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Message: Cigar Lake has its official launch

Troubled, delayed Cigar Lake uranium mine finally has its official launch

By Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

After years of floods, fires, engineering challenges and spiraling costs, the Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan is finally getting its official launch.

The mine and the McClean Lake processing mill have been operating since last year but the official launch was held off until Wednesday — in part because of wildfires that delayed the original ceremony scheduled for July.

"This achievement took 10 years, great perseverance and technical creativity, and I commend the many people who contributed," said Tim Gitzel, president and CEO of Cameco — which is half owner of the mine.

The mine is expected to run for 15 years. It currently employs 700 people, with more than half from northern Saskatchewan.

A senior executive of France's Areva, which owns 37.1 per cent of the mine and 70 per cent of the mill, said the safe startup and continued production from the operation were cause for celebration.

Because the uranium mine sits in unstable, water-logged sandstone, Cameco (TSX:CCO.TO - News) has resorted to completely freezing the thousands of tonnes of uranium-rich rock through a vast network of pipes filled with brine chilled to minus-40 degrees.

Cameco has also developed and customized machines that shoot water at supersonic speeds to cut away the rock. Chunks of rock and water are then piped to tanks — where the water is recycled back into the system and the rock is crushed into a sand that's then piped to the surface and trucked to the McClean Lake mill.

Construction began in 2005, but the mine was flooded twice in 2006 and again in 2008 as water seeped or gushed in from unfrozen parts of the ground.

More delays came in 2013 when key holding tanks were found to be leaking water and required entirely new steel liners, and then in 2014 the company again had to halt operations as it found the ground wasn't freezing fast enough.

Production did get going last year, and the company declared commercial production earlier this year. The company was all set for a grand opening in July but that was postponed because of wildfires across northern parts of the province.

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