Follow Johan underground in the McArthur River uranium mine (MCA).
Safety first. I’m taken to a locker room where I get the gear and the information necessary to be allowed underground. I then meet my guide, Curtis, a maintenance foreman. He used to work with oil sands in Alberta, but the long hours commuting to work meant too much time away from home and family in Saskatchewan. He has now been with Cameco and at MCA for about six years and is glad he made the change.
Curtis explains how the mine works by drawing on the whiteboard in his office above ground. He’s a good educator. At MCA, the methods they use are raiseboredrilling, blasthole stoping and boxhole boring, a unique combination for a uranium mine. One thing that strikes me and that I didn’t know a priori was that every hole they drill and extract from is filled with concrete, making Cameco a very large producer and user of concrete.
There are no roads to take you underground. Everything – humans, tools and machines – are transported with the hoists (more or less big elevators) down the mine, at about 600 metres underground. Given the size of the machines that work underground, it was a bit mindboggling. I rode the hoist with about a dozen people and it was crowded.
When underground, it is wet and greasy and the ‘artificial’ winds are cold and strong in some areas, given the ventilation system (the air in the mine is renewed about every 15 minutes). There is basically no traffic, which is a big contrast to the Kiruna mine and its 600 km roads underground. There is still a rather complicated road system at MCA. Curtis estimates that it takes about six months to learn how to get around underground (but we still got lost, sorry Curtis :-). He says that visitors are usually surprised that there are light and concrete roads in the mine. I’m not.
The first thing Curtis do when arriving underground is to sign workers’ safetycards. This is a routine, every day, sometimes two times a day. Every worker has a card and has to fill it in every day. Part of the card asks the worker if he or she has done anything to improve safety today. I look at Curtis with some skepticism. He picks up on it and says that it doesn’t have to be big things. It can simply be to make sure that work stations and walkways are free from rubbish. My impression is also that the card-checking seems to be a rather old-fashioned type of management control, but from what I could observe, the control of the cards also meant that a face-to-face conversation between manager and worker took place in which other work-related things also were discussed (I’ll come back to the relation between worker/manager at a fly-in/fly-out site such as MCA in another blogpost).
We take coffee with a group of workers. Curtis introduces me and the project, and all go silent. I guess I’m used to the reaction by now, but eventually the ice is broken and I get to talk to a couple of workers about their experiences working at MCA. Curtis then sets us up in a small truck and we start the tour of the mine. Everywhere we go there is a mix of meeting machines/technology (”every machine is a million dollar down here”) and different workers. Curtis does a good job introducing me and I get to talk to Ray from Prince Albert, Steve from Cumberland, Ralph from Saskatoon, a worker from Nova Scotia, and many more. I get to see the raisebores and the stopeblasting, learn the underground signal system for vehicles (green and red lights, ropes to pull to switch the light), see the officer who walks the mine measuring the air quality (see picture “Air quality”), see the loaders (which is semi-automated so that contact with uranium is minimized; see the pictures “The remote” and “Driving by distance”), meet with a mine rescue team practising (as in most mines, the biggest risks are fire and water) etc.
Talking to Shane, a young, aboriginal worker who has worked his way up the underground hierarchy, now operating the most advanced machines, Curtis points to the road we’re standing on: “There’s uranium”. Shane brings out the hose and clears the uranium from other material, and for sure, there it is, on the road, black and thick, like oil on the ground (see the picture “Uranium”). I ask Curtis about radiation and he shows me his meter, a slight reaction but nowhere near any risks to us.
We make our way back to the hoist. Time to go up.