounted for 20 percent, full alloy steel comprised 19 percent, and tool steel accounted for 10 percent.

Vanadium and uranium are mined together, then separated by liquid extraction techniques. Columbrium, manganese, molybdenum, titanium, and tungsten can be substituted for vanadium to some degree and in some applications. While it is difficult to establish specific reserves, the largest reserves of vanadium are found in South Africa, China, the former Soviet Union, Australia, and the United States. Vanadium resources in the United States are sufficient to satisfy domestic needs. Nevertheless, foreign suppliers met a substantial portion of vanadium demand. In 1998 South Africa controlled 89 percent of the vanadium pentoxide market, China held a 6 percent market share, and Russia had 4 percent of the market.

Eight U.S. companies mined or milled vanadium in 1998. Raw materials used in milling vanadium included Idaho ferrophosphorus slag, petroleum residues, spent catalysts, utility ash, and vanadium-bearing iron slab. End-use distribution of vanadium from U.S. plants goes to transportation, which used 30 percent, the machinery and tools industry bought 27 percent of output, and building and heavy construction, 22 percent, among others. Vanadium averaged $4 per pound in 1998.

In the mid-1990s, it was estimated that the largest two companies accounted for $5.3 million worth of uranium-vanadium industry ore sales, and 10 companies were responsible for nearly all of the output of the industry. From 1972 through 1997, the primary materials consumed in the extraction of uranium compound ores, when ranked by cost, came in the form of other minerals and the use of installed machinery, followed by purchased electric energy.

The product output shipments for the entire industry could be broken down into crude ores and uranium-vanadium concentrates. The largest component of the $103.2 million of 1997 shipments was uranium concentrates, with $73.9 million; uranium-vanadium ores made up the balance with $29.3 million. The precise amounts of uranium and vanadium concentrates and ores were not separately reported to the Census Bureau. The decline of these annual shipment figures from 1982 to 1997 is startling--from $763.2 million to $103.2 million.

For the industry as a whole, uranium-vanadium-radium miners and milling companies turned a profit in the early 1990s for the first time since 1983. Though net income in those years was still quite small, translating into a rate of profit of less than 5 percent, peak losses in the mid-1980s ranged from more than $400 million (nominal dollars) to around $100 million.

Exploration expenditures for new mines peaked at $626 million in 1978 and continued on a downward slide to $50.8 million in 1983 and $14.5 million in 1992. A slight increase was achieved in 1997, to $15.1 million. In the early 1990s, foreign-controlled companies accounted for 55 percent of exploration in the United States.

Background and Development

The exploration and mining of radioactive ores began around 1900, when sources of radium were sought for use in luminous paints for instruments, such as watch dials, and for medical purposes. In 1910, Marie and Pierre Curie refined pitchblende to isolate the metal, after Madame Curie had discovered polonium, also in pitchblende. In fact, radium is a radioactive decay product of uranium that was initially perceived to have more uses than uranium and to be more valuable. Uranium was used only as a pigment for coloring glass and painting china until the dawn of the age of atomic weapons and energy.

Radium's chemistry was first understood by the Curies and Andre-Louis Debierne in 1910. Initially, it had more commercial applications than uranium or vanadium, but it has essentially lost its commercial value because it has been replaced in most applications by safer, cheaper, and more effective materials, and because it is difficult to isolate.

Because vanadium is often found in the same ores as uranium, its history closely parallels the history of the uranium industry. Originally isolated and discovered in lead ores by Mexican mineralogist Andres Manuel Del Rio in 1801, successful commercial applications would not follow until the beginning of the next century. The basic chemistry was worked out by German chemist F. Wohler.

By 1941, the United States had become the largest producer of vanadium. During World War II, stable demand for war output and stable pricing structure from the Office of Production Management helped to bolster the industry. Later, production was increased to meet the demand for the Korean War. By 1958, however, the U.S. stockpile reached its limit, so the government reduced its vanadium purchases, focusing more attention on uranium. With its primary market saturated, production declined and the Atomic Energy Commission stopped purchasing vanadium concentrate--leaving the industry subject to the vagaries of the steel market.

Throughout its history, the uranium industry has been regulated by the federal government. More specifically, the origin of the uranium industry is intimately connected with the heightened U.S. national security following World War II. Originally spawned, nurtured, and subsidized by government programs to develop the atomic bomb, uranium prospecting was encouraged solely for military needs. Later, when the guaranteed military market dried up in the 1960s, the government's industrial policy toward uranium shifted toward helping to foster a new source of demand--commercial nuclear power. Then, when import competition threatened the viability of the industry, the government would impose limits on imports to protect domestic industry.

