Olympic Dam expansion: a risk too great


Although 80% of current revenue from BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam mine in South Australia comes from minerals other than uranium, recent drilling has shown that the site is home to the largest ore body of uranium in the world.

An expansion due to take place this year would expand the mine to a 3km wide and 1.5km deep hole in the ground. BHP Billiton is yet to submit its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. However, given the Rann Labor government's enthusiasm for turning the state into the "Saudi Arabia" of uranium production, many see the expansion as a done deal.

The process used to extract uranium at Olympic Dam is extremely environmentally damaging. Firstly, the deposit is blasted underground. It is then crushed into fine particles and hoisted to the surface, then treated in a copper sulphate flotation plant which removes most of the copper. It is then leached with sulphuric acid to dissolve the uranium and any remaining copper. This liquid is processed in a solvent extraction plant, separating uranium from the copper streams. The copper is recovered using electrowinning and the uranium is converted into yellowcake and calcined uranium oxide.

The waste, or tailings, consists of radioactive thorium, polonium, radium, bismuth and lead, retains around 80% of its radiation and has a half life of thousands of years. Around 35% of the uranium also remains in these tailings, posing a terrible risk. The tailings are put into a pit in the ground on top of a plastic liner to prevent leakage. The waste is then covered with a layer of earth and then water. According to documentary film maker David Bradbury in his film A Hard Rain, the liners used in these tailings dams will last around 30 years. BHP Billiton admitted to losing 3 billion litres of this radioactive water into the ground in 1994.

Olympic Dam also releases deadly radon gas from the uranium. Even the smallest doses of radon gas can cause cancer and birth defects. It is seven times heavier than air so it remains close to the ground and is odourless and tasteless. A Hard Rain explains that the radon gas has a half life of 3.8 days, which would be enough time to be blown to the nearby service town of Roxby Downs, the 550km to Adelaide or even as far as Melbourne and Sydney.

Olympic Dam is already responsible for 10% of South Australia's total power consumption. The proposed expansion would increase this to 25%, adding to the massive greenhouse gas emissions of the site — everything is taken in and out of Roxby by truck; every chemical, kilo of food, litre of diesel and all the minerals that are produced that head back out.

BHP Billiton currently admits to using on average 35 megalitres of water a day (approximately 35 olympic swimming pools) in the driest state in the country. This water is piped from two wells in the Great Artesian Basin. The expansion may require up to an additional 125 megalitres per day, which the company is proposing be met by building a desalination plant in the Upper Spencer Gulf. According to the BHP Billiton website, "the state government has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with BHP Billiton to jointly study the desalination option to meet both the needs of the future mine and to supply the communities of the Upper Spencer Gulf and Eyre Peninsula". However, concerns have been expressed over the impact of a desalination plant on marine life.

Currently 4000 people live in Roxby Downs and the population is expected to more than double if the expansion goes ahead. There is increasing concern that the company is minimising access to information about the health risks of working in the mine and living nearby. When Bradbury organised a screening of A Hard Rain in Roxby Downs, BHP officials discouraged workers from attending, implying that jobs and promotions would be compromised.

Radiation measuring badges of workers at Olympic Dam have returned readings as high as 10 and 11 millisieverts per year. One millisievert per year is generally considered acceptable for public safety. However, research by German scientists Kai Rothkamm and Markus Lobrich has shown that the double strand of DNA can break at radiation exposure levels as low as one millisievert, causing birth defects and cancer.

Anyone with confidence that an EIS will result in the rejection of a project that is environmentally damaging should bear in mind that in 1982 the state government signed the Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act that exempts BHP Billiton from the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the Development Act, Environmental Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act and Natural Resources Act. BHP Billiton's EIS is expected to be submitted early this year. Activists in Adelaide are planning a year of increasing anti-uranium activism to challenge the corporation, which made a record $13 billion profit last year.

Ruth Ratcliffe, a member of the Peace and Anti-Nuclear Action Coalition (PANAC), told Green Left Weekly: "South Australia faces serious water supply problems. We can't be using the world's most valuable commodity for the mining of something that doesn't have any benefits at all. Nuclear power is not clean, it's not safe and it's not cheap. The power needed is immense and shouldn't be used for this process at all, renewable or not."

Another PANAC activist, Leslie Richmond, added: "It is possible to stop the expansion, we just have to look at Jabiluka. A broadly based community campaign could stop the expansion of uranium mining in South Australia."

To get involved with PANAC phone 0403 679 742.

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