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Uranium City

Uranium City core area in 2003, some twenty years after the closing of the Beaverlodge operation.
Doug Chisholm

Uranium City is located on the northern shore of Lake Athabasca, 724 km northwest of Prince Albert and 48 km south of the Saskatchewan–Northwest Territories border. Uranium ore was first discovered in northern Saskatchewan in the late 1930s. However, with the onset of World War II, the Canadian government imposed a ban on private exploration for the mineral, and created Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. to control all uranium-related exploration activities. The lifting of the ban after the war sparked a staking rush in the Athabasca region, and the need for a convenient service centre to serve the growing number of mines in the region quickly became apparent. As a result, the provincial government created the remote community of Uranium City with input from Eldorado Nuclear, specifically to support uranium mining activities in the region. Construction of the community began in 1952 with plans to accommodate and provide the necessary infrastructure for 5,000 people. Between 1953 and 1955 Uranium City developed rapidly, and by 1956 it was the fastest growing community in Saskatchewan.

Uranium City’s history follows the same trajectory as that of other single-industry towns in Canada. The community boomed in the 1950s, nearly died in the early 1960s, and experienced a brief upswing in 1967 and 1968 when demand for uranium increased. However, the upsurge was not strong enough to absorb the area’s capacity to produce uranium, and in 1969 Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. announced cutbacks. In 1971 Eldorado came close to shutting down as there was no market for uranium because of stockpiling. Gunnar Mines Ltd. and Lorado Uranium Mines Ltd. began operations in 1955 and 1957 respectively, but by the mid-1960s these operations had ceased. The uranium market recovered somewhat in 1974. New finds were discovered, and Eldorado announced a major expansion program, including plans to overhaul its operations in northern Saskatchewan. Eldorado also committed large capital expenditures to accelerate the development of new assets and refurbish existing facilities at the Beaverlodge operation. Nevertheless, in June 1982 Eldorado permanently closed its Beaverlodge operation, citing increased operating costs, falling ore grades, and a “soft” uranium market as reasons for the shutdown. Although as a single-industry community the residents of Uranium City were familiar with boom/bust cycles, the announcement of the mine closure came as a shock to the townspeople and had profound effects. Businesses folded, and the population declined dramatically from almost 2,500 residents on the eve of the announcement in December 1981 to 200 in 1986. Between 1982 and 1985, water and sewer utilities were shut off to outlying residential areas; services were provided to the remaining population, who moved into the Core and Hospital Hill area of the community.

While closure of the mines marked the beginning of the end for Uranium City, it was not the end of uranium mining as new, richer deposits were discovered in other areas of northern Saskatchewan. However, rather than constructing new resource-based communities, the labour force commuted to the mines on a seven-day-in, seven-day-out basis, a system which enabled some Uranium City residents to maintain generally well-paying mining jobs. The prime employer in Uranium City, however, became the hospital, which served the entire Athabasca region. Regardless of the hospital jobs, nearly all the people of Uranium City left and most of the businesses closed. Many of the unoccupied buildings in the community collapsed, presenting safety concerns for some residents. The struggling community suffered a further setback in 2003 with the opening of a new hospital at Stony Rapids. Many businesses relied heavily on the hospital for their operations, and the shift of regional health care services to Stony Rapids meant a considerable reduction in business for those in Uranium City. The remaining residents of Uranium City and the community itself were once again faced with a very uncertain future.

Lesley McBain

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