Siberian copper mine hopes to become a global energy hub
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, flew AFP journalists 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 – ground 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.
Copper plays a key role in renewables and green technologies, she explained, due to its thermal and electrical conductivity properties.
She notably cited the growing production of electric vehicles, which rely on copper.
Udokan Copper is eyeing Asian markets, including China, South Korea and Japan, where demand is high.
To reach these markets, the company relies on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway line, which is currently under construction.
The line was built in the early 1980s next to the deposits, in part to achieve the goal of extracting the region’s mineral wealth.
– Logistics challenges –
The BAM, which stretches over 4,000 kilometers across Siberia to the Pacific, is a grandiose Soviet project and a financial abyss.
Udokan Copper eventually hopes to send its cathodes and copper condensates by train to the Chinese border or to Russian ports in the Sea of Japan.
Kazikayev notes that the mine is 2,000 kilometers closer to Tokyo than to Moscow.
Yet in an isolated and icy expanse, the logistical challenges are enormous.
The company had to build a power station to supply the energy needed for the work.
He had to build a road to the nearest airport, which has a wooden terminal.
And he had to bring 4,000 construction workers from Siberia and the former Soviet republics to the region, which is home to a few hundred members of the native Evenk reindeer herders.
Deputy site manager Alexei Yaschuk said the team was now used to the extreme conditions.
“The main challenge is to keep the roads in working order. The bulldozers are always on,” the 44-year-old told AFP.
The only time they stop, he said, is when temperatures drop below minus 35 degrees and visibility is below 50 meters (165 feet).
“The storms and snowfall are pretty heavy here.”
apo-emg / jbr / ach