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The uranium mine heard around the world

North of 60 Mining News – May 31, 2024

Embark on a journey through Radium Point, a pioneering uranium mine that shaped the history of NWT and perhaps the entire world.

With the recent ban on Russian uranium imports, the United States has initiated a countdown on the pressing need to diversify its sources for this crucial clean energy metal.

While the nation currently enjoys a three-year supply buffer before potential challenges arise in securing its uranium supply, revisiting the legacy of Radium Point – a historic uranium mining operation that supplied the radioactive material vital to the Manhattan Project – may shed some light on the significance and importance of this resource as the world transitions toward non-fossil fuel sources of energy.

In the early 1900s, most permanent Northwest Territories' communities were fur trading posts or Catholic missions.

These posts provided First Nations' Dene, Métis and Inuvialuit trappers with a place to sell their furs and buy supplies. However, this would all change around the 1930s, when the first mining rush would hit the territory and not for the typical gold or silver that was wildly sought after in most regions.

The history and origin of mining towns in Northwest Territories are very different as they were located where minerals were discovered, often many miles from the nearest settlement. A mining company had to build an entire village in the wilderness to attract potential employees, with the company owning everything from the equipment to all the amenities.

Homes, stores, recreational facilities-a town's existence were linked entirely to the maintenance and production of whatever the resource was, be it gold, uranium, or iron ore.

As long as the mine functioned, the town stayed alive.

With modern mining companies beginning to reexplore once thriving mining operations, here is the story of Northwest Territories' first mining rush.

Rarest of them all

NWT Archives/N-1979-063-0081

Sacks of pitchblende concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium, Echo Bay, Great Bear Lake. 1939. These are the same sacks that the Dene carried for the mine.

The first major mining operation in Northwest Territories was the Eldorado radium, silver and uranium mine near Great Bear Lake.

Looking for silver and cobalt in 1929, a prospector by the name of Gilbert LaBine stumbled upon an interesting formation on the east side of the lake – pitchblende ore.

At the time, radium was considered the rarest and most valuable element known. Prized for its use in the medical field in radium salts for cancer research and treatment, it was once monopolized by the European country of Belgium, which sold the valued material at around $70,000 – roughly $1.3 million in today's money – per gram!

Aware that this precious element could be extracted from pitchblende – also known as uraninite – any new find of pitchblende would be very enticing to put it lightly and would create a stir in the investment community.

LaBine's mineral claim became known as the Eldorado Mine or Port Radium, and sparked a radium rush to Northwest Territories.

Settlers began moving north in droves between 1932 and 1933 to get a piece of the action and started the small town of Cameron Bay in the center of the new radium and silver district.

Canada's capital, Ottawa, sent surveyors, Mounties, radio operators, and government agents in anticipation of the increased industrial activity. By 1937, however, Cameron Bay had fizzled out as prospectors failed to find any new substantial radium or silver discoveries around Great Bear Lake and moved on to new areas of the North.

From the lake, the search for minerals continued, and many prospectors, traders, and entrepreneurs who previously lived at Cameron Bay would contribute to founding new mining camps.

Meanwhile, the Eldorado Mine produced radium, uranium, silver, and copper from 1933 to 1960 and was the most commercially successful mine at Great Bear Lake. Echo Bay Mines reopened the facilities and underground workings between 1964 and 1982, focusing on silver and copper production before the site was shuttered for good.

Northwest Territories lasts

Much like similar locales in the North, the mineral industry expanded through Northwest Territories in the 1930s, and the growth continued with gold discoveries at Yellowknife, along with base metal and tungsten discoveries in even more remote areas.

Northern economies became more aligned with mining and mineral exploration, and more corporate- and government-supported mining towns were created.

A prime example of this is the Pine Point zinc-lead mine. Built in 1962, opened two years later and finally shuttered in 1988, the company town reached a peak population of 1,900 people and provided all the amenities of a modern city.

Today, it is a time capsule frozen during the late 1980s when the city shut down after operations halted.

The Cantung tungsten mine in the McKenzie Mountains along the Northwest Territories-Yukon border also had a sizeable company-run townsite during its life from 1962 to its 1986 closure. Since then, industry and government have moved away from mining towns populated with workers' families, preferring the fly-in, fly-out, shift rotation model that establishes worker camps rather than full-service villages.

Today, this model is seen in some of these very same mine sites that were previously home to boom-and-bust mining towns – with Pine Point being operated jointly by Osisko Metals Ltd. and Appian Capital Advisory LLP being a prime example.