The U.S. military's explosion of the Trinity device in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, introduced the world to the atomic age. At that time, the United States purchased uranium for military purposes only. In fact, only the U.S. government could legally own uranium ore. (It gradually reduced its purchases until 1970, when it cut its purchases entirely.) Until that time, much of the uranium for the Manhattan Project was purchased overseas. In 1943, however, the Union Mines Development Corporation, assisted by the government, operated mills to process additional uranium for the war effort.

On August 1, 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a civilian agency, was created for the purpose of procuring uranium for military needs. The AEC launched a domestic program to stimulate war production from U.S. deposits. In pursuit of its stated goal to push "nuclear security," the AEC offered bonuses for discoveries of "yellowcake" (as uranium was often called), established prices for ores, offered development and transportation allowances, built miles of access roads, and pushed mill construction by subsidizing mill costs. More importantly, the AEC provided a guaranteed market for the ore. The AEC encouraged exploration in the Colorado Plateau region, and many new discoveries led to a number of mining and milling facilities, and new ore mining and processing methods were developed.

The federal government owned 90 percent of the western lands where uranium was sought. Navajo Indians and Mormons did much of the early prospecting of the region during the "uranium rush" unleashed by the AEC. More than 5,500 people took to the plains in pursuit of profits and what was considered patriotic service. At first, large corporations were not convinced that they could profit over the capital investment required, and the Geiger counter evened out the competition. By the early 1950s, with many small companies generating profits at guaranteed prices, and a guaranteed market with demonstrated large reserves, the industry became less speculative and larger companies entered the industry, among them large oil interests.

The AEC program was a huge success. Production of uranium oxides in the United States was 100 tons in 1948 and boomed to 8,000 tons in 1965. By the late 1950s, however, falling demand for military purposes and the resultant industry shakeout left the industry in uncertainty. Waiting for a new market required a large capital investment. Smaller companies went out of business, while the larger diversified companies, with their low costs and high-quality reserves, simply shut down their nuclear operations while waiting for the new market to take root. At this time, the oil companies established themselves as the "energy companies" and led new exploration. Reserves at this time were plentiful, but more costly to mine than in other countries. The shakeout of capacity left the industry more concentrated with most of the reserves held by large oil and mining companies. The milling component of the industry was far less concentrated.

The Shift to Commercial Nuclear Power
By the 1960s, military demand was declining and a new source of profitable demand for uranium had to be found, namely commercial nuclear power. The AEC would be involved in a reactor development program for demonstrating the potential use of nuclear power to generate electricity in commercial power plants. It also would provide research and development and technical assistance, encourage property development, and secure stockpiles to meet military needs. Further encouragement of uranium production was provided by the 1964 passage of the Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act, which privatized many of the government's roles in the industry. Despite relative privatization, the AEC nonetheless sought to protect the industry to maintain a viable domestic uranium industry.

The program was very successful for industry growth for several decades. U.S. utilities ordered 249 commercial nuclear power plants between 1953 and 1978; more than half of them were built, and 109 were operable by the early 1990s. The decline in demand for nuclear-generated electricity was due primarily to the OPEC oil embargo, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster, and the increasing costs of building and operating nuclear power plants.

The industry, seduced by prices that increased by more than 700 percent from 1972 to 1979, stepped up exploration and production during this period. However, high utility rates and energy conservation efforts slowed utility demand and deterred construction of nuclear plants. These utilities had stockpiled uranium inventories, averaging two-year supplies. Consequently, utilities cut back on uranium orders. Still, many mine producers expanded their activities, knowing that with utilities bleeding off their inventories, the situation could not last.

The boom of this period led to serious oversupply problems. With its high unit labor costs and safety requirements, the U.S. industry was at a competitive disadvantage on the world market and the U.S. government stepped in to protect it, placing an embargo on foreign uranium. Following the sevenfold increase in prices from 1972 to 1976, it was alleged that an international cartel--which included Canada, Australia, South Africa, and England--conspired to fix prices.

By the late 1970s, production was up, demand for nuclear fuel was down, and inventories were high. Prices fell to around $40 a pound. Even deeper problems led many to question the viability of the industry at the time. One of the contributing factors to declining demand for uranium was the strong antinuclear campaign following the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in the spring of 1979. Because uranium is essentially a one-market metal, any wholesale shift to other energy sources, such as coal, would be disastrous for the industry. Fortunately for the uranium producers, coal had problems of its own, notably its environmental costs.

