MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Another serious uranium mine spill at Olympic Dam in Australia

Published by MAC on 2003-10-17


Another serious uranium mine spill

Terry Plane, Michael McGuire and Amanda Hodge, The Australian

17 October 2003

Authorities were last night still mopping up a day after a serious spill released 110,000 litres of radioactive waste liquid at the Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine in outback South Australia.

While the Environment Protection Authority said it wasn't yet clear what caused the third such spill at the remote site this year, a WMC Resources source revealed the problem was caused by overflow from a clarifier tank.

EPA radioactive protection scientist Cameron Jeffries said preliminary investigations had revealed "no major radiological problems". He said no WMC workers had been exposed to the spill, containing 29 parts per million uranium, and none of the waste fluid had contaminated the "natural surrounds".

WMC, the company that operates the mine, yesterday quizzed plant operators, and EPA officials began investigating whether the company had breached provisions of its licence to mine uranium and copper at the site, 600km north of Adelaide.

State Environment Minister John Hill said the radioactive waste escaped from a processing tank but was caught in the mine's drainage system. Mr Hill said part of the EPA investigation would be a check on the radiation monitors of all workers in the proximity of the spill, which occurred at about 7.30pm on Wednesday.

WMC spokesman Richard Yeeles said the incident had occurred in their hydrometallurgical plant, where uranium and copper were extracted from crushed ore in an acidic "liquor". The material was contained to "the immediate area".

"It is a big spill - it is concerning," Mr Hill said. "We worry every time there's a spill."

EPA chief executive Paul Vogel described the spill as "serious", but was confident the radioactive waste had not reached subterranean aquifers. He thought the environmental harm was "negligible".

Dr Vogel said EPA officers would assess the adequacy of WMC's protection systems and that a separate, previously scheduled, audit of the Olympic Dam plant would begin on November 3.

It was the third spill at Olympic Dam this year. WMC reported that 63,000 litres of tailings solids and liquors leaked in August, with residual uranium content of around 30ppm. A bigger spill of 210,000 litres occurred in February when an automatic valve failed, causing pipe failure.

Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman David Noonan said the latest leak followed a pattern of poor performance in South Australia's uranium mines and called for immediate reforms to industry regulation.

On Tuesday a Senate inquiry criticised management of uranium mines and recommended regulation of the industry be taken away from resources departments and placed under the jurisdiction of environment agencies.

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