Alaska uranium deposit attracts interest
As Washington lawmakers seek to ban uranium imports from Russia, Ucore's Ross-Adams mine at Bokan draws attention North of 60 Mining News - June 8, 2022
Last updated 6/23/2022 at 2:44pm
With renewed interest in nuclear to generate zero-carbon electricity for the clean energy future, coupled with Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, the past-producing Ross-Adams uranium mine on Ucore Rare Metals Inc.'s Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska has caught the attention of unnamed parties interested in this potential domestic source of nuclear fuel.
While Ucore says it is entertaining the unsolicited offers to investigate Bokan's uranium potential, any efforts on this front could not interfere with the company's primary objective – delivering the much needed rare earths into America's supply chain through the development of its Alaska Strategic Metals Complex, a REE and critical minerals separation facility the company plans to build near the town of Ketchikan about 35 miles from Bokan Mountain, and eventually mining the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan.
Recent events, however, make the uranium resources also found at Bokan Mountain a compelling proposition.
The U.S. relied on imports for 86% of its uranium needs during 2020 – roughly 16% of this uranium came from Russia, 22% from Kazakhstan, 22% from Canada, 11% from Australia, 8% from Uzbekistan, and 5% from Namibia – according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many U.S. lawmakers are calling for the Biden administration to stop importing Russian nuclear fuel.
During a June 5 hearing before the U.S. Senate Natural Resources Committee, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm if President Biden would ban imports of Russian uranium.
"I'll let the President make that statement, but I can say that this is a point on which I think we have a lot of agreement. We should not be sending any money to Russia for any American energy or for any other reason," Granholm replied.
Following the hearing, Bloomberg News reported that the Biden administration is seeking $4.3 billion to buy enriched uranium from domestic producers so that the U.S. can cut its dependency on imports from Russia.
Washington's desire for more domestic uranium and a willingness to invest billions of dollars into making that happen makes a compelling case for revisiting the uranium potential at Bokan.
Ross-Adams Mine history
While Bokan Mountain has been explored by Ucore for its rare earths and critical minerals potential over the past 15 years, the property originally served as a domestic source of uranium for America's nuclear energy ambitions.
The Ross-Adams uranium deposit on the Bokan property was discovered in 1955 by prospectors Don Ross and Kelly Adams using airborne radiometrics. From 1957 to 1971, this deposit was intermittently mined to fulfill sales contracts with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. According to U.S. Bureau of Mines records, 1.3 million pounds of uranium was produced from ore averaging 0.76% U3O8 during three periods of mining over this 14-year span.
This uranium ore was mined from a steeply dipping pipe-like orebody with a combination of a small open pit mine, which looks like a trench, and an underground mine.
The ore mined at Ross Adams was not processed on the Bokan property. Instead, the material was shipped by barge to facilities in Washington and Utah for beneficiation and processing.
The uranium pipe at Ross-Adams is known to extend below the lowest level of underground mining and is interpreted by Ucore to extend to depth but further exploration is needed to confirm the downward extent.
A study carried out by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in the 1980s estimated that Bokan hosts at least 11 million pounds of uranium, along with healthy quantities of niobium, zirconium, and rare earths.
Two critical deposits
While Ucore had some interest in the uranium potential at Ross-Adams when it acquired Bokan in 2007, its efforts have focused primarily on the rare earths and critical minerals found at Dotson Ridge, which is about 500 meters away from the historic uranium deposit.
According to the most recent calculation, Dotson Ridge hosts 4.79 million metric tons of indicated resource containing 31,722 metric tons of total rare earth oxides – 14 lanthanide elements, yttrium, and scandium – plus 1.05 metric tons of inferred resource with 6,979 metric tons of total rare earth oxides.
In addition to rare earths, Dotson Ridge hosts appreciable amounts of niobium, zirconium, beryllium, hafnium, titanium dioxide and vanadium – all considered critical to the U.S.
Due to recent enquiries, Ucore says it is exploring the possibility of a transaction that involves the Ross-Adams deposit but leaves Bokan-Dotson Ridge and seven other mineralization zones unaffected.
Any such deal would need to take into account some important environmental reclamation work required in and around the historically mined area at Ross-Adams, which primarily involves the consolidation of some mine rock on the surface and any remaining previously mined material that exists in secondary transit areas.
Newmont USA Limited and Dawn Mining Company, which carried out historical mining at Ross-Adams, have assumed responsibility for a US$7 million on-site environmental reclamation project that will deposit the rocks and previously mined material into an on-site repository in the historical open pit.
This remediation plan has been approved by the U.S. Forest Service, which is overseeing the work.
Continued rare earth plans
While considering a deal that could leverage the historic Ross-Adams mine to provide a domestic supply of the uranium that is becoming increasingly critical to generate low-carbon energy in the U.S., Ucore continues to advance its plans to supply the rare earths equally critical to the electric vehicles that will be charged with that energy.
In May, the company announced the start of a five-week field program focused on upgrading a portion of the Dotson Ridge resource to the measured category and collecting a roughly 50-metric-ton bulk sample to support a mill flowsheet pilot-scale testing program as part of a prefeasibility study for developing a mine at the deposit.
The mineral concentrate produced from the bulk sample material during the pilot-scale testing will be processed through a demonstration plant being developed at Ucore's RapidSX Commercialization and Development Facility in Ontario.
RapidSX – which is basically a modernization and technological upgrade to the conventional solvent extraction technique that has been the standard for separating rare earths for more than 40 years – is the separation technology to be used at Ucore's Alaska Strategic Metals Complex.
"Continued execution of the company's long-term Bokan Mountain development plans, coupled with our near-term plan to construct the Alaska SMC 35-miles to the northeast of Bokan in Ketchikan, represents a unique opportunity for Ucore, the communities of Southeast Alaska and the State of Alaska," Ucore Rare Metals Vice President and COO Mike Schrider said in May.
Further details on the development of RapidSX for the Alaska SMC and other applications can be read at Ucore regroups and advances Alaska SMC and Testing confirms Ucore rare earths tech in the April 22 and April 29, 2022 editions of North of 60 Mining News, respectively.
The development of a mine at Bokan and the nearby Alaska SMC are part of Ucore's strategy to develop a North American rare earth elements supply chain that is particularly focused on the REEs needed for the magnets going into electric vehicle motors.
While not high-grade overall, Dotson Ridge is particularly enriched in heavy rare earth elements, including the terbium and dysprosium oxides often used in the powerful permanent magnets in EV motors and wind turbines.
As a result of the rapid transition to electric mobility, over the past two years, the price of terbium has rocketed from US$700 per kilogram to US$4,070/kg, and dysprosium has climbed from US$348/kg to US$631/kg.
With global EV sales forecast to climb to around 30 million per year by 2030 and more than 80 million per year by 2040, the demand for these magnet rare earths is only expected to increase over the next two decades.
By spinning out Ross-Adams, Ucore has the potential to benefit from both ends of the envisioned clean energy future – the generation of low-carbon electricity and the EVs that will require even more power to be generated by microreactors, small modular reactors, wind turbines, solar power generating facilities, and other sources.