During this period, declining interest in and direct opposition to the nuclear industry led to more stringent environmental regulations. This increased the cost of nuclear power and reduced the demand for uranium ore. Uranium mill dumping into rivers and wind erosion of exposed tailing piles meant an increased public pressure for additional control measures and cleanup activities. The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA) of 1978 was designed to deal with these problems. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was established, and many mines were shut down or dismantled altogether.

Although the industry as a whole faced severe decline through most of the 1980s and early 1990s, some surviving companies showed signs of strength. One leading mining and milling company, Uranium Resources Inc., posted a 41 percent decline in 1992 net income, but in 1997 the Dallas-based company had revenues of $12.9 million and had contracts in place with utilities through 1998 worth around $60 million. Mergers and acquisitions in general increased the profitability of remaining firms by reducing capital stock value.

By the early 1990s, the uranium industry as a whole showed positive rates of profit for the first time since 1982. Following losses as high as 67 percent (net income on total equity in 1988 and 1989) and 21.6 percent (net income on total assets in 1985), the industry scored profit rates of around 3 to 4 percent on total equity and 1 to 2 percent on total assets in the early 1990s. The eight active uranium mines in 1996 were the Crow Butte mine in Nebraska (operated by Fernet Exploration of Nebraska); the Canon City, Colorado, mine (run by the Cotter Corporation); Nevada's Apex Deposit (owned by Strathmore Resources Limited); the Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico, site (operated by the Rio Algom Mining Corporation); the Churchrock, New Mexico, Mine (run by Uranium Resources, Incorporated); the Holiday-El Mesquite mines in Texas (owned by Malapai Resources); and the Sunshine Bridge and Uncle Sam mines located in Louisiana (operated by Freeport Uranium Recovery). Of these facilities, the Freeport Uranium Recovery operation was the sole producer of uranium byproducts. The remaining plants used "in situ" leaching (ISL) methods, which involved recovery by chemical leaching of the valuable components of uranium deposits without physical extraction of the mineralized rock. In 1998, Rio Algom Mining Corporation started up an ISL project at Smith Ranch, Wyoming.

Maintaining the industry's viability entailed massive consolidation and concentration of assets, at rock-bottom prices, into the hands of fewer companies. Plateau Resources, which operated the Shootaring Canyon uranium mining facility in southern Utah, was acquired by U.S. Energy Corporation, thereby raising its stake in the uranium market. The U.S. Energy Corporation (USEC) was a creation of the U.S. government in the 1960s, when the federal government began to provide uranium enrichment services. Through the Energy Policy Act of 1992, USEC was privatized. In another major deal, Pikes Peak Mining was sold in its entirety by Nerco Minerals to Independence Mining for $21 million. In another deal, Exxon Corporation sold its Bullfrog uranium deposit in Garfield County, Utah, to Energy Fuels Exploration--with total reserves of 20 million plus pounds of uranium oxide.

Government action in the 1990s hurt the uranium industry, while at the same time protecting it from foreign competition. First, Russia was given most-favored-nation trading status in 1992. The U.S. government agreed to buy bomb-grade uranium from Russia's dismantled nuclear warheads and convert it into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants, an action that further depressed demand for domestic uranium. As a result of the glut of uranium, imports from Russia rose from near zero to more than 2,700 tons. Second, the remaining companies sought protection from international competition. This issue focused primarily on the independent republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

In July 1992 the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed duties of 115.82 percent against six former Soviet republics--Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan--all of which posed substantial competitive threats to U.S. uranium. In August 1993 the U.S. International Trade Commission set a 129 percent antidumping duty on uranium imports from Ukraine, excluding highly enriched uranium. Then in October, the U.S. Department of Commerce banned imports from four of the above countries. A two-tier pricing system resulted, with U.S. importers paying nearly one-third more, about $8.75 a pound (in 1998), for uranium concentrates. This compares with $8.10 per pound (1998 average) of uranium from the former Soviet Union republics. All of these actions, along with an antidumping case brought against the former Soviet bloc nations, have been credited with a 25 percent increase in the spot market price for U.S. uranium.

In the 1990s, uranium supplied about 6 percent of the world's energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 43 percent of Western Europe's electricity came from nuclear facilities. Though world nuclear power grew from 191 billion kilowatt hours in 1973 to slightly more than 2 trillion in the early 1990s, the nuclear energy industry--which is the prime user of uranium--remained essentially flat.

