MAC: Mines and Communities

Australia: Rio Tinto's Ranger Mine suffers radioactive acid spill

Published by MAC on 2013-12-10
Source: ABC News, Bloomberg, Mining.com, ABC, Guardian (2013-12-18)

... and a second spill in their Namibian Rossing mine.

For previous article see: Australian uranium industry's poor record demands inquiry

Greens call for end of Ranger uranium mine operations after slurry spill

ABC News

8 December 2013

Rio Tinto's Ranger Mine suffers radioactive acid spill
A tank containing up to a million litres of uranium ore and acid spilled contaminated slurry. Photo: Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corp.

The Greens are calling for a permanent end to operations at the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory after a radioactive spill at the site yesterday morning.

A tank containing up to a million litres of uranium ore and acid split, damaging the crane that was trying to repair it and surrounding infrastructure at the mine near Kakadu National Park.

Mine operator Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) says it has contained the spread of the slurry, and has temporarily shut down processing operations at the site.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt says government officials have already been on site.

"It is unacceptable, it is something which we have taken immediate action of, and instructing that there be an immediate clean up," he said.

But West Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says the mine should now be shut down for good.

"The company thinks that the way to save operations at Ranger is to go underground through the 3 Deeps projects," he said.

"As far as the Greens are concerned the company should be as good as its word and close that facility when its lease runs out.

"I think this latest disaster doesn't improve anyone's confidence that the mine is capable of running for another 10 or 15 years."

Senator Ludlam says there are a number of lessons to be learned from the incident, and has called for the Federal Government to reconsider giving more approval power over uranium mines to state and territory governments.

"I think some short-term lessons include the company disclosing how many other of these leach tanks there are, and whether they're in the same condition as the one that burst," he said.

"But in the longer term, this is a very strong sign for Environment Minister Greg Hunt that under no circumstances should he let regulation of the uranium sector go back to the states and territories."

Radiation not the concern, says expert

A uranium expert at the University of Adelaide says the slurry that spilled from the tank is likely to have a low level of radioactivity.

Professor Steven Lincoln says uranium ore is broken down when it is mixed with either sulphuric or nitric acid, as part of the uranium refining process.

He says it is the acid, rather than the uranium, that is the concern.

"So at this level the radioactivity is not a worry," he said.

"The chemicals they used are more worrisome than the radioactivity.

"And sulphuric acid is a very strong acid, so it's something you keep very carefully under control."

ERA says it can confirm all the uranium and acid which spilled from the split tank has been contained within the mine's controlled water management system.

It says its water systems, including retention ponds, captured surface water from the area where the spill occurred.

ERA says the water system has ensured uranium and acid did not impact the surrounding environment, including Kakadu National Park.

A spokesman for the Federal Environment Minister also said the leak has been contained and will have no impact on the surrounding area.

The company says no-one was injured.


Rio Tinto's Ranger Mine suffers radioactive acid spill

Nichola Saminather

Bloomberg

9 December 2013

Rio Tinto Group's Energy Resources Australia said a tank split at its Ranger uranium mine, which is surrounded by Kakadu National Park, spilling a mixture of acid, ore, mud and water.

The 1,450-cubic-meter leaching tank developed a hole, which caused it to split and release slurry today, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Processing at the facility will be suspended while a clean up takes place, it said.

Operations at the mine must be suspended indefinitely and the company should conduct a full audit of the operations at the plant, the Australian Greens party said in an e-mail that described the spill as radioactive. ERA doesn't dispute that the slurry is radioactive, company spokesman Dan Hall said by phone today.

"Containment systems stopped the flow, and this has meant there is no impact to the surrounding environment," Tim Eckersley, general manager of operations at ERA, said in the company statement. "ERA is focusing on clean up and recovery."

World heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, located in Australia's Northern Territory, is the nation's largest national park, and more than half of it is Aboriginal land. While Ranger mine is surrounded by Kakadu, it's separate from the park, according to the company's website.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the traditional owners of the land, called for an independent investigation of the spill.

Justin O'Brien, chief executive officer of GAC, said photographs and descriptions from eye witnesses showed the tank burst with such force that it bent and twisted nearby infrastructure and coated equipment in the slurry.

"What could be safely described as one of Australia's biggest nuclear accidents has occurred," O'Brien said. "No one has demonstrated to us that there hasn't been contamination."

