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Coronavirus: Cameco suspending uranium fuel operations at Ontario facilities

Cameco is suspending operations at its Ontario facilities in Port Hope and Blind River amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. File / Global News

Cameco, one of the world’s largest publicly traded uranium companies, will be suspending operations at its facilities in Ontario due to “increasing” challenges of maintaining an adequate workforce as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a company statement issued Wednesday, Cameco said its uranium hexafluoride (UF6) plant at the Port Hope conversion facility and the uranium trioxide (UO3) refinery in Blind River will both be temporarily suspended. Where possible, maintenance work scheduled for the summer will be advanced, Cameco stated.

READ MORE: Cameco, Orano shut down Saskatchewan uranium facilities due to COVID-19 fears

In Port Hope, within the “coming days” the facility will be placed in a “temporary safe shutdown” for four weeks, the company said.

UF6 is used in the process of enriching uranium, which produces fuel. Cameco says its Port Hope plant is currently operating safely; however, the company says COVID-19-related screening protocols and other established health measures from government and public health authorities have created “significant difficulty” in achieving the required workforce levels for the facility to continue operation.

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The company says the Port Hope operation’s workforce has been reduced by 65 employees. There are also concerns about maintaining the required workforce level since “the UF6 plant is a complex operation, designed to run as a continuous process without interruptions in production,” the company says.

At the Blind River refinery, the UO3 produced is used at the Port Hope conversion facility. The refinery will operate for about a week to produce sufficient UO3 for ongoing uranium dioxide (UO2 production at the conversion facility. Then, the refinery will be placed in a safe state of “care and maintenance” for approximately four weeks.

The Blind River operation will see a 60-employee reduction. The facility will remain open to receive uranium concentrate deliveries.

“While our fuel services facilities have been able to operate safely, it has become increasingly challenging to maintain a sufficient roster of qualified operators for the UF6 plant,” stated Cameco president and CEO Tim Gitzel. “The UF6 plant is designed for continuous operation, and we need to prevent unplanned interruptions arising from personnel shortages.

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“Therefore, after weighing many factors, including the state of the pandemic, we made a measured decision to suspend production in a careful, planned manner at the UF6 plant and the UO3 refinery which feeds it. We will watch closely how the situation evolves over the next four weeks before making further decisions.”

Cameco noted UO2 at the Port Hope conversion facility as well as fuel pellet and fuel bundle production at Cameco Fuel Manufacturing, also in Port Hope, will continue.

“The UO2 and CFM facilities are important links in the supply chain for Canada’s nuclear energy sector, and these plants are designed and operated to shut down and start up every week,” the company said. “Although they may experience workforce fluctuations as a result of the ongoing circumstances, they are better able to adapt quickly to changes in staffing levels and more frequent starts and stops in production if required.”

The company said its fuel services facilities “continue to operate safely.”

“We continue to work closely with health authorities and have instituted a number of measures to protect our employees at these facilities and their families.”

“Cameco will continue to work with all of our customers to help meet their delivery needs and enable them to continue to provide the safe, clean, reliable nuclear power their governments and communities rely on to run hospitals, care homes, grocery stores and essential services during this time of extraordinary uncertainty,” Gitzel said.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario orders further workplace closures, halt to many construction projects – Apr 3, 2020

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