The viability of the industry remained uncertain for quite some time. In the early 1980s, the issue was examined by congressional inquiry. Congress passed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Authorization Act of 1983 to assess the industry's viability on a periodic basis. World uranium production expanded, while consumption remained steady. Most of this demand was met by Canadian producers, which accounted for 26 percent of world uranium production in the early 1990s. Even the once prolific producers fell by the wayside. Production in the former East Germany ceased, while elsewhere, such as in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, production reorganized, and the former Soviet republics jockeyed for some sort of potential cooperative production agreement.

In the late 1990s, Cameco (based in Saskatchewan, Canada) was the largest producer of uranium in the world with 27.6 million pounds in 1998. Cameco acquired Uranerz in 1998 as part of the ongoing consolidations and closures claiming many members of the industry. Uranerz had been Cameco's partner in the Key Lake, Rabbit Lake, Crow Butte, and McArthur River projects. The McArthur River site, located about 620 km north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is the largest known deposit of high-grade uranium ore in the world. Cameco Corporation operates the mine and owns about 70 percent of the deposit, with Cogema Resources owning the remaining 30 percent.

In 1998, Russia's stockpile of commercial grade uranium continued to control secondary sources of uranium and, therefore, to limit worldwide production. The size of the stockpile was not easily assessed, primarily because of questions about Russia's ability to reprocess spent fuel. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are better positioned for growth, despite the fact that their huge, low-grade sources require in-situ leaching; profits from gold mines have generated much-needed capital for the uranium operations.

Environmental cleanup continued with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy announcing a cleanup of radioactive uranium mine waste on land controlled by the Energy Department at the Bluewater Mine near Prewitt, New Mexico. Other cleanups in the early 1990s included two sites on Navajo Nation land; and an adjacent mine on privately owned land was also cleaned up by private companies in accordance with an EPA order. Radiation levels in these areas posed a serious health threat to people living in the vicinity. The cleanup included sealing mine openings and moving and covering mine waste, with bulldozed areas replanted with grass and sloped to resist erosion. The economic effects of environmental reclamation claimed corporate victims, however. In December 1999 Atlas Corporation of Colorado filed for reorganization, which included the responsibility for remediating its Moab, Utah, uranium tailings piles. International effects of environmental activism included pressure to close nuclear power reactors in Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany despite studies showing that nuclear power is needed to reduce greenhouse gases, global warming, and acid rain.

From the vanadium side of the industry, suppliers continued to be in a situation of oversupply, despite reduced production by the largest producer, Highveld Steel & Vanadium Corporation of the Republic of South Africa. The pattern of vanadium consumption in the United States did not change much in the first decade of the 2000s, but remained subject to cycles in domestic and global steel production.

In 2001 fewer than ten companies engaged in operations related to the refinement of vanadium-related products. U.S. production values of vanadium for both 2000 and 2001 were reported to be zero by the USGS. South Africa was the major importer to the United States. U.S. demand for vanadium products declined in 2001 for the fourth consecutive year, to 3,210 metric tons. Overall, the USGS predicted that the demand for vanadium would increase in the future, as steels were formulated to be lighter and stronger.

Shipments of concentrated uranium totaled 49.9 million pounds in 1998, and U.S. uranium exploration companies held 825,000 acres. Their expenditures that year totaled $21.7 million, 29 percent less than 1997 expenditures. Three states (Texas, New Mexico, and Wyoming) had 74 percent of the U.S. $30-per-pound uranium reserves in 1998, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

At the end of 2001, uranium exploration companies in the United States held 683,000 acres, including mineral fee land leases, and patented and unpatented mining claims. Reflecting the continued decline of the industry, total uranium exploration and development costs during 2001 were $4.8 million for exploration and land development and $2.7 million for development drilling, a 28 percent decrease from 2000 and an 84 percent decrease from 1997.

Uranium into the 2000s
Domestic uranium mining was essentially a dying industry, no longer kept afloat by the military demand that launched mining in the 1940s or the commercial nuclear power industry that provided the major source of more recent demand. In 1992, production of uranium ore from underground mines fell near zero, with any production of uranium coming from byproducts. As an indication of the collapse of uranium mining, total mine production peaked in 1980 at 21,850 tons of ore before declining to 1,550 tons in 1995; 1992 marked the first year since 1948--when uranium mining was initiated in the United States--that no new ore was mined from underground mines. In 2001, the United States mined 1,300 tons of uranium. That trend continued into 2002, with uranium production falling to 919 tons. Total production in 2003 declined further to 779 tons before increasing for three consecutive years. Production went from 878 tons in 2004 to 1,039 tons in 2005 and 1,672 in 2006.