Rio Tinto owns 68.4 percent of Energy Resources.

--Editors: Garry Smith, Jim McDonald


A radioactive acid spill at Australia's Ranger Mine

Michael Allan McCrae

Mining.com

8 December 2013

A leach tank with 1,450 cubic metre capacity failed at Ranger Mine spilling mud, water, ore and acid.

Workers discovered the breech at 1 a.m. Saturday, a hole in the side of Leach Tank 1. A crane attempted to block the hole but was toppled when the tank gave way. No personnel were injured.

Energy Resources Australia (ASX:ERA), Ranger Mine's operators, said the spill was contained.

"Containment systems stopped the flow, and this has meant there is no impact to the surrounding environment," said ERA General Manager Operations Tim Eckersley.

"ERA is focusing on clean up and recovery, and the protection of the environment and the health and safety of our people remains paramount."

The company said that it is ". . . confident that the nearby Kakadu National Park will not be impacted as a result of this incident." The park, which surrounds Ranger Mine, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Production at the company has ceased. Federal and territorial regulators are investigating the incident.

The company said that ". . . is taking this incident extremely seriously."

On its Facebook page the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation called the accident a "catastrophic failure."

The company opened 9.62% lower at A$1.17.


One more spill at Rio Tinto uranium mine

Cecilia Jamasmie

Mining.com

11 December 2013

The Rossing uranium mine is the longest-running and one of the largest open pit uranium mines in the world, located in the Namib Desert.

A week before Rio Tinto's Ranger uranium mine in Australia's Northern Territory spilled a million litres of radioactive slurry, a similar accident had happened at the company's Rossing Uranium mine in Africa, the company confirmed Wednesday.

Rio's second major radioactive incident this month occurred on December 3, after one of 12 leach tanks in the processing plant at Rossing, located in the Namib Desert, failed.

The company, however, did not say how much of the radioactive slurry - which, like the Ranger spill, also contained acid - was spilled.

What Rio did say was that some employees were treated at the scene for "minor" injuries and that there was no environmental impact. It added the leach tank had structural damage and that the company was investigating the cause of the spill.

A Northern Territory Environment Centre spokeswoman told ABC News that the situation was "very concerning."

"Across two continents, within the same week, we have seen the same copy cat failure (...) It is just incredible that these types of incidents are happening on this scale," she was quoted as saying.


Rössing to investigate leach tank failure

New Era

12 December 2013

Rössing uranium mine has commissioned a full investigation into a leach tank failure at its mine. One of 12 leach tanks in the mine's processing plant failed at around 18h30 on Tuesday, December 03, 2013, causing a leachate spill, which was fully contained onsite and without any impact on the environment.

"The leachate is a mixture of crushed ore, water, acid, manganese and iron. Its uranium content is as in the mined ore (about 300 ppm), but diluted with the liquids, so radioactivity is significantly less than that of mined ore," explained Rössing Managing Director, Werner Duvenhage, in a statement released yesterday.

Duvenhage said the area where the tank failed has since been demarcated and made safe to prevent unauthorised entry.

Apart from minor first aid administered at the scene, no employees were reported to have sustained injuries or came into contact with the material during or after the incident.

Said Duvenhage: "The leachate was channelled in existing engineered trenches into an overflow sump within the area's containment systems, from where it will be recycled in the processing plant. Following the incident, regular measurements by the mine's Radiation Safety section have shown radiation dose levels have not increased and have remained well within safe levels."

Monitoring is said to continue to ensure exposure to the clean-up team will not exceed the normal occupational exposures in the area.

"Rössing remains at all times committed to the health and safety of the employees and the community and the protection of the environment. Rössing is working with the relevant regulatory authorities in Namibia in the management of the incident," added Duvenhage.

The mine's milling operation was stopped after the spill, but is expected to restart after restoration work has been undertaken. A restoration schedule is currently being developed.

Production in the other areas of the mine has not been affected and continues as usual. The cost of the restoration work as well as impacts on the mine's production and finances are yet to be determined.

Leaching is a step in the production of uranium oxide where the milled ore is leached in a sulphuric acid solution.


Is time up for Australia's uranium industry?

Dave Sweeney

ABC Environment

18 December 2013

Times are tough for Australia's yellow-cake industry. It is best to put the whole thing out of its misery?