Port Radium

As it was said, many settlements popped up in the 1930s, with Eldorado Mine becoming the first producing venture. Aside from Eldorado, there were also operations at the Elbonanza silver property, at White Eagle on the Camsell River, and at Contact Lake.

In 1932, prospectors and businesses settled down in a protective cove off Echo Bay, later called Cameron Bay. By 1933, the Canadian Government had surveyed a townsite.

At its peak, the Cameron Bay settlement had 100 permanent residents, and the Port Radium area as a whole probably boasted 200-plus residents. But by 1934, all the important deposits had been staked, and activity died down.

The Eldorado Mine at LaBine Point entered production in 1933, and the Contact Lake silver mine followed in 1936. At Cameron Bay, the government established a post office, a government office, and a radio station. There was also a Royal Canadian Mounted Police post and a Hudson's Bay Company post.

In 1936, the government facilities were rechristened Port Radium to glorify the nature of the nearby mining operations. Officially renamed Point Radium the following year, by this time, it had a population of about 30 people.

With the closure of the Eldorado Mine in June 1940 and the general lack of activity, the government closed up the offices at Cameron Bay, and except for a few native families that occupied the abandoned buildings, Port Radium was empty.

When the Eldorado Mine reopened in 1942 to supply uranium ores during World War II, the mining settlement adopted the name Port Radium. Cameron Bay remained abandoned, but later, in the 1960s, Branson's Lodge built a fishing lodge on the site.

NWT Archives/N-1995-007: 0022

Miners sitting on an ore cart at the entrance to the uranium mine at Port Radium. The ore carts were used to bring the ore to the surface for the initial separation at the mill site. The uranium was then bagged and sent to the Eldorado Mining & Refining refinery at Port Hope, Ontario.

The Manhattan Project

With Marie Curie discovering radioactivity itself and two new radioactive elements, radium and polonium, in 1898, it was a few short decades before scientists tapped into the destructive forces of radioactivity.

Although perhaps a bit romanticized with the latest Hollywood flick "Oppenheimer," history will forever be unable to rewrite the fact that nuclear armaments were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

However, perhaps less known is that Canada helped develop the world's first nuclear reactors and nuclear arms.

During World War II, Canada participated in British research to create an atomic weapon. In 1943, the British nuclear program merged with its American equivalent, the Manhattan Project.

Canada's main contribution was the Montreal Laboratory, which later became the Chalk River Laboratory. This Allied war effort led to the development of Canada's nuclear energy industry.

You see, Canadian nuclear physicist George Laurence experimented with uranium fission as early as 1939. His goal was to develop a uranium-graphite reactor. Carrying out his experiments in Ottawa for the National Research Council, the uranium he used came from the Eldorado Mine in Port Radium.

Although he was unsuccessful in building his reactor, his experiments took the world one step closer to the human-made nuclear chain reactor.

During the Manhattan Project, the Eldorado Mine employed Dene people from the community of Déline to carry uranium. Some Dene believed that uranium from this mine became the fissile material in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This point is disputed by some historians, including Robert Bothwell, who wrote a history of the Eldorado Mining company in 1984. Bothwell suggested that the uranium the Dene carried was not pure enough to be used in the bomb.

Whether or not it formed part of the weapon, at least some of this uranium was used in experiments that led to the development of nuclear arms and Canada's nuclear industry.

White Cliff Minerals

Today, modern mining is once more revisiting the historical sites that, given the limited technology, could contain still unknown quantities of precious minerals and metals.

Acquiring the necessary licensing from Northwest Territories government in May, an Australian-based company called White Cliff Minerals has taken on the task of reexamining this once-thriving site.

Library and Archives Canada/C-023983

A miner hauling a car of silver radium ore, 340 feet below the surface, Eldorado Mine of Great Bear Lake (NWT), c. 1930.

Historical production figures from Eldorado (pre-1982) include 13.7 million pounds of uranium oxide (U3O8), 34.2 million ounces of refined silver, 11.38 million lb of copper with gold credits, 104,000 kilograms of lead, 127,000 kilograms of nickel, and 227,000 kilograms of cobalt.

Having already produced more than US$2 billion worth of metals, this project remains one of Canada's most prospective regions for base, precious, and energy metals.

With advancements in exploration technology that allow finer tuning of mapping and prospecting, White Cliff has already collated historical data with modern techniques and has built a prospect list that could vault this mine site into a new era of productivity.

"Historic rock chips results from the southern parts of the Great Bear Lake project have continued to reveal an underexplored, district scale opportunity which will be assessed during the upcoming 2024 field work," said White Cliff Managing Director Troy Whittaker. "Whilst works continue on this review, these initial results continue to demonstrate the district and regional potential of the entire project area."


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