The project for the exploration of uranium in Brazil’s northeast Ceará province is to be restarted after the Santa Quitéria consortium, comprising Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB) and the fertiliser company Galvani, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ceará government on 28 September.
The Santa Quitéria Consortium was established in 2008 to explore the Itataia deposit, believed to be the world’s largest reserve of uranium associated with phosphate. The consortium initiated the project the following year but work was stalled because of problems in obtaining environmental licences from the Brazilian Environment Institute (Ibama).
Phosphate is predominant, with reserves of 8.9 million tons while the reserves of uranium ore are estimated at 142,000 tons, equivalent to 80,000 tons U3O8. According to INB, which holds the mining rights to the deposit, some 240,000 tons of phosphate and 1600 tons of U3O8 could be produced annually by the consortium.
“This was an old project that Ceará had been aiming for during a long time that will generate a lot of jobs and income for our state,” said state governor Camilo Santana. The project has now been restructured to meet environmental requirements, and the Santa Quitéria Consortium will make an initial investment of $400 million, 80% of which will be contributed by Galvani.
The aim is to begin production in three years. On signing the MOU, INB President Carlos Freire Moreira said: "Our economic recovery will depend a lot on projects that generate jobs and add value, such as the one we are going to install in Ceará. That's why we believe in this partnership with Santa Quitéria and the Government of Ceará."
The ore, after being extracted will be processed to separate the elements. The phosphate will remain with Galvani, which will use it in the manufacture of fertilisers and animal feed, and the uranium will be delivered to INB for the production of the uranium concentrate.
The operation will quadruple the production of uranium concentrate, used by INB in the production of nuclear fuel, and will increase the Brazilian production of phosphate fertilisers by 10%. The mine is expected to generate about 800 direct jobs.
The first group of biologists and zootechnicians will begin studies at the Itataia mine shortly, according to Brazil’s Nuclear and Energy Research Institute Science and Technology (IPEN). Environmental studies are planned to begin in the last quarter of 2020, followed by financial and corporate restructuring, through which Galvani intends to attract stakeholders - while maintaining the consortium's corporate control.
Between 2022 and 2023, two industrial plants will be built, according to Galvani president, Ricardo Neves de Oliveira. The first for the dissociation of minerals and preparation of phosphate, and the second for the production of yellow cake, both in the vicinity of the mine.
INB’s long-term goal is to be an exporter of enriched uranium, according to Moreira. Initially this will entail restart of the Santa Quitéria project, whose potential added to the already operating Caetité mine should meet the demand of the Angra nuclear power plant, while another complex of the same size will enable exports.
In Pecém, INB's goal is for the uranium concentrate to be shipped in specific containers and ships abroad, where it will be enriched, and return to Rio de Janeiro, for use as fuel for nuclear power plants.
Photo: The Santa Quitéria project is expected to quadruple Brazil's production of uranium concentrates (Credit: INB)