“IL EST MORT! He is dead!” At least that was the verdict of five French doctors who were on their way to a medical convention on the Paris to London Eurostar train in 2014, when they briefly examined “the body” of Stephen G. Roman, Global Atomic’s (TSX: GLO; US-OTC: GATF) founder, chairman and CEO.
“I was on my way to meetings in London after visiting our uranium properties in the Republic of Niger, West Africa, just north of Ghana,” Roman recounts. “I had not been feeling very well after I ate a meal before our roughly five-hour plane flight from Niamey to Paris, but I thought I would persevere. Just after being served dinner on the Eurostar, I violently vomited and passed out falling to the floor of the train.”
Luckily, on further examination, a nurse found his pulse and both Roman and George Flach, Global Atomic’s vice president of exploration, were evacuated from the train at Lille, France via ambulance, and brought to a local hospital with all their luggage, where after a day of intensive antibiotic treatment for a highly contagious and virulent intestinal bacteria, Roman finally started to recover. Quickly kicked out of the hospital in the pouring rain and feeling a bit unsteady, Roman and a still healthy Flach spent a night in a local hotel and finally got to London the following day and continued with their investor meetings.
It wasn’t Roman’s first brush with mortality. He almost died in 2007 from cerebral malaria – the deadliest form of the mosquito-born affliction – which he contracted from a near-empty swimming pool filled with the disease carrying insects, at his hotel in Agadez, Niger, just south of the company’s uranium properties. He had to spend almost six months recovering from that ordeal once he got back to Canada.
Needless to say, no one can doubt Roman’s almost “Indiana Jones” commitment to his shareholders and his focus on the prize: one of the largest, highest grade uranium deposits in Africa and potentially one of the world’s lowest-cost producers amongst the current crop of junior uranium explorers. Not only is Global Atomic’s Dasa project the latest of a string of significant mineral discoveries and mine developments that Roman has been involved with, but it also takes him back to his family roots.
The easy going and friendly Roman is considered “mining royalty” among many in Toronto’s tightly knit junior exploration community. His father, Stephen B. Roman, was the legendary and tough “Uranium King” who founded Denison Mines Ltd. and basically built the town of Elliot Lake in northern Ontario during the uranium boom of the 1950s.
At the age of five his father took him underground at the Denison mine. Roman remembers: “I went underground at Number 1 Shaft with my father and the then mine manager, John Kostuik who eventually became president of Denison. I was wearing shorts and big mucker boots and fell and cut my knee. Mr. Kostuik picked me up and I piggy-backed around underground on his back for the rest of the tour. When we came up the shaft to surface I went to sick bay to get the wound dressed. Very exciting.”
Over a three-year period when he was in university, he worked underground during off semesters, needing to first go through the Denison School Stope Mining Program and graduating as a hard rock miner. “I worked with a partner on a regular production beat,” Roman recalls. “I was trained on jacklegs, stopers and slushers, which were used at Denison since the orebody was fairly flat lying. This type of mining isn’t done much anymore because it is too difficult and people won’t do it. The drill/stopper, etcetera, is very heavy and the places I worked were the most difficult parts of the mine where mechanised machinery couldn’t go.”
During Roman’s early childhood, the Elliot Lake camp was the richest source of uranium, one of the most sought after and globally strategic minerals in the world at that time.
Cold War Nuclear Arms Race Needed Uranium
The deployment of Atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in 1945 effectively ended the Second World War. But in 1949, the U.S.S.R. exploded its own atomic weapon, shocking the Americans and starting the Cold War.
With the U.S. developing a more powerful hydrogen bomb in 1952 and the Soviets detonating their own a year later, the nuclear arms race was in full swing and the key ingredient both countries were desperately trying to find was uranium.
The discovery of the largest uranium deposits in the world at that time and the development of the Elliot Lake camp basically can be attributed to four key people: Franc Joubin, Joseph Hirshhorn, Arthur Stollery and Stephen B. Roman. Prospector and geologist Franc Joubin was the person who discovered the camp and was able to confirm the extraordinary richness of the deposits with an initial drill program funded by Joseph Hirshhorn, a well-known Toronto mining financier.
