No money for Cameco after sale of ship that had uranium spill

Saskatchewan mining company Cameco will not get any money from the sale of a ship that once had a uranium spill at sea — and that it spent millions cleaning up.
The shipping vessel MCP Altona was hard to miss as it moved through B.C. waters in 2011. (Courtesy Roger Craik)

Saskatchewan mining company Cameco will not get any money from the sale of a ship that once had a uranium spill at sea — and that it spent millions cleaning up.

Instead, according to a recent Federal Court decision, a German bank that held a mortgage on the shipping vessel MCP Altona will get most of the $4.6 million raised when it was sold.

The case stems from an incident at sea two years ago.

In January 2011, the Altona was hauling 840 drums of Saskatchewan uranium worth $33 million from Vancouver to China. The customer was a Chinese power utility that needed the uranium for nuclear power plants.

Halfway across the Pacific, the ship ran into rough weather.

Three drums popped open in the hold and uranium ore concentrate — known as yellowcake — spilled out.

The uranium stayed in the hold and nothing spilled into the sea, but the ship turned around and went home.

It took $8 million to take the cargo out and clean up the spill.

The uranium was sent back to where it came from — Cameco's Key Lake operation in Saskatchewan.

Then lawsuits started flying, with Cameco, the boat owner and the people who loaded the ship pointing fingers at each other.

The owner of the vessel went bankrupt and the boat was sold for $4.8 million.

Cameco said the cleanup — called "remediation" — was a complete success, in that nobody was hurt and no uranium was lost or ended up in the environment.

"Not one atom," said Robert Gereghty, Cameco's manager of external communications. "Everyone was quite satisfied."

The Chinese power utility that had bought the uranium got a "fresh batch" later in 2011, according to court documents.

However, when the boat was sold, Cameco wanted to recoup some some of its money and turned to the courts.

In a decision last month, Justice Sean Harrington rejected Cameco's claim saying the bank, HSH Nordbank AG, would get most of the boat sale money.

Cameco says it won't appeal this decision, but hopes to get some money another way.

"There is ongoing litigation," Gereghty said.

Cameco has been shipping uranium by boat for decades, but this was the first incident of its kind, the company says.

The ship meanwhile, is back in action. It's been renamed and an Indonesian company now owns it.