A headache of Olympic proportions

The concept of ‘environmental protection’ has taken on new meaning with the announcement of Commonwealth environmental approvals for BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam copper/gold/uranium mine in South Australia.

We have the toughest environmental conditions that you’ll ever find imposed on a uranium mine,” Commonwealth Environment Minister Tony Burke stated proudly.

This is known in the technical literature as a ‘bald faced lie’. We know that, because the toughest environmental conditions found at a uranium mine are two thousand kilometres northward, at the Ranger Uranium mine on a lease chopped out of Kakadu National Park in the NT. There, the company is required to backfill the mine voids with their radioactive wastes, removing somewhat more than a hundred million tonnes of the stuff from the surface and dumping it back in the pit to be capped and revegetated as best as possible. In Kakadu, the company is required to isolate these wastes from the wider environment for a period not less than 10,000 years. This is clearly an impossible task, but a worthy ambition at least.

No such duty of care will be applied for the benefit of South Australians. Mr Burke has earnestly reassured us that conditions will apply for ten years after the life of the mine. He has granted approval for the mine tailings waste to be dumped and left out on the surface in apparent ignorance of the fact that the residual inventory of uranium 238 has a half life of 4.5 billion years, and that the mine wastes will contain a cocktail of unwanted daughter isotopes including radium, protactinium, radon gas and radioactive lead.
In the course of processing, the uranium ore is milled to the consistency of wet talcum powder and chemically treated to extract most of the uranium, leaving the rest of this toxic garbage behind. By 2020, with operations in full swing, the company informs us around 8 million litres of contaminated water will be leaching into local groundwater from beneath the largely unlined tailings structures, every day. The company has sought to minimise costs by lining only a small area of each tailings cell. The Minister has now agreed to require up to 4% of the Tailings Storage Facility to be lined. Stringent indeed.

Locked up in the host geology hundreds of metres below ground, the orebody poses no hazard to human health. Blasted free, crushed and left on the surface in colossal piles, it’s inevitable that this material will gradually work its way into the environment and the food chain, as it is at other neglected uranium minesites around the world.

Not all of it will be left in South Australia: BHP’s preferred project configuration has the majority of the uranium infused bulk copper concentrate sent to China for smelting, leaving much of the radioactive material someone else’s problem with some 1.2 million tonnes of BHP Billiton’s mine wastes to be dumped in China every year. But we’ll have our own legacy. Out to 2050, BHP plans to mill and dump 2.3 billion tonnes of toxic radioactive mine tailings waste material in outback South Australia. That will leave behind roughly 1.3 cubic kilometres of radioactive waste, enough to bury Adelaide’s central business district 370 metres deep (almost exactly three times the height of Adelaide’s tallest building).*

These back of the envelope calculations won’t be of the slightest interest to the assembled politicians who lined up to abase themselves before BHP’s otherworldly revenue estimates. It is assumed that the future will take care of the intractable wastes left behind, and there’s a grain of truth in this. Check your current federal budget and you’ll find several million dollars appropriated to assess a cleanup strategy for the relatively tiny Alligator Rivers uranium mines in the Territory. The cleanup bill for these radioactive hotspots mined out a half century ago will look like loose change compared to the liability being planned for future taxpayers as a result of this decision.

Radioactive wastes cause cancer, a small detail that doesn’t get much of a mention in BHP’s environmental documentation. Something has gone deeply wrong here. It is by no means certain that this project is going ahead, for reasons more to do with global market instability than anything else. But what confidence should we have in our body of environmental law, built up over a generation, when the creation of a carcinogenic waste pile the size of a small mountain range is not only legal but cause for celebration?


* By 2050, 2.3 billion tonnes of ore will have been milled with a small fraction of concentrate removed for export. At an average density of 1.8 tonnes per cubic metre, this leaves us with 1.3 cubic kilometres of waste. A rough check reveals central Adelaide is 1.6 km x 2.2km square, or 3.52 km2. Dividing this surface area by 1.3 cubic kilometres buries Adelaide under 370 metres of the stuff.