Uranium remains largely ignored by standards for responsible mining

The absence of the mining sector in the European Taxonomy leaves the field open for private certification systems to evaluate the mining practices of minerals and metals, which are essential to many sustainable activities. The exercise is challenging in the case of uranium, which is not covered in the reference standards.

As the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, put it, “the new oil and gas at the heart of our economy” ores and metals remain outside the scope of the European Taxonomy. This subject is still pending in the work of the Platform for Sustainable Finance experts. The private criteria that have replaced it almost never address uranium, creating a lack of legibility for investors concerned about investing responsibly at a time when nuclear power is being recognized in the European Union’s list of sustainable activities.

Two international organizations, in particular, are developing a reference framework to define sustainable practices applicable to all types of mining operations. For the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), the technical criteria of the “All Minerals” standard are potentially applicable to uranium. Still, the only direct mention of it refers to its treatment as a co-product in mine tailings.

As for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), its reference document limits its scope in a curious association with fossil fuels: “The IRMA standard is intended to apply to all types of mining activities […] except for energy fuels. IRMA will not certify oil and gas operations; more work is needed before thermal coal and uranium can be considered.

Standards to affirm uranium’s role in the energy transition

The only private standards specific to uranium mines are currently those of the World Nuclear Association. They combine the guidelines of the IAEA and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency with other private sustainability standards (recommendations of the Global Reporting Initiative and the International Council on Mining and Metals). These guidelines aim to establish an operational verification methodology that does not open the way to public certification by a third party.

As part of a sector that is, by definition, highly regulated, uranium suffers from a lack of recognition in the establishment of standards, despite its place in the planning of the energy transition. This is also visible in public policies: the American organization Good Energy Collective notes that neither the United States nor the EU has included uranium in critical materials for developing low-carbon energy. Among other things, this would open the door to a more precise codification of sustainable operating practices, release subsidies and implement a strategic investment policy.

As for Orano, it is one of the world’s leading producers, with 6,814 tons of uranium mined in 2021, according to its information dossier published in September 2022. The company “joined the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) in May 2011. In addition, Orano Mining established a CSR (corporate social responsibility) policy, a CSR Committee, and Mining Social Committees (CSM) in 2016, which set out the group’s guidelines in each country. ■

By Paul Kielwasser, independent journalist

Photo: Orano’s Tortkuduk uranium mine in Kazakhstan – ©Orano