Despite ALP election commitments to "oppose any new uranium in South Australia", on September 30 Premier Mike Rann's Labor government announced final approval for Southern Cross Resources to expand uranium mining operations at the Honeymoon site, 75 kilometres north-west of Broken Hill. The announcement came just three days after the 50th anniversary of the first nuclear bomb test at Maralinga in SA.
The Honeymoon mine uses the most environmentally destructive method to extract uranium ore — a process known as in-situ leaching (ISL). This involves injecting large quantities of sulphuric acid into groundwater to dissolve uranium ore present in aquifers. The sulphuric acid solution, containing the dissolved uranium ore, is pumped back up to the surface and processed.
The mine waste (including radioactive particles and heavy metals) is dumped back into the groundwater. Under existing licence conditions, the Honeymoon mine operators are not required to rehabilitate the groundwater after the mine's closure.
Paul Vogel, the CEO of the SA Environment Protection Authority, which granted Southern Cross Resources the commercial mining licence, wrote on the EPA website that he was satisfied "Southern Cross Resources had demonstrated that it could protect workers, the public and the environment from radiological hazards".
The Rann government's decision contradicts previous advice by the 2003 Senate committee report Regulating the Ranger, Jabiluka, Beverly and Honeymoon Uranium Mines, which concluded that "the committee has grave reservations about the commencement of full-scale mining at Honeymoon. The use of the contentious ISL mining method coupled with the doubts surrounding the nature of the Honeymoon aquifer and its connectivity with other aquifers is reason enough for the committee to recommend that the project should not proceed."
The report emphasised that "at the very least, [ISL mines] should be subject to strict regulation, including prohibition of discharge of radioactive liquid mine waste to groundwater, and ongoing, regular independent monitoring to ensure environmental impacts are minimised".
The proposed new mine will use a complicated system, drilling through two upper aquifers in order to access the lowest "basal" aquifer. In droughts, water from the uppermost aquifer has been mixed with surface water and used as drinking water for livestock.
While the new mine has been described as "marginal" — producing 400 tonnes of uranium over 7-8 years — Australian Conservation Foundation anti-nuclear campaigner Dave Noonan points out that proponents will now try to have ISL mining at other uranium deposits in the region, such as Goulds Dam.
In an attempt to defend Honeymoon as within the ALP's "three mines policy", Rann argued that a mining lease was approved by the Liberal Premier Robert Kerr in 2002, placing Honeymoon outside the no-new-mines policy. The Honeymoon mine is the first approved by a Labor administration. In 1982, then Labor Premier John Bannon cancelled trials at Honeymoon.