Uranium in Uzbekistan
(Updated March 2017)
- Uzbekistan has considerable mineral deposits, including uranium.
- It is the world’s seventh-ranking uranium supplier, and is expanding production.
- Japanese and Chinese joint ventures are active in uranium development, especially focused on black shales.
Uzbekistan was a significant source of Russian uranium supply until independence in 1991. Uranium production until then took place in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with little regard for national borders and much of the treatment being in Tajikistan. Today, most uranium is mined in the middle of the country, with Navoi as the centre, linked to mines by railway.
The country's total electricity generation in 2014 was 55 TWh, with 41 TWh from gas, 2 TWh from coal and 12 TWh from hydro.
According to the 2016 Red Book, Uzbekistan has 97,560 tU in Reasonably Assured Resources plus Inferred Resources, to US$ 130/kg U in sandstones, plus 32,900 tU in black shales. The latter have so far not supported commercial production, and foreign expertise is being sought for them. In February 2014 Goskomgeo (State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources) reported resources of 138,800 tU in sandstones and 47,000 tU in black shales.
Navoi Mining & Metallurgical Combinat (NMMC) is part of the Uzbekistani state holding company Kyzylkumredmetzoloto, and undertakes all uranium mining in the country, as well as gold mining and other activities. Until 1992, all uranium mined and milled in Uzbekistan was shipped to Russia. Since 1992, practically all Uzbekistani uranium production has been exported to the USA and other countries through Nukem Inc. A total of 128,700 tU had been produced to the end of 2011. In 2015 production was 2385 tU.
In 2008 South Korea's Kepco signed agreements to purchase 2600 tU over six years to 2015, for about US$ 400 million. In May 2014 China’s CGN agreed to buy $800 million of uranium through to 2021, and China customs was reported as saying that Uzbekistan was second only to Kazakhstan as a uranium supplier to the country. In 2013, 1663 tU was supplied to China.
During the Soviet era, Uzbekistan provided much of the uranium to the Soviet military-industrial complex, with anniual production peaking at 3800 tU in mid 1980s. Five "company towns" were constructed to support uranium production activities: Uchkuduk, Zarafshan, Zafarabad, Nurabad, and Navoi, with a combined population of some 500,000. They remain centres of five mining districts. Uranium industry employment in 2005 was put at about 7000, though some 65,000 were employed by NMMC overall in 2012.
NMMC commenced operation focused on uranium and gold in 1958 in the desert region of Central Kyzylkum province, particularly the Uchkuduk deposit (mined underground and open pit from 1964), which led to the discovery of subsequent deposits of similar kind. In 1966, underground mining began at the Sabyrsay deposit in Samarkand and in 1977 at the Sugraly deposit near Zarafshan. In 1978, ISL was initiated at the Ketmenchi deposit. In 1975 the Sabyrsay deposit was being mined by ISL. Underground mining continued to 1990 and open pit to 1994, but mines are all now in situ leach (ISL). Uranium-bearing solutions are sent by rail to the central hydrometallurgical HMP-1 plant in Navoi for final recovery of U3O8 product. This plant was commissioned in 1964 and developed through to 1983. Bacterial leaching was introduced in 2011.
NMMC has produced more than 2000 tU per year since 2004, and over 2009 to 2015 production was about 2400 tU/yr. Completion of Alendy, Aulbek and North Kanimekh mines in 2013 was expected to increase uranium production significantly as they ramped up to full capacity in 2016.
In April 2015 NMMC announced plans approved by the government to implement 27 projects to modernize its production facilities by 2019, at a total cost of $985 million. Among the projects are the construction of a mining and distribution complex in Samarkand region, the development of the main raw material base – the Muruntau mine, and the modernization and technical re-equipment of other production facilities. NMMC’s four metallurgical plants in Navoi, Zarafshan, Uchkuduk and Zarmitan were mentioned. It also planned to complete the construction of three uranium mines in the Central Kyzylkum Desert, at a cost of US$75 million.
In 2013 exports to China doubled to 1663 tU.
A uranium production development program is being implemented for the period of 2014-2020, and then extending to 2030. This has involved mining of the Kendyk-tyube, Lyavlyakan, Tokhumbet, Aksay, Sugrali, Nurbulok, Alendy, Aulbek deposits being commenced; the North Kanimekh mine being ramped up to its designed production capacity; and handling high carbonate levels at the Maylisay deposit being resolved. It was expected that 2016 uranium production would increase from 2,400 tonnes to 4,200 tonnes.
NMMC has several divisions, the Northern and Central ones plus part of #5 are in the Kyzylkum Desert region of Navoi province.