From an old geological map, Joubin realized that there was a distinct break between the old rocks and younger sedimentary deposits. The uranium was found at the bottom of the younger rocks. The contact between these two rock formations formed a rough “Z” pattern running northwest from the shore of Lake Huron for about 80 miles.They wanted total control over the prospective ground and conducted one of the largest and most secretive claim-staking initiatives in northern Ontario’s history, known as the “Backdoor Staking Bee” that was completed by July 1953.
It was largely successful and resulted in the development of nine mines, each with its own mill rolled into a company named Rio Algom. Joubin and Hirshhorn became multimillionaires when they sold out to Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO; ASX: RIO) years later.
During that staking rush, mine engineer and prospector Arthur Stollery managed to stake a strategic 83 claims on the north end of the “Big Z” near Quirke Lake. He eventually sold those claims to Stephen B. Roman for $30,000 and 500,000 shares of Consolidated Denison.
While not without his controversies, Stephen B. Roman’s life could almost fit into a Hollywood “rags to corporate riches” story. A Slovak immigrant who came to Canada in 1937, Roman worked in a variety of jobs that included farming, the Canadian army, munitions factory worker, auto assembly, and eventually into successful stock market speculation and investment.
The 83 claims Roman purchased from Stollery contained the largest uranium deposits in the camp and the development of two mines and a mill would be the foundation of one of Canada’s largest resource companies – Denison Mines (TSX: DML). By 1955, Denison’s exploration program had confirmed about 132 million tonnes of uranium ore grading an average of 2.86 pounds per ton or 377.52 million pounds of U308. Its potential yearly production could equal all the American uranium mines combined.
Denison’s corporate empire would eventually include metallurgical coal mines in British Columbia, potash developments in New Brunswick, cement production facilities in Canada and the United States, a 45% interest in Standard Trustco and oil and gas production in Western Canada and Europe.
The proverbial penny dropped in 1959, however, when the American government announced that it would not extend the uranium contracts for Denison and Rio Algom after 1962 as miners in the U.S. were then supplying much of the yellowcake required for that country’s nuclear hardware.
The incredible boom in Ontario went bust and the population of Elliot Lake shrank from around 25,000 to less than half that. With extended deliveries and government stockpiling, Denison Mines and Rio Algom both survived until nuclear power plants began operating in Ontario in the late 1970s.
The Northern Miner named Roman the newspaper’s first “Mining Man of the Year” in 1977 for his successful $7 billion Ontario Hydro contract, which at that time was the biggest uranium sale in history.
Critics were incensed at the high price Ontario Hydro had to pay for Ontario uranium and the New Democratic Party publicly demanded unsuccessfully that the government nationalize Denison Mines.
Stephen B. Roman died of heart failure at the age of 66 on March 23, 1988. In an obituary published in The Northern Miner, Franc Joubin, recalling the early 1950s, said: “Stephen Roman was a brilliant competitor whom I greatly respected. His qualities of global imagination, self-confidence, financial courage and sound judgment were extraordinary. He had few equals and no superiors in the intensely competitive world of mine finders.”
A devout Catholic, Stephen B. Roman was the main benefactor and builder of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Unionville, north of Toronto, which was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1984. The stunning architecture includes three gilded towers, the centre one being 210 feet tall. The church is an enduring legacy to his faith, his homeland (he detested Soviet imposed communism and oppression and was a life-long supporter of Slovak independence), hard work and the rich uranium deposits that fuelled his astonishing career.
Helen Roman-Barber, Roman’s oldest daughter who had been working at the company for a number of years took over the reins at Denison. It was a baptism of fire. Commodity markets in the late 1980s were going through an economic slump and Denison shares were plummeting.
The company was facing enormous financial challenges and with the prospect of bankruptcy, the board of directors brought in Bill James in December 1990. He had recently turned around troubled Falconbridge Ltd. and there were high hopes he could do the same for Denison.
