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By Virginia Heffernan

Cameco's McArthur River mine, located 620 km north of Saskatoon, is the world’s largest high-grade uranium mine. Ore is processed at the Key Lake mill 80 km southwest by road. Together, the McArthur River and Key Lake operations employ about 900 Cameco staff and almost 750 contractors who mostly hail from farms in southern Saskatchewan (about 55%) or from aboriginal or Metis communities in the north.

Anywhere from 6-10 planes arrive and depart from the mine every business day, with smaller "puddle jumping" planes arriving from the nearby communities of La Ronge and Buffalo Narrows and larger planes from Prince Albert and Saskatoon. Rick Morrison, manager of health and safety, likens McArthur River to a "mini-Canada", with representation from just about every religion and ethnic background. About 30% of the employees are female.

Given the nature of the commodity and the remote location, Cameco attracts skilled workers by offering generous wages of $35-50 per hour plus a 10% onsite allowance, a variety of high-quality meals, individual accommodations with in-room showers and cleaning services, extracurricular activities and on-the-job training. Employees are on a one week on/one week off FIFO schedule, with three weeks' paid vacation, for a total of 23 working weeks each year. Shifts are 11-12 hours per day (travelling back to camp for a one hour hot lunch is optional), seven days a week.

Here’s a typical day in the life an underground miner on day shift:

5:15-5:45 AM: Wake up, shower etc.

5:45-6:15 AM: Breakfast in the dining room, including a large buffet or eggs any style; miners prepare lunch if eating underground.

6:15-6:30 AM: Shuttle bus or ½ km walk to mine.

6:30 AM: Shift begins. Miners change into gear in "the dry". Cameco provides clean coveralls and undergarments for the miners daily.

6:45-7:00 AM: Daily safety seminar.

7:00-11:00 AM: On the job with one 15-minute break. Underground rescue stations are stocked with hot coffee, tea and soup.

11AM-12 PM: Walk or bus back to camp for one-hour lunch break with a full range of meal options; miners who choose to stay onsite are paid for the full hour with a half-hour break for lunch.

12-6 PM: On the job with two 15-minute breaks.

6:00-6:10 PM: Back to surface; shower and change into street clothes.

6:30 PM: Travel back to camp and dinner. The meal features at least three dinner options, including fish, and a large and varied salad bar, plus fruit and dessert. One night might feature Chinese food, another Ukrainian. Wednesday night is steak night.

7:00 PM: Free time: McArthur River is a dry camp, but there's an ongoing Texas hold'em poker game (in the camp lounge pictured left), running, cycling and baseball teams, yoga and other exercise classes, racquetball, golf, archery, curling and work out rooms. The nearby lakes are ideal fishing holes for walleye (pickerel), jack (pike) and trout.

11 PM: Noise restrictions imposed. Morrison says in all his years working at the mine, he can only recall a couple of incidents where late-night noise was a problem. Night-shift workers are housed in the upper floors of the accommodation complex (pictured left), with day-shift workers on the lower floors, so the two rarely meet.


More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit www.geopen.com