IN THE EARLY HOURS of December 7, a crack appeared in a large leach tank in the processing area of the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park. The area was evacuated, the tank completely failed, the containment system was inadequate and one million litres of highly acidic uranium slurry went sliding downhill - taking Energy Resources of Australia's credibility with it.

The spill has left traditional owners who live and rely on creeks only kilometres downstream angry and "sick with worry" and raised profound concerns about the management culture and integrity of infrastructure at the mine.

Operations at Ranger are now halted. The mine operates inside Kakadu National Park - Australia's largest park and a dual World Heritage listed region. It, and its people, deserve the highest standards of protection, but sadly Ranger is a long way short of this.

The Australian uranium industry has long been a source of trouble. Now it is increasingly in trouble. The commodity price has collapsed, projects across the country have been stalled, deferred or scrapped and the recent Kakadu spill has again raised community attention and concern.

Business as usual in a most unusual business is not an option and there is an urgent need for an independent review. For those who make judgements on the basis of evidence rather than enthusiasm the alarm bells have been ringing loud for a number of years.

In March 2011, the world held its breath and the name Fukushima entered the global vocabulary. Fukushima means 'fortunate island' but the region's luck melted down along with the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the earthquake and tsunami.

The continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis was a game changer - not just for the hundreds of thousands of people directly affected whose lives will never be the same, but for the global nuclear industry. The industry has since witnessed the death of its public-relations-fuelled dream of a nuclear 'renaissance'.

In October 2011 the director of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office formally confirmed to the Senate "that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors".

Fukushima started inside a big yellow truck in Australia. Rocks dug up in Kakadu and northern South Australia are the source of the radioactive fallout now spread across Japan and well beyond - wandering in the winds, circulating in the currents.

And, appropriately, the market fallout from Fukushima has hit the industry hard. For a year the industry response was a combination of wait and see. Now it is increasing pack and run.
Market slow-down

The uranium price has fallen around 50 per cent since Fukushima and the share price of most of the uranium producers and players - including Paladin Energy, Energy Resources of Australia and Toro Energy - has kept it company on the way down, and then some.

With the uranium commodity price showing no sign of recovery, one of the sectors most enthusiastic promoters delivered a blunt verdict at an industry conference in Fremantle in July. John Borshoff, the head of Paladin Energy a company that, failing to get a mine up in Australia has moved operations to Africa, had a clear message: "the uranium industry is definitely in crisis".

This vote of no-confidence has been echoed and played out across the wider Australian industry.

Last year BHP Billiton, the world's biggest mining company, pulled away from a plan to commit over $20 billion to a massive new development at its Olympic Dam mine in northern South Australia. Despite sweetheart deals and a raft of government favours, the then BHP boss Marius Kloppers cited the "soft" uranium price and the "uncertain" future of the uranium market as a primary reason for the decision to put the plans on ice.

In a true case of voting with your steel capped feet, BHP went further, selling its undeveloped uranium assets in Western Australia and disbanding its dedicated uranium unit.

More recently, one of Australia's few approved and operating mines closed its doors. In November, the Honeymoon mine in South Australia ceased production and moved to extended care and maintenance status, again citing the poor uranium price.

Hard on the heels of this came the news that Marathon Resources, a uranium junior which had big ambitions to develop a mine in SA's gorgeous Gammon Ranges had instead decided to give the entire uranium game away, declaring the sector's "risks are more likely to exceed rewards".

And in Queensland, uranium hopefuls and the Australian Uranium Association are in closed door dialogue with the LNP state government seeking 'royalty relief', before they have even lodged an application to mine. Hardly the sign of a buoyant economic trade.

For the uranium sector it really does look like the Honeymoon is over and the Marathon is finished. And just as the sector was limping to the line for season 2013 the danger of Ranger became clear to all.

The most recent independent assessment of the Australian uranium industry - a Senate Inquiry in October 2003 - found the sector was characterised by underperformance and non-compliance, an absence of reliable data to measure contamination or its impact on the environment and an operational culture focussed on short term considerations.

Uranium mining is a high-risk, low-return sector that poses unique, unresolved and long-lived threats and does not enjoy secure social license. It is time for our politicians to stop accepting industry promises and start genuinely examining industry performance.

The uranium sector in Australia and internationally is cutting costs and cutting corners, the risks are growing and we have enough warnings. Now we need some action.

Seeking to assuage community concern after the Ranger spill federal Resource Minister Ian Macfarlane stated last week, "what we need to do is just have a process where the facts can be laid on the table."

