Saskatoon-based uranium producer Cameco Corp. temporarily suspended production at Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan on Monday amid a “significant negative trend in the pandemic” affecting the province.
“The safety of our workers, their families and communities is our top priority,” Cameco President and CEO Tim Gitzel said in a statement announcing the closure.
“We have had six positive tests at our northern operations in recent weeks, including three at Cigar Lake. While the protocols we have put in place have to date allowed us to effectively manage these cases, there are broader risks we don’t control,” Gitzel said.
“One of the most challenging trends we’ve had to navigate is the shrinking availability of workers in critical roles at Cigar Lake due to self-isolations, absenteeism and communities being on temporary pause for transporting workers due to the pandemic.”
Cameco spokesperson Jeff Hryhoriw told the Prince Albert Daily Herald that Cigar Lake will move into a “safe state of care and maintenance,” over the coming weeks – which means production of uranium will be suspended with a skeleton crew of employees remaining on site to maintain facilities.
He said the transition will take place “through the traditional holiday period,” when the mine would “ordinarily be operating.”
But Cameco can’t predict when the mine will reopen.
“The timing of a restart and the production rate upon resuming normal operations will depend on how COVID-19 is impacting the availability of the required workforce, how the pandemic is unfolding in Saskatchewan – particularly in northern communities – and the views of public health authorities,” Hryhoriw said.
Affected employees will be living on a combination of paid leaves of absence and vacation days until “more precise details” are decided over the coming days.
“We are not laying off any of Cameco’s Cigar Lake employees as a result of this decision,” Hryhoriw said.
“We expect the enhanced health and safety protocols already in place and the significantly decreased activities at site will ensure that these care and maintenance crews can continue to work safely.”
The total workforce at Cigar Lake is around 600 employees and contractors when it is in production. They are split over two shifts on a “two weeks in, two weeks out” basis, with about half that number on site at any given time.
Hryhoriw said the total workforce at the mine will drop to about 110, roughly half of whom would be on site at a time with around 55 in each shift once the shutdown is complete.
Cameco partner Orano Canada Inc. will also wind down production at its McClean Lake mill, where uranium mined at Cigar Lake is processed.
McClean Lake saw a number of positive cases on site this fall that were identified when an infected person went to the mill.
Orano said it has “worked in coordination with northern leadership” and made “adjustments as necessary” to work schedules in response to outbreaks in northern communities.
About 160 employees are at the McClean Lake mill at one time, following a “two weeks in, two weeks out” schedule.
Orano said the number of employees on site “will be substantially reduced” once production is suspended.
“While it has been at times challenging to ensure that we have the right people in the right place at the right time, our employees have been extremely flexible and we thank them for that,” Orano Canada Inc. President and CEO Jim Corman said.
“I understand that this announcement will be difficult for many of our employees and I want them to know that I appreciate their commitment to our operation, and that we will do our best to minimize the disruption.”
The Opposition blames the province for the mine closing.
NDP Leader Ryan Meili called it “…just the latest example of the Sask. Party’s failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” in a statement to the press on Monday.
“The provincial government has not taken the necessary measures to get COVID-19 under control resulting in serious disruptions for the province’s workforce and the suspension of activities at the Cigar Lake Mine,” Meili said.
“COVID-19 is taking a terrible toll on people in our schools, hospitals, and long-term care homes; but today’s announcement shows that it is also seriously impacting people’s jobs and our provincial economy. We hope that the mine will be able to safely resume regular operations with its full workforce as soon as possible.”
Executive council spokesperson Matthew Glover told the Prince Albert Daily Herald that the province has always taken the threat posed by the pandemic seriously.
“Cameco’s decision to temporarily suspend operations at the Cigar Lake uranium mine is regrettable, but understandable. The Government commends Cameco for taking action to protect its employees,” Glover said in a written response.
“COVID-19 poses a serious challenge for mining operations across the country and the industry is working hard to minimize the spread and impact of the virus at mining sites and nearby communities. Mines in other provinces have been impacted by COVID-19, and some mines have closed.”
Glover said that while every province in Canada has been affected by the pandemic Saskatchewan has fared better than most when it comes to the economic impact.
“Saskatchewan has the second lowest unemployment in the country and most of our economy remains open,” Glover said.
He said the province has “worked diligently to control the spread of the virus” while ensuring public services and businesses could continue to function and imposed “severe and wide-ranging restrictions on public gatherings” when the pandemic began.
“We continue to work with the SHA (Saskatchewan Health Authority), our provincial, federal and Indigenous partners to provide the supports needed in northern Saskatchewan to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Glover said.
“We acknowledge the unique challenges faced by the residents of northern Saskatchewan and endeavour to work collaboratively to find innovative and sustainable solutions.”
Cameco didn’t take a side in the political fallout of the shutdown and said it “will continue to have regular dialogue” with public health authorities and northern leaders in Saskatchewan.
Cameco expects business to be resilient but cautioned that projections can change as circumstances unfold on the ground.
“Having Cigar Lake operating was always part of our strategy,” Gitzel said.
“The costs of care and maintenance are not insignificant… Due to the suspension, we plan to increase our purchases in the market to secure uranium we need to meet our sales commitments… COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, including that the pandemic is a greater risk to uranium supply than to uranium demand.”