Those high hopes came crashing down with the announcement by Ontario Hydro that it was cancelling the contract to purchase Denison’s fuel for its nuclear reactors. Denison’s declining ore reserves and high operating costs could not compete with the richer grades and lower prices for uranium in Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin. Denison closed its last mine in Elliot Lake in 1992. Rio Algom Ltd. closed its last mine in 1996.
That was the beginning of the end for Denison Mines, with massive divestures of most of the company’s primary assets. When the restructuring was finally complete, Denison was a shadow of its former self.
Stephen G. Roman recalls the difficult times at the company. “I was VP of Exploration, having discovered and working on a very promising gold deposit in Guyana when Bill James decided to close the exploration division and I found myself out of a job,” he said in an interview. “That deposit became the Aurora gold mine with roughly six million ounces, operated by Guyana Goldfields. It was taken over by a Chinese company last summer. That firing was the start of my junior mining exploration career.”
Like his father’s career, Roman’s career has had some significant successes. In 1993 he acquired a majority stake in the Glimmer gold property in the Timmins camp from Hemlo Gold Mines Ltd. He financed and built an underground mining operation, which is now called the Black Fox mine, owned by McEwen Mining (TSX: MUX; NYSE: MUX).
He rescued a stalled junior explorer, Harte Gold (TSX: HRT; US-OTC: HRTFF) in 2009, and with the help of his long-time friend and exploration partner Flach, discovered close to two million ounces of gold and financed and built the Sugar Zone mine and mill complex in White River, Ontario. The mine is now in production.
Roman also founded and financed Verena Minerals in Brazil, now called Belo Sun Mining (TSX: BSX), which is progressing the multimillion-ounce Volta Grand gold deposit to production. In addition, Roman was a key player in the development of Gabriel Resources (TSXV: GBU) and its Rosia Montana gold mine in Romania. The almost 20-million-ounce deposit is Europe’s largest gold deposit. The company is currently suing the Romanian government for blocking the project through the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes.
The highlight of his junior mining career so far, he says, was receiving the 2016 PDAC “Bill Dennis Award” for a Canadian mineral discovery or prospecting success, along with mine financier Rob Cudney and geologist John Whitton for Gold Eagle Mines’ Bruce Channel discovery in the Red Lake Camp in 2007. Goldcorp bought Gold Eagle for $1.5 billion the following year.
Moving into Niger
Fifteen years ago Roman set up uranium explorer Global Atomic and focused his search in Niger, the world’s fifth-largest uranium producer.
“When I set up Global Atomic in 2005, Niger was starting to open its world-class Tim Mersoi Basin, the source of all its uranium,” Roman recalls. “With a new mining code in 2006, permitting in that country became very efficient and streamlined whereas in Canada it can take up to 20 years to permit and build a uranium mine.”
Many geologists feel Tim Mersoi is in the same geological league as Canada’s Athabasca Basin and the French have been mining in the country since the early 1970s and are the largest private sector employer. Orano Mining SA, formerly AREVA, has two mines in Niger, Cominak an underground operation and Somaïr, an open pit facility, and two processing facilities all near the town of Arlit in the northwest part of the Country.
The country’s uranium potential intrigued Roman, so he contacted his associate and geologist George Flach, who was working on a gold project in Niger. “He knew the country well and together we acquired six concessions covering 3,500 square kilometers, all of which had prior work done on them by the French and Japanese,” Roman says. “The concessions were granted in 18 months and we began exploration in 2007.”
Three years later Global Atomic’s field crews made their first major discovery at Dasa, an acronym for Dajy Area Surface Anomaly. Exploration to date at the project, 105 km south of Arlit, has delineated a massive high-grade deposit that remains open on strike and down dip.
Based on a 1,200 part per million (ppm) uranium cut-off, indicated resources at Dasa stand at 7.9 million tonnes grading 4,483 ppm U3O8 for a total of 78 million contained lb., with additional inferred resources of 8.4 million tonnes grading 3,783 ppm U3O8 for a further 69.9 million lb. of U308.