As the cost of crude oil and coal climbed to record levels in 2005, world interest in uranium increased. As an alternative source of energy, uranium is highly concentrated and, economically speaking, costs much less than both oil and coal. In reference to cost, the World Nuclear Organization reported that "one kilogram of natural uranium will yield about 20,000 times as much energy as the same amount of coal."

The climbing worldwide demand for uranium because of new nuclear reactors, plus a shortage of supply, pushed up the price of uranium 99 percent in 2006. The shortage of worldwide supply was 68.5 million pounds in 2005, when production from world uranium mines supplied 62 percent of the requirements of power utilities.

With the increased demand for uranium, the Virginia Department of Mines and Minerals permitted Marline Corp. of Canada to take core drillings in Pittsylvania County in November 2007. The company discovered the deposits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but Virginia had had a ban on uranium mining for the previous quarter century. However, the 40,000-acre Pittsylvania County site held the largest uranium deposit in the nation.

Vanadium into the 2000s
Although U.S. production values of vanadium through the mid-years of the first decade of the 2000s were reported to be zero by the USGS, further exploration and development was being conducted. Energy Fuels Resources Corporation, a subsidiary of Energy Fuels, Inc., for example, had uranium and vanadium projects in Utah and Arizona. Meanwhile, CXVT of China made a push to become the largest vanadium production and processing base in the world.

Current Conditions

According to the USGS, in 2009 U.S. imports of vanadium were less than half of the previous year, and exports were down 40 percent. Major uses of vanadium included production of carbon, full-alloy, high-strength, and low-alloy steels. These accounted for 13 percent, 41 percent, and 34 percent of domestic consumption, respectively. The production of steel in the United States was expected to continue to decrease into the 2010s and thus reduce the demand for vanadium. China continued to be the world leader in vanadium production in 2009, followed closely by South Africa. Russia was the third largest producer. According to the USGS, U.S. demand was expected to continue to be met through imports because of the cost of mining vanadium in the United States.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that 16 U.S. mines produced 3.9 million pounds of uranium in 2008. Other figures from the EIA showed that eight states (Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) accounted for 97 percent of total employment in the uranium production industry in the late years of the first decade of the 2000s and that total expenditures for land, exploration, drilling, production, and reclamation in the uranium industry reached $468 million in 2008, up 39 percent from 2007.

Worldwide, Kazakhstan produced the largest share of uranium from mines (27 percent of the global supply) in 2009, followed by Canada (20 percent) and Australia (16 percent), according to the World Nuclear Association. The United States provided less than 3 percent of the world's supply of uranium from mines. Of the world total, 57 percent of uranium came from underground and open pit mines, 36 percent was in situ leach, and 7 percent was byproduct.

Industry Leaders

In 2009, 10 companies supplied 89 percent of the world's uranium mine production. Cameco Corp., based in Canada with operations in Wyoming and Nebraska, was North America's largest producer of uranium in 2010. The company produced nearly 20 million pounds annually, accounting for approximately one-fifth of the world's uranium output. With 3,000 employees, Cameco had sales of $2.2 billion in 2009. The company continued to increase its capabilities with the opening of additional mills, including Cigar Lake, second in size to McArthur River, which was the largest uranium mine in the world.


Employment in the U.S. uranium, radium, and vanadium mining industry decreased drastically throughout the last half of the twentieth century. At its peak in 1977, the industry employed 12,000 workers. In 1982, 10,500 workers were employed in the industry. By 1987, this figure had dropped to about 2,300 workers. The number of employees further decreased to 1,200 by 1992 (48 percent below the 1987 total) and to about 700 (70 percent below the 1987 total) by 1997. About 481 workers were employed in the industry in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Health Hazards.
It is now well-known that even low levels of radiation cause serious health risks; however, it wasn't until the late 1960s that major health and safety regulations were enacted for uranium mining. In 1967 the Walsh-Healy Act imposed health standards in the mines. From 1979 to 1981, congressional hearings were held to investigate the link between mining in unventilated mines and lung cancer. The EPA instituted regulations dealing specifically with the mining of uranium ores in 1982. Some of the new rules dealt specifically with worker exposure. Mill operators were required to install protective barriers to minimize radioactive exposure and earthen covers to minimize emissions.

In addition, strict cleaning and work rules were established, which meant lower thresholds for the work week in order to minimize exposure. In 1990, after many defeats in the legislative and judiciary branches, the U.S. Congress passed compensatory legislation, called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which called for compensation of uranium miners who were exposed to radioactivity during the peak years of uranium mining. By 1995 the small number of uranium miners who worked in mining or milling were much more closely monitored for health risks.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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