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Jim Corman, President and CEO, Orano Canada, Discusses the Successful Completion of a Five-Year Test Mining program (“SABRE”) at McClean Lake, Athabasca Basin

on 12/3/2021
We spoke with Jim Corman, President and CEO of Orano Canada, a subsidiary of the French nuclear energy Company. Orano Group has long-running operations in Canada, Kazakhstan, and Niger. Orano Canada, headquartered in Saskatoon, SK, has been a leader in the exploration, mining, and production of Canadian uranium for over 55 years. The Company's current operations include a mill at McClean Lake and partnerships in several other sites, in the Athabasca Basin, such as the Cigar Lake Mine, McArthur River Mine and Key Lake Mill. Orano, in partnership with Denison Mines Corp. (TSX: DML, NYSE American: DNN), has recently reported the successful completion of a five-year test mining program, deploying the patented, environmentally friendly, Surface Access Borehole Resource Extraction (“SABRE”) mining method, on the McClean Lake property.

Jim Corman, President and CEO of Orano Canada

Dr. Allen Alper: This is Dr. Allen Alper, Editor-in-Chief of Metals News, talking with Jim Corman, who is the President and CEO of Orano Canada. Jim, I wonder if you could give us an overview of Orano, and also what differentiates your Company from others? And then I'd like you to discuss the successful completion of the five-year test mining program, deploying the patented surface access, borehole resource extraction, the significance of that and the joint venture program, between Orano and Denison Mines?

Jim Corman:Orano Canada is a subsidiary of the Orano Group, which is based in France and headquartered in Paris. We’re a large integrated uranium nuclear supply company. We, in Canada, are at the front end of the business units, on the mining side. We look after operations in Canada directly, as operators on our McClean Lake Project and as partners with Cameco, on other sites here in Saskatchewan.

Within Orano’s mining activities, we have entities that mine uranium, used as fuel, supplying nuclear reactors around the world. We have diversified sources of supply, with producing sites in Canada, Kazakhstan, and Niger, where we have been working for 25 to 50 years. Here in Canada, we’ve been exploring and operating for over 50 years. Orano group is in the top 3 world companies in each of its main activities. We are unique, in that we are involved from the start of the nuclear fuel cycle, with the mining activities through refining and chemistry and enrichment, fuel fabrication, recycling of spent fuel and transportation aspects and through to decommissioning of nuclear facilities, so a large, large group that's fully integrated in the nuclear cycle.

In Canada, we've been working for a significant period of time, on developing a new mining method, tailored to the unique characteristics of the uranium ore bodies that we're blessed with in the Athabasca Basin. They are orders of magnitude higher in grade than most deposits around the world, often occurring close to surface, but not always containing enough resources to make them, by themselves, economically viable for development. So, we developed and have been working on an alternate mining method, where we can access these shallower, smaller ore bodies, with a pilot hole, drilled from surface, with a conventional drill rig to give access to the ore body for our mining equipment.

Orano Canada, McClean Lake

For tooling, the system is capable of operating a downhole water jet, which cuts the ore, using high-pressure water, running at up to 1,000 bar pressure and an air injection system that lifts the cuttings to surface, from where we separate the liquid from the ore that's recovered. Then that ore is transported by truck to our mill at McClean Lake for processing. It's a unique system, in that it has a very small, temporary environmental footprint on the land.

Essentially, the disturbed footprint is vertically above the pod of mineralization, which generally is small in size, something in the order of half a football field or a hockey rink, but still contains significant mineral resources for extraction. So, you can be very selective, in targeting more valuable portions of the orebody, with this mining method. The water that we use for jetting is contained and recycled back down the hole. So, we extract the ore from the slurry brought to surface and recycle that water back underground for jetting. So very little to no water consumption or discharge to the environment, essentially a closed loop system. In addition there are low energy inputs (minimal GHG emissions) and no wastes left on surface, at the end of the mining operation, as opposed to what you would see in a conventional open pit or underground operation.

It's potentially a very quick to deploy methodology. The infrastructure required is minimal, and it's a methodology that is scalable. You can have one rig working in a certain part of your ore body and deploy other rigs to do further extraction, depending on how much volume you want to recover in any period of time. We're quite excited about it. It's a tool that we've been working on with Denison since 2004, with results this past summer that met or exceeded our expectations. We're significantly enthused by the results and about the potential of using this system, for these unique ore bodies, here in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Allen Alper: That sounds excellent. That sounds like a great methodology that has been developed. Could you talk about safety, compared to other methods?

Jim Corman: Those are the key things about SABRE. I’ve spoken about the small environmental footprint, but there are significant advantages as well on the safety side of things. SABRE is a non-entry mining method operated from surface. So, you never put miners underground, working with this, it's always on surface, working on essentially a drill rig. Certainly, there are hazards associated with any kind of rotating equipment and high-pressure systems, but it is certainly much easier to manage in a surface setting, compared to underground or having a bunch of equipment running around in an open pit scenario.

