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Uranium recovery starts at Finnish mine

19 June 2024

Finnish mining company Terrafame has begun recovering natural uranium as a by-product of zinc and nickel production at its Sotkamo mine in Talvivaara in the north-east of the country.

Terrafame’s uranium recovery plant (Image: Terrafame)

Following inspections at the uranium recovery plant and a review of written materials submitted by Terrafame, Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) issued a decision on 17 June stating that the safety requirements set for the use of the facility will be met if the documented procedures are followed. That decision cleared the way for Terrafame to commission the facility.

“With the start of operations, Finland is the only European Union member state that produces uranium,” Terrafame noted.

The Sotkamo mine’s previous owner, Talvivaara Mining Company, had planned to produce uranium at the site and constructed a uranium extraction plant before being declared bankrupt in 2014. The company was subsequently purchased by Terrafame, which is 70%-owned by Finnish Minerals Group, a special-purpose company wholly owned by the State of Finland.

Terrafame submitted its application for large-scale recovery of uranium to the Ministry of Employment and Economic Affairs in October 2017, already having the necessary chemicals permit and environmental permit. The government granted this permit in February 2020. The decision was deemed legally valid under a ruling made by the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland in June 2021.

In December 2017, STUK granted the company permission to recover a small quantity of uranium while experimenting with chemical processes it will use in an actual uranium recovery plant. Under that permit, the company could produce up to 600 litres of process solution containing a maximum of 6 kg of uranium.

Terrafame said its production process enables the low concentration of natural uranium found in the ore to be used as a by-product. The uranium recovered will be transported abroad for further processing, after which it will be used in nuclear fuel.

After the start-up phase, the recovery plant is estimated to operate at full capacity by 2026, when it is expected to produce about 200 tonnes of uranium per year. Terrafame noted that this production capacity corresponds to about nine months of consumption at Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 EPR in Finland. It said the plan is to continue uranium production alongside the production of other metals throughout the operating period, which covers at least the next 30 years.

After the ramp-up phase, the recovery of uranium will increase Terrafame’s annual net sales by approximately EUR30–40 million (USD32-43 million), based on the current market price of uranium, accounting for a few percent of the company’s estimated net sales in the coming years.

“The utilisation of natural uranium in energy production helps in achieving climate goals and building Europe’s energy self-sufficiency,” said Terrafame CEO Seppo Voutilainen. “Thanks to our modern production process, we can recover even more metals cost-effectively.”

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