Northern mining directorate
Centred on Uchkuduk, the Northern mining district 300 km north of Navoi was established to mine uranium at Uchkuduk, from 1961, by underground and open pit mines, with ore treated at the central plant in Navoi. Since 1965 ISL uranium mining has been used at Uchkuduk and since 1995, at Kendyk-Tyube. There is also a 450,000 t/yr sulfuric acid plant at Uchkuduk (possibly in conjunction with a copper smelter). Resources are 51,000 tU, and annual production 700-750 tU.
Central mining directorate
In the Zarafshan or eastern mining district, about 200 km north of Navoi, Sugraly was mined underground from 1977 and then ISL to 1994, when it was closed. NMMC had a joint venture with Areva to redevelop the Sugraly deposit with reported 38,000 tU resources, but this appears to have lapsed. Sugraly is a thick deposit with complex mining and geological conditions and high carbonate content. Resources are 50,000 tU, with no current production. An integrated processing facility at Sugraly was put into operation in 2014.
Mining directorate #5
The mining district #5 mostly in Bukhara province, west of Navoi and headquartered in Zafarabad, close to Navoi was set up in 1971 by another entity in Bukhara province and became part of NMMC in 1993. It mines the Bukinay group of uranium deposits by ISL methods. Mines include North & South Bukinay (from 1970), Beshkak (from 1978), Istiklol, Kukhnur, Lyavlyakan (from 1998), Tokhumbet (from 2004) and South Sugraly. District resources are 52,000 tU, and annual production 1000-1200 tU and rising to 2100 tU
Southern mining directorate
The Southern mining district in Samarkand province, southeast of Navoi, and headquartered at Nurabad, was founded in 1964 to mine the Sabirsay uranium deposit by underground methods, which continued to 1983. ISL then took over, and continues to be the main mining method. The operation was transferred from Tajikistan to NMMC about 1994*. Other mines are Ketmenchi (ISL since 1978), Jaarkuduk, Yogdu, Shark and Ulus. Resources are 13,000 tU, and annual production is 600-650 tU.
* In Soviet times, to 1992, the Leninabad Mining and Chemical Combine located at Chkalovsk, a few kilometres southeast of Khujand (Khodjend/ Khodzhent), Sughd province, northeren Tajikistan, on the Syr Darya River in the western part of the Ferghana Valley, is to the east of Uzbek’s Samarkand province. The Combine incorporated seven mines and several plants, notably Combine No. 6 (Uranium Plant V), and it processed up to 1,000,000 tonnes of uranium ore per year to produce yellowcake for the Soviet nuclear power and defence industries. A lot of this was at the central plant. Reportedly, Chkalovsk once had the capability to convert uranium concentrate into uranium hexafluoride. It was established in 1945 as a large-scale hydrometallurgical uranium enterprise, based on the uranium deposits of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Uranium mining ceased in Tajikistan in 1992, and the Combine became the industrial association Vostochnyy Eastern Combine for Rare Metals (IA Vostokredmet) which is a significant industrial complex specialising today in underground and heap leaching of metals. There are considerable amounts of uranium tailings and disturbed areas from the combine’s operation – over 100 square kilometres overall in Tajikistan, according to a Russian estimate in a 2002 IAEA report. See Appendix.
Mining directorate #2
In MA#2 at Krasnogorsk, Parkent region, Tashkent province in the east of the country, the Chauly uranium deposit was previously mined, but the focus there is on phosphorite now. It became part of NMMC in 1995.
New mines: Northern, Central and #5
NMMC has started mining the major new Northern Kanimekh deposit, northwest of Navoi, costing US$ 34 million. Northern Kanimekh ore occurs 260 to 600 metres deep with 77% of uranium reserves present at 400-500-metre depth. This requires a special approach to building wells and uranium mining process. The pilot plants at Northern Kanimekh and Alendy (Directorate #5) were commissioned in 2008-09 and the two commercial mines were completed at the end of 2013, and were expected to achieve full capacity in 2015.
NMMC also built a pilot plant for ISL at Yarkuduk and Tokhumbet deposits. It has started operation of the US$ 21 million Aulbek ISL mine near Lyavlyakan in central Kyzylkum (Directorate #5), which ramped up to 2013, and also Meylisay and Tutlinskaya ploshchad, costing about US$30 million.
Over 2008-12 NMMC invested US$ 230 million in upgrades to expand the existing mining and processing capacities, renew the fleet of process equipment, and establish up to seven new mines. "As part of an increase in uranium production up to 2012, the expansion and reconstruction of sulfuric acid production, at a cost of about $12 million, will be carried out. Implementation of the program will make it possible to increase uranium production in 2012 by 50%". Early in 2009 the Uzbek president said that the world economic crisis would slow all this development, though full commissioning of the Aulbek, Alendy and North Kanimekh mines in Central Kyzylkum at the end of 2013 would enable a 40% increase of NMMC production.
