Russia’s Nornickel Can Restore Water-Hit Mines, but Unclear When

By Polina Devitt | March 2, 2021

MOSCOW — Russian metals producer Norilsk Nickel can draw on Soviet-era know-how to clear two partly-suspended ore mines of water, but it is hard to predict how long the operation will take, two industry experts said.

Nornickel, the world’s largest palladium producer and a leading nickel producer, was forced to partly suspended operations at its Oktyabrsky and Taimyrsky mines in Siberia on Feb. 24 after it detected subterranean water flowing into the facilities.

The security of production and the Arctic environment at the $52 billion company, co-owned by businessman Vladimir Potanin and aluminum producer Rusal, have been in the spotlight since a major fuel leak at its power plant near the city of Norilsk and smaller accidents in 2020 and 2021.

The two mines account for 36% of all of Nornickel’s ore mined in Russia. The water inflow was detected at a depth of 350 meters in the Oktyabrsky mine during tunneling on Feb. 12.

The company said it would install a barrier to stop further flooding and deal with any accumulated water.

Nornickel has not disclosed how long it would take to fix the issue and how much of its mining operations have been suspended. It told Reuters on Tuesday it was doing its best to fully restore mining as fast as possible.

Its operations chief left this week as part of a management shake-up.

Professor Christian Wolkersdorfer, head of the International Mine Water Association, said Nornickel had the knowledge and equipment to restore the water-hit mines.

The flooding would be tackled by dropping concrete or synthetic material into gaps where water had collected, making it easier to pump water out.

He said the method had been partly invented and fully tested by Ernest Kipko, a Soviet Ukrainian professor.

“They (Nornickel) will be able to fix it because the inflow of water happened at the mine’s 350-meter depth mark. The mine is 850-meters deep, so they will ensure that the mine will not be flooded,” Wolkersdorfer said.

Such cases occur frequently in mines around the world, he added, saying it was not an overly complex problem for a big and experienced mining company to deal with.

Vladimir Sklyanov, a professor at Norilsk’s industrial university, told Reuters that creating an underground barrier and then deciding how to deal with any accumulated water was standard practice.

But he said the timing of the repair operation would depend on how strong the water inflow was.

The impact on mining operations was also hard to estimate, he said, because tunnel sections being mined changed frequently.

The area is a permafrost zone, which is present at up to 700 meters deep. Most ore in there is frozen and water in and around it therefore does not flow anywhere. But ore can fracture during tunneling and start thawing.

Empty or sponge-like spaces in the ore opened during mining may also be another reason causing increased inflow of water.

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