The Homerun: How to take uranium exploration to production and beyond

Saskatchewan's Athabasca Basin. Photo provided by Standard Uranium.

Despite Saskatchewan’s abundance of uranium, finding the fuel of the future is an adventure in its own right.

Global demand for uranium has been rapidly increasing with Cameco reporting spot uranium prices were up nearly 40 per cent in 2021, their highest level in nine years. Prices have also continued soaring as countries targeted Russia’s state-owned atomic energy companies with economic sanctions following the country’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Having supplied 13.2 per cent of the world’s uranium in 2019, ranked as the second most attractive jurisdiction in the world for mining investment by the Fraser Institute, and home to the largest high-grade uranium deposits in the world, Saskatchewan and its renowned Athabasca Basin are uniquely positioned to meet the planet’s changing energy needs.

While the 100,000 square kilometres that comprise the northern Saskatchewan Athabasca Basin region are abundant with uranium deposits with a grade 10 to 20 times the global average, actually making a discovery and turning that into an economically viable mining operation is an exciting journey that lasts over a decade and is not for the faint of heart.

An atomic odyssey

Within the Athabasca Basin there are a handful of companies who have taken up the mantle in search of the next big find. One of those is Standard Uranium Ltd. (Standard Uranium), a junior exploration company founded in 2017 that’s focused on finding the fuel to power a clean energy future.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Jon Bey, Standard Uranium’s director, and CEO, “we’re putting on our detective hats, and we use all the scientific evidence as clues to sort of focus in and lead us towards that discovery.”

With over 15 years of experience in the junior exploration industry searching for various minerals, metals, and energy resources, Bey’s passion brought him back to the uranium sector even though he knew “it’s one of the most challenging minerals to find.”

“Targeting other types of ore deposits is relatively simplistic in comparison to uranium, and there are plenty of signs to tell you if you’re close … but with uranium, targeting is far more nuanced and there could be a world-class deposit sitting in a region in the Athabasca Basin and you can put drill holes within 100 yards of it and not know that it’s there,” Bey says. While making a discovery is crucial for any exploration company, Bey explains that in addition to this objective, companies like his depend upon attracting investors to fund their work.

“You have to continually be marketing, continually providing them with information that allows them to understand that you are hot on the trail of discoveries,” Bey says. “It’s a very fine balancing act you have to do because you’re always cognizant of your budget, preserving as much as you can to make that money go as far as possible into metres in the ground.”

Standard Uranium holds five uranium exploration projects across the Athabasca Basin that are strategically located in the prolific eastern Athabasca uranium district, the emerging southwest district, and the historic northwestern basin where several deposits have been mined since the 1950s.

Picturing discovery

Bey explains that all of the big discoveries in the Athabasca Basin sit on graphitic or sulphidic structures, which form underground corridors revealed through geophysical surveys that are favourable for high-grade uranium mineralization.

“If you think of a graphitic corridor like a fluid highway, uranium bearing fluids travel along that structure, and what you’re looking for is something to create accommodation space, like cross cutting structures or a break in the conductor. If conditions are right, this can lead to the uranium precipitating out and forming an ore deposit,” Bey says.

The company’s flagship project, Davidson River, is a 25,886-hectare property situated on the southwestern rim of the Basin, and he says Standard Uranium has found 26 conductors running underneath the site. Currently, Standard Uranium’s drilling has continued adding to the geological framework of the property and there is more drilling scheduled for this spring and summer which Bey says helps maximize the value for shareholders.

“Like a detective, you keep planning better drill programs and some companies can do this for 10 years and never make a discovery, and [others] are lucky and make a discovery in the first couple of years, so it’s complex and there’s a lot to it,” Bey says.

Howdy neighbour

Bey believes it’s also helpful to be in a region where other discoveries have been made, and the Davidson River Project is located approximately 30 kilometres away from two other major finds, Fission Uranium Corp.’s (Fission Uranium) Triple R deposit and NexGen Energy Ltd.‘s Arrow deposit. The Triple R deposit sits within Fission’s PLS project, which is the only high-grade, near-surface deposit in the Athabasca region yet to be discovered. Whereas other deposits have been found roughly 300 metres below the surface, the Triple R begins at just 50 metres.

In 2019, the company released a pre-feasibility that outlined the potential for the Triple R to be one of the lowest cost uranium mines due to the near-surface uranium and its proximity to Highway 955.

“What’s unique about this project is the fact that it’s near surface which probably gives you the biggest advantage of all [because] it’s less technically challenging to mine a deposit that’s closer to surface than it is at depth, it’s less costly, [and] more straightforward,” says Ross McElroy, president, CEO, and director of Fission Uranium.

McElroy has been a professional geologist in the mining industry for over 35 years, held executive and senior technical positions with both major and junior mining companies, and was a member of the early-stage discovery team of the world’s largest high-grade uranium deposit, MacArthur River.

As remarkable of a find as the Triple R is, Fission Uranium acquired the PLS property through circumstance in 2013 when the company sold a discovery it made in the eastern basin and spun out its “noncore assets,” which McElroy says were “properties that weren’t of any interest to acquire, and that turned out to be our PLS property.”

Exploring operations and consultations

Following these successful discoveries, Fission Uranium began advancing from an exploration company to “more of a development company.” It has also transitioned to the next phase in Triple R’s “early-stage development” by conducting a feasibility study for PLS that will be completed in 2022 which creates the possibility to “move the project forward to a production decision.” Additionally, McElroy says in parallel with these incremental steps Fission Uranium is also involved in the review processes with the provincial and federal governments as well as engaging with local stakeholders and Indigenous communities.

Committed to respectful and long-term local Indigenous rights holders, Fission Uranium has contracted the First Nations LaRonge Band-owned CanNorth Environmental LP to conduct the project’s baseline environmental studies.

McElroy says that because the Triple R is near-surface Fission had the option to design either an open-pit mine or an underground one but ultimately made their decision based upon local input. “Most people don’t want to see an open pit and [it creates] a bigger environmental footprint in the area, so we looked at this based on consultations with local people,” McElroy says.

“We heard their concerns, and went back to the drawing board and thought ‘what’s a better way to develop this that takes their concerns into consideration?’ And we came up with a mine plan that actually turned out to be better with the overall economics of an underground only operation [being] less complicated.”