In August 2013 NMMC suspended construction of Meylisay and Northern Maizak mines in central Kyzylkum due to high carbonate content in the ore rendering ISL inefficient. However Navoi said that in 2015 the technology of uranium mining would be optimized at Meylisay deposit. Aulbek and North Kanimekh also have high carbonate levels.
International ventures, black shales
China: In August 2009 Goscomgeo and China Guangdong Nuclear Uranium Corp. (CGN-URC) set up a 50-50 uranium exploration joint venture, Uz-China Uran, to focus on the black shale deposits in the Boztau-skaya area in the central Kyzylkum desert of the Navoi region. Some 5500 tU resources are reported. Over 2011-13 CGN-URC was to develop technology for the separate production of uranium and vanadium from these black shale deposits with a view to commencing production from them.
Russia: In January 2006 Techsnabexport (ARMZ subsidiary) signed a memorandum of understanding with NMMC and Goskomgeo (State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources of Uzbekistan) to set up a uranium mining joint venture based on the Aktau deposit. Initially, it was planned that the joint venture would start operations late 2006, but after four years' negotiation no agreement could be reached and Russia withdrew in mid 2010. Aktau's probable resources are estimated 4,400 tons of uranium accessible by ISL and with treatment of 300 tU/yr production envisaged at Navoi. However, the ore is complex and this has apparently deterred establishment of the project. Goskomgeo invited ARMZ to consider its black shales, but ARMZ declined on the basis that no treatment process was known for them.
In 2007 Russia offered to enrich Uzbekistan uranium in the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk.
Japan: In September 2006 a Japan-Uzbek intergovernmental agreement was aimed at financing Uzbek uranium development and in October2007 Itochu Corporation agreed with NMMC to develop technology to mine and mill the black shales, particularly the Rudnoye deposit, and to take about 300 tU/yr from 2007. A 50-50 joint venture was envisaged, but no more was heard until February 2011 when Itochu signed a 10-year "large-scale" uranium purchase agreement with NMMC.
In mid-2008 Mitsui & Co. signed a basic agreement with the Uzbek government's Goscomgeo (State Geology and Mineral Resources Committee) to establish a joint venture for geological investigations regarding the development of black-shale uranium resources at the Zapadno-Kokpatasskaya mine, 300 km NW of Navoi.
In mid-2009, and further to an April 2007 MOU, Goscomgeo and the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) signed an agreement for uranium and rare earths exploration in the Navoi region, focused on ISL-type sandstone deposits and black shales, with a view to a Japanese company taking a 50% interest in any resources identified and developing them. In February 2011 a further broad agreement was signed between the two. In August 2013 JOGMEC was granted a licence to explore for uranium in two sandstone deposits, Juzkuduk and Tamdiykuduk-Tulyantash, for five years with rights to mine, following a July agreement with NMMC.
The Uzbekistani State Committee for Safety in Industry and Mining (Gosgortekhnadzor) supervises ministries engaged in mining.
The Nuclear Regulations Inspectorate under Gosgortekhnadzor has responsibility for the control and supervision of the research reactors and all nuclear and radioactive materials (including spent fuel) in Uzbekistan.
Research & development
There have been two research reactors, a 10 MW tank type – WWR-SM – operating since 1959 at the Institute of Nuclear Physics, Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Tashkent, and a small 20 kW one operated by JSC Foton in Tashkent. This had been converted to run on low-enriched uranium from TVEL, and all HEU fuel was returned to Russia. Decommissioning the Foton reactor is being undertaken over 2015-17. The larger WWR-SM shut down in July 2016, with decommissioning intended to begin soon after. However, in February 2017 it was decided to refurbish it, and restart it in July 2017.
The state enterprise Scientific Production Centre Urangeologiya undertakes uranium exploration in new areas.
See section in information papers on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In June 2015 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) set up a fund to deal with radioactive contaminated material resulting from Soviet-era uranium mining and processing in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It drew attention to legacy sites along the tributaries to the Syr Darya River, running through the Fergana Valley, which is shared by the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is a party to the NPT and in 1998 ratified an Additional Protocol agreement with the IAEA. It has also ratified the Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty, with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
OECD NEA & IAEA, 2012, Uranium 2011: Resources, Production and Demand ('Red Book')
Burykin, A.A., Iskra, A.A., Karamushka, V.P., Radiation Legacy of the USSR Enterprises for Mining, Milling and Processing of Uranium Ores: Conservation, Decommissioning and Environmental Rehabilitation, p244-256 of Radiation legacy of the 20th century: Environmental restoration, Proceedings of an International Conference (RADLEG 2000) held in Moscow, Russian Federation, 30 October-2 November 2000 and organized by the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Atomic Energy in co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Commission and the Russian Academy of Sciences, April 2002, IAEA-TECDOC-1280
Egorov, N.N., Novikov, V.M., Parker F.L., Popov V.K., The Radiation Legacy of the Soviet Nuclear Complex: An Analytical Overview, International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (first published 2000)