We agree. It's called an independent public inquiry into the costs and consequences of Australia's troubled uranium industry.

Dave Sweeney is Nuclear Free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.


 

Kakadu mine: risk of uranium leakage could be greater than thought

Study shows the radioactive particles can escape into the environment, raising alarms about the national park

The Guardian (UK)

18 December 2013

The risk of uranium leakage from filtration systems used by facilities such as the Ranger mine in Kakadu could be greater than is currently acknowledged, with new research showing that the hazardous substance is far more mobile than previously thought.

A study published in Nature Communications found that seemingly immobile uranium particles "piggybacked" onto iron and organic material and flowed into a stream that joined a wetland in France.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said the findings were "alarming" given the proximity of the Ranger mine to the World Heritage-listed wetlands of Kakadu national park in the Northern Territory.

The ACF said the new European research called into question mine operator Energy Resources of Australia's practice of using a wetland filtration system to ensure uranium doesn't escape into the environment. A community of Mirarr people live about 10km from the Ranger mine.

Gavin Mudd, a senior lecturer in civil engineering at Monash University, said the uranium rehabilitation strategies used by Ranger and other mines would need to be reassessed.

"This research is extremely significant as strategies thought to control uranium migration in some circumstances don't work," he told Guardian Australia. "That's really problematic. It shows that we need to go back to the drawing board, look at all the factors involved in the mobilisation of uranium and have a rethink."

Professor Rizlan Bernier-Latmani, a co-author of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne-led report, told Guardian Australia that the research showed uranium could travel further under certain circumstances.

"Before, we knew that one form of uranium, uranium oxide, could move in the environment and to prevent it from moving we transformed it to uranium 4," she said. "Once we did that we could stop worrying about it because it wouldn't go anywhere.

"What we found is that particles, under special conditions, can move into groundwater and spread around. It needs to be an organic-rich environment, there needs to be iron and an absence of sulphate for this to happen.

"This is an added complexity that we need to be aware of. I wouldn't say it was a crisis or a huge concern, but it should be understood and action should be taken."

Last week, a leach tank at the Ranger facility collapsed, spilling a mixture of uranium, sulphuric acid and mud on the site. The federal government has shut down operations at the mine pending an investigation, although Energy Resources Australia, which is a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has assured local communities that the slurry was contained on site and wouldn't leak into the wider environment.

In a statement, the company said it had improved its water management capability in recent years, adding: "ERA is aware of the potential of wetlands to remobilise uranium. ERA and independent research providers have compiled a comprehensive body of research looking into the safe operation and progressive rehabilitation of the Ranger mine.

"As a result of this work, ERA is not solely reliant on wetland mechanisms to ensure the safe release of surface water from the mine site.

"Ranger mine is independently monitored by the commonwealth government's Supervising Scientist Division. In each of its annual reports, the division has confirmed that the surrounding environment has remained protected."

On the issue of the slurry leak, ERA said an investigation would determine the cause of the incident.

"ERA's containment management systems have prevented any impact on Kakadu national park," the company said. "Ranger mine's containment management systems fully captured the slurry material which escaped from a failed leach tank.

"These systems are in place to safeguard Kakadu national park. It is important to note that this is an onsite incident that was fully contained within Ranger's processing area. Monitoring has confirmed that creeks and billabongs surrounding Ranger mine have not been affected."

However, Dave Sweeney, nuclear-free campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation, told Guardian Australia that the research, along with the leak, raised serious questions about the way the Ranger mine was operated.

"The Ranger mine pumps a significant amount of water through a wetland filter and this research raises concerns that the mobility of uranium has been underestimated," he said. "If wetland filtration is a key plank of the process, as it is at Ranger, it rings alarm bells. There needs to be an urgent review and assessment of activities at the Ranger mine."

Sweeney said the Kakadu environment provided all the conditions for uranium mobilisation as identified in the report.

"You have a major industrial activity that deals every day with radioactive materials in an area of monsoonal wet tropics that's world heritage-listed and within Australia's largest national park," he said. "That's not a good combination. This report is a clarion call to scrutinise the assumptions underpinning this mine.

"On top of that, the Ranger mine is more than 30 years old and we are increasingly seeing metal fatigue and accidents, such as the one we saw so spectacularly 10 days ago. This really concerns us."

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