In 2018, Global Atomic discovered the near surface, high-grade Flank Zone at Dasa, allowing the company to fast forward a revised plan to become a near-term producer.
Roman and his team hope to take advantage of a cyclical upturn in uranium demand. Combined with the exhaustion of some significant uranium deposits around the world, many analysts are predicting price increases in the next few years due to supply shortages.
In addition, the electrification of the world’s auto sector and increasing industrialization and urbanization are placing more demands on power generation. With roughly 50 nuclear power plants under construction in 15 countries and about 100 more planned, as well as designs for less expensive small modular reactors coming down the pipe, all are likely to add up to increasing demand for uranium.
In terms of mining jurisdictions, Roman says Niger is safer than many other countries in the region that can be unstable due to religious extremism, political instability and terrorist groups.
“The issue of terrorism often comes up but I need to remind investors that those issues are happening primarily in surrounding countries,” he says. “The borders are secure and Niger is very pro-western. The Tim Mersoi Basin is roughly in the centre of the country, almost 1,000 kilometres from any border, and we have a French military base to the north and an American base to the south. The Niger government is very keen to protect the uranium mines, which are a key source of foreign exchange and the country’s largest private sector employer.”
In addition, due to Orano Mining’s long history in the country, there is an established and very sophisticated network of supply and service companies and trained technicians for the industry, Roman says.
Diversifying risk with zinc assets
During the 2008 financial crisis, Global Atomic saw an opportunity to purchase an Electric Arc Furnace Dust (EAFD) plant at Iskenderun. The plant had been shut down after its owners went bankrupt and Global Atomic decided to try to put it back into production and approached Befesa Zinc, a company based in Spain that specializes in recycling steel dust, salt slags and aluminum residues and is the market leader in zinc recovery across Europe and Asia.
The two companies formed a joint venture in 2011 that processes electric arc furnace dust containing 25% to 30% zinc sourced from local steel mills. The end-product, a 70% zinc oxide concentrate, is then sold to smelters. Befesa Zinc is the main operator of the facility.
Global Atomic, which owns 49% and Befesa Zinc 51% of the joint venture, modernized and expanded the Turkish plant in 2019. The operation now has the capacity to process 110,000 tonnes of electric arc furnace dust per year, an increase from 65,000 tonnes a year previously, and produces roughly 60 million pounds of zinc annually. The US$26 million capex required to refurbish the plant should be paid back within one or two years depending on the price of zinc, Roman says. This will ensure a continuous revenue stream to fund the development of Dasa and Global Atomic’s other exploration projects in Niger.
For someone who has experienced mining booms and busts over the years, Roman is enjoying the current market potential he sees for both uranium and zinc.
“The long uranium bear market has really hurt exploration and mine development and the current Covid pandemic has disrupted monthly mine supplies up to 50% among some of the largest uranium producers,” says Roman. “And current zinc prices of US$1.28 a pound are adding to our cash flow and helping to finance development of our Dasa project without the need for excessive share dilution.”
Since Global Atomic started exploration in Niger in 2007, it has spent more than US$50 million on the exploration of four deposits. Though Dasa garnered the lion’s share of that work, the company is also advancing Tin Negouran (10 million lb. U308), Dajy (17 million lb. U308) and Isakanan (34 million lb. U308). (The figures are based on internal estimates.)
Roman says the high-grade Flank Zone, which is just one small part of the much larger Dasa deposit, has been the company’s primary focus over the past year, with about 80% of the zone running at over 1% U308. In May, the company completed a preliminary economic assessment on the Flank Zone alone. The average blended grade of the Flank Zone, using a 2,300 ppm cut-off, is 5,396 ppm or over half a percent U3O8, which is five times higher than Denison’s Elliot Lake mines. Being high-grade and close to surface allows Global Atomic to start mining with low start-up costs, Roman says.