So, really excellent safety results! We've had no safety incidents, through the deployment of this tool, over the last couple of years. Radiation protection is a unique challenge, associated with Saskatchewan ore bodies, due to the high-grade nature of the uranium that we're mining. Because we're doing it from surface, as a non-entry method, you can really control and minimize the radiation exposure to the miners, the guys operating the equipment. Essentially, all the slurry is kept in pipes and contained until it is loaded into trucks to transport to the mills. It is a method that has demonstrated benefits on the economic side, on the environmental side and certainly on the health and safety side.

The other big benefit that we see is that we are currently licensed, for the operation of this method, at our McClean Lake site. Depending on the upcoming update of our economic models, based on the feedback that we got from the test, we’ll look at deploying this at McClean Lake, where it's already licensed. But we believe that the licensing process, for this methodology going forward, could be a more streamlined, simpler process than a conventional open pit or underground developments, because of its small environmental footprint and benefits on the health and safety side of things.

Orano Canada, McClean Lake

Dr. Allen Alper: That sounds excellent. That sounds like breakthrough technology for mining and recovering uranium ores. Jim, could you say a few words on the role uranium is playing, in decreasing the carbon footprint?

Jim Corman: Saskatchewan has been supplying fuel, for 50 some years, for nuclear plants running around the world supplying customers with low carbon electricity. There's certainly a view that power demand is only going to continue to increase worldwide and that nuclear needs to play a key role in the supply of that demand going forward. There's certainly a push for renewables and they have their place in the energy mix as well, but nothing can compete with nuclear, in terms of its clean supply of baseload power 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always shine, but nuclear can be there all the time.

We see that there's an increased awareness of the benefits that nuclear plants can play, in supplying clean energy to a world that needs it. Certainly, Orano is poised to supply that fuel and SABRE is another tool that is going to be used to be able to unlock some resources that have been sitting in the ground for 50 or 60 years, constrained by the economics and the environmental conditions of conventional mining methods, which prevented them from being developed. The world's going to need more uranium to fuel nuclear plants and we believe this tool can be the perfect complement to conventional mines that will help us supply that fuel.

Dr. Allen Alper: That sounds excellent. Jim, could you say a few words about the outlook of supply and demand and the market for uranium going forward?

Jim Corman: All of our marketing is done out of our group in France, so I don't want to speak, with any kind of intelligence here, other than we see that over the past decade there’s generally been an oversupply of product. The most recent couple of years, the reduction in production coming from the Saskatchewan and Kazakhstan operations, and the closure of some mines throughout the world, due to continued low prices, seems to have changed that equation and now there's a bit of a shortfall of supply.

Certainly, we’re seeing the consequences of that reflected in the uranium pricing movements that have occurred, over the course of the last short period of time. How that's going to continue to play out, in the future, needs a bit of a crystal ball. But I certainly don't envision that the demand side is going to wane and in fact will continue to grow. On the supply side of things, depending on the pricing, there may be opportunities, as the prices rise and make more sense, to bring on higher cost operations. Orano is one of a few uranium mining companies that haven’t stopped exploration and development of projects, as we know that uranium mining is a long-term business and we need to invest today on innovations to be used to guarantee our customers with the security of supply in 15 – 20 years’ time.

Orano Canada, McClean Lake

Dr. Allen Alper: Well, that sounds like the environment for uranium is very promising for miners and suppliers. Jim, could you tell our readers/investors a little bit about your background and your Team?

Jim Corman: My background is on the geological engineering side of things, essentially mine engineering. I grew up in and went to school in Saskatchewan here, kind of a local guy. Early in my career, I worked on the exploration and development side of things and then moved into operational roles at site and in our Head Office in Saskatoon. I was stationed, for a couple of years, in our Head Office in France, working on our international portfolio of development and R&D projects, and then came back, two years ago, as President and CEO of Orano Canada. Our Team, in Saskatchewan, is actively engaged in exploration, through to the mining and milling of ores. We operate the McClean Lake plant, which is currently the largest producing operating mill in the world.

We're partners with Cameco, who's another big uranium mining player, in this Province and worldwide. We're partners with them on projects such as Cigar Lake, McArthur River and Key Lake. We are a significant producer, in the worldwide scale, for uranium production and continuously looking for new deposits. With our Exploration Teams in Saskatchewan, we have projects up in the Canadian Arctic as well. But, our focus right now is to look for ore bodies close to our existing Mill, McClean Lake here in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Allen Alper: Well, that sounds excellent, Jim. Could you say a few words about the share and capital structure of Orano?

Jim Corman: Our Company itself is French owned. There's a small, small public trade on Orano, but not in significant quantities. Orano Canada is a subsidiary of The Orano Group, which is headquartered in France.

Orano Canada

Dr. Allen Alper: Is there anything else you'd like to add, Jim?

Jim Corman: The uranium industry has survived through difficult years since 2011. I guess it's been a decade of challenge, post-Fukushima, for the industry, with sustained low prices. We're starting to see that turn around for the reasons we've talked about, and we are very optimistic about the future. We see an increased need for power and a realization that nuclear can play a key role in that power mix going forward, and that the uranium for those reactors needs to come from sustainable projects that aren't necessarily in operation right now. We're cautiously optimistic about the future for uranium right now, more so than we have been for many years.

Dr. Allen Alper: Thank you, Jim. We’ll publish your press releases as they come out so our readers/investors can follow your progress.

For more information please contact:

Carey Hyndman
Manager, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement
Orano Canada

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