The Council of State has granted mining firm Terrafame a permit to commercially extract and refine uranium, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment said on Thursday. Its Talvivaara mine is in Sotkamo, in the eastern Kainuu region.
The decision means that Terrafame may eventually begin operations at its uranium production facility, which was completed in 2012. The mine's main products are nickel and zinc, but uranium has also continuously extracted as a by-product.
Terrafame intends to refine the uranium into yellowcake, which is used to make fuel for nuclear power plants. Thus what has so far been waste from the metal mining process could be turned into an export product.
The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (Stuk) said last summer that there were "no radiation safety-related obstacles" to granting Terrafame a permit for the uranium recovery plants.
"The nuclear and radiation safety risks caused by the production of uranium to the environment and the residents in the area are minor," the watchdog said in June.
Legal battle could go on for two years
Terrafame CEO Joni Lukkaroinen says he is pleased with the decision, but points out that the permit is not yet finalised as there is still an opportunity to file complaints.
The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (FANC) is expected to appeal against the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court.
On Thursday the Kainuu branch of the FANC issued a statement arguing that the permit violates the Nuclear Energy Act, which it says requires that environmental impact studies be carried out for the entire production chain, including the quarrying, not just for the refinery.
The appeals process could take up to two years, so a final decision is expected by early 2022. Terrafame, which is more than 70 percent state-owned, took over the bankrupt Talvivaara nickel mine five years ago after a string of waste water spills and other environmental disasters.
No domestic refining for Finnish power plants
According to Stuk, there is now no uranium production in the EU, since the Czech Republic and Romania have halted operations.
Russia is the only significant nearby producer country. Other exporters include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
Terrafame does not plan to refine uranium into fuel for use in Finland's two nuclear power plants. Rather its yellowcake would be exported to elsewhere in Europe or to North America for conversion into fuel.
"It is still too early to say in which direction the uranium would go," says Lukkaroinen.
Exports would require further permits from the Foreign Ministry and the European Atomic Energy Euratom.
According to the permit, Terrafame has permission to produce up to 250 tonnes of uranium annually, but the company says its actual output will probably be lower than this.