The economics of the Flank Zone mine plan – or Phase 1 of the Dasa project — were based on US$35 per lb U308. The early-stage study outlined an after-tax net present value at an 8% discount rate of US$211 million, an after-tax internal rate of return of 26.6%, and all-in sustaining costs of US$18.38 per lb U308. Initial capex was estimated to run to US$203 million, including a 20% contingency. The mine would produce an average of 4.4 million lb. of yellowcake per year.
Global Atomic estimates 12 years of production from this initial mining phase using ramp production and conventional underground mining techniques as well as proven processing technology, currently being used at existing uranium mines in Niger. Ultimately, the Phase 1 plan will lead to a Phase 2, which Global Atomic will continue to mine along strike and down dip and could entail mining for another fifty years, Roman says.
“I think we have a tiger by the tail,” Roman says. “Our study confirms that the Dasa project can be a significant new supplier of uranium in the form of yellowcake, even in this low-price environment. And our project is ranked in the lowest quartile of the global cost curve. Of course, if uranium prices increase to $40 to $50 in the next few years, we will have a lot of very, very happy shareholders.”
Global Atomic signed a memorandum of understanding with Orano Mining in July 2017, to annually supply a minimum 100,000 tonnes of uranium-bearing rock to the French company’s Somaïr mill at its Arlit operations, about 100 km north of the Dasa project, for a minimum of five years. Discussions are ongoing and if successful, the arrangement would reduce upfront capital costs for the Dasa project.
Roman feels that in the best interests of his shareholders, Global Atomic will eventually need to build its own processing plant. To that end, the company has shipped a bulk sample of mineralized material taken from Dasa drill core to Process Research Ortech, a Canadian company (formerly the Ontario Research Council), in Mississauga, Ontario. Process Research Ortech has extensive experience in uranium extraction and metallurgy and designing flow sheets.
“We decided to run a pilot plant and have organized three processing campaigns,” Roman explains. “With each campaign we do more optimization and confirm the flow sheet design and reagents that we will ultimately use.
Results of this work will be announced in the first quarter of 2021. Our initial assessments show the metallurgy is clean, the recoveries are good, and the acid consumption is low. We definitely have a very viable project with the flow sheet that we have developed.”
The beginning of 2021 looks very busy for Global Atomic. The company received its coveted mining permit for Phase 1 of the project on Dec. 23 and is currently doing geotechnical drilling at Dasa so its rock mechanic consultants can complete a final mine design and layout. They want to get all the final design and engineering data completed by mid-2021 so that building of the mine can commence in early 2022.
“In a best-case scenario, we would like to confirm long-term off-take agreements with utility companies, which would allow us to go to the capital markets from a position of strength and build our processing facility at the same time as our mine,” says Roman. “However, we are more than capable of starting smaller and focusing on mine development and trucking ore to nearby processing plants in the short term. Combined with steady cash flow from our Turkish zinc operation, we have the option to build the Dasa project in stages.”
Coming full circle. Like father like son?
In 1965, the Elliot Lake uranium mines were struggling to stay open. Stephen B. Roman had signed a deal with France’s Atomic Energy Commission for 100 million pounds of yellowcake worth between $700 and $800 million dollars – tens of billions today!
It was stopped by Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Person due to American pressure, and the refusal of French Prime Minister Charles De Gaulle to sign a guarantee that no Canadian uranium would be used for military purposes (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement).
During an official visit to Montreal’s Expo ’67 while giving a speech to a large outdoor crowd, De Gaulle declared, “Vive le Québec libre!” Some feel it was political payback for Pearson’s behaviour during the uranium negotiations by a very proud but insulted De Gaulle and a French nation left without nuclear fuel.
The French ultimately took the cash they would have spent on Elliot Lake uranium and went to Niger, where they found new deposits to supply 30% of Frances’ uranium.
Fifty-five years later – depending on the success of Global Atomics’ marketing efforts – Stephen G. Roman might be selling uranium to France’s Orano for that country’s vast nuclear reactor fleet without government interference. One must admit, there seems to be some interesting irony and his father must be smiling approvingly!
–Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, freelance mining columnist and owner–editor of www.republicofmining.com.