Russia to mine huge copper deposit in Siberia

SIDE OPERATION This photograph taken on September 27, 2021 shows an interior view of the pilot industrial complex of the Udokan mining and metallurgical plant in the Zabaikalsky region of eastern Siberia. AFP PHOTO

Udokan, Russia: In 1949, a Soviet expedition to Siberia was looking for uranium to fuel the national nuclear arsenal when it came across a large copper deposit.

More than 70 years later, a mining complex in the Russian Far East between Lake Baikal and the Pacific Ocean is finally due to be operational next year.

With copper being the key to the global energy transition away from carbon, it is hoped that it will be a boon for Russia and beyond.

“The long-awaited project is a long-awaited event in the life of the Far East and the entire mining industry of Russia and the world,” said Valery Kazikayev, chairman of Udokan Copper, the company who is developing the site.

Kazikayev, who makes the nine-hour flight from Moscow to the mine twice a month, took journalists from Agence France-Presse (AFP) on the tour in late September.

At an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), the heavy snow covering the mine suggests the difficulty of making it exploitable.

“The Soviet Union was unable to develop these deposits,” Kazikayev, 66, said at the site, where construction began in 2019.

The mine is located in both a seismic zone and on permafrost, soil that remains completely frozen year round. Temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees Celsius (minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter.

These conditions make the development of the site “difficult”, Kazikayev said, noting accordingly that “the construction is very expensive”.

The new “black gold”

The work of harvesting the copper ore has started and the workers are busy setting up explosives to detonate the permafrost so that the digging can continue.

Holding more than 26 million tonnes of copper, the mine, located some 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) east of Moscow, claims to be Russia’s largest untapped deposit and the third in the world.

To develop the project, Udokan Copper – which bought the license in 2008 and is part of billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s USM holding company – has raised nearly $ 3 billion (€ 2.5 billion) from Russian banks.

The company also took advantage of the preferential conditions granted to develop the Russian Far East, a neglected and isolated region.

The substantial investment should bear fruit.

The price of copper, dubbed the “new black gold,” has hit all-time highs this year – and shows no signs of slowing down.

“Over the next 15 years, demand for copper will increase by 30%” as the “green economy” grows, said Yulia Buchneva, analyst at Fitch Ratings in Moscow. AFP

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