The folly of making perfection the enemy of excellence

Ben Heard of DecarboniseSA asked if I’d like to reproduce his recent post, to give it exposure to the BNC audience. Given that I’m still in Spain and will be for a while, I’m happy to oblige. I think it’s an excellent piece — as I’ve come to expect from Ben — and I hope you find it interesting and useful.

——————–

The folly of making perfection the enemy of excellence: a visit to Beverley Uranium Mine

by Ben Heard

Today I visited the Beverley uranium mine in northern South Australia, operated by Heathgate Resources. Heathgate have been a client of mine through ThinkClimate Consulting for the last two years for the delivery of mandatory greenhouse gas reporting under NGER.

View to the foot of the Gammon Ranges, on approach to Beverley

It was clear skies on the flight in, showing an amazing landscape at the foot of the Gammon Ranges on the border of the Arkaroola pastoral lease. From the air the low vegetation takes on a wonderful patterned effect. It is a stunning view, with visible water courses snaking across the land. It is easy from that height to envisage that it was once covered in ocean.  In both the landscape of eroded mountains and the creatures that inhabit it, tell-tale signs of truly ancient history abound.

As you approach the site in from the air, the various locations that make up the Beverley operation begin to appear. Each is truly unremarkable in size, no bigger than a block you might find in an industrial suburb of Adelaide. Even taken together it is a small imprint on the land.

The main facility of Beverley (foreground) and accomodation (background). Image is from Australian Geographic and provided by Heathgate

From ground level you could be forgiven for thinking the landscape of the plains is a “barren desert”. Nothing could be further from the truth. On a simple site visit I saw wedge tailed eagles, nesting and flying, a beautiful small lizard whose name escapes me and a truly wonderful example of a bearded dragon basking on the road. This critter was too bold for his own good and was impervious to our best efforts to shoo him away. He simply was not afraid. A true highlight of the day was the head of Health, Safety and Environment picking this feisty fella up on a shovel and carrying him into the scrub, hopefully to safety.

The regular wildlife surveys reveal a multitude of birds, insects and reptiles, from tiny banded snakes to big lace monitors and woma pythons. After enough rain, the local water course, previously dry as a bone, abounds in a fish called the Spangled Grunter. As a word-lover, I am so, so glad to know of the existence of something called a Spangled Grunter.

Bearded dragon. Not the one I saw unfortunately (technical issues at that moment)...

But I was not there to check out the local fauna. I was lucky enough to see most of the facilities and processes and see how this form of mining works up close.

My registration as a day visitor included notification that this was an area of naturally elevated radiation. I queried the radiation protection officer on this. Working here for a year, exposure of about 2mSv could be expected. You would receive a larger dose of radiation taking a flight to London than visiting the mine for a day, but I have never been warned ahead of boarding the aircraft. Oh well, such is insanity.

Following registration at the main camp (which, by the by, is every bit as pleasant, both in the view and the facilities, as many tourist locations) I was fortunate to have a good tour of the processing facility with the radiation protection officer. Having visited many industrial sites in my time, including a few mines, one of the strongest impressions of Beverley is that it is neat, tidy, and remarkably quiet. It struck me as particularly safe for such an operation. The liquid ore for the main plant arrives for processing in pipes from the main deposit, with some trucked in from the satellite locations. The trucks in question are not your frighteningly oversized Caterpillars, but rather modest and road-legal tankers. So there is minimal heavy vehicle movement, and the materials and ore are essentially never exposed until the dried uranium oxide (yellow cake) is loaded into drums (an automated process, within a sealed room) at the far end of the process.

We visited one of the satellite well fields where the in-situ leaching process takes place. As I have previously described, it very much resembles a big above ground plumbing apparatus with two large trunk lines, one marked “IN” the other marked “OUT”, that then diverged into perhaps a couple of dozen injection and extraction wells.

In situ leaching well heads (file shot, provided by Heathgate)

Here, a solution of hydrochloric acid was being injected below the surface to dissolve the ore. The well fields are pretty small, and the disturbance is minimal. The area has been cleared to permit the mining. When the ore has been extracted, rehabilitation consists of cutting off the well heads to a depth of 2m below grade, backfilling the wells with concrete, covering the wells, and then furrowing the area to facilitate re-colonisation by the local vegetation (to provide a simple description of the process). Truly, this is very low impact mining. There is a good discussion of the overall process in this transcript from Catalyst (NB this reference is 5 years old. Some of the processes are slightly different to those I saw).

This fluid that has been injected is then extracted with a solution including dissolved uranium. The uranium is stripped out of the fluid by bonding with a resin. The resin is then stripped away and reused, and the solution is dried and packed into drums as yellowcake. For export of course. We don’t use it here. Heaven forbid. That would be… fill in the blank folks. What would that be? I can’t come up with much except “exceedingly sensible”. Others seem to come up with things like “ecological catastrophe”.

In situ leach mining for uranium

How can such divergent views of the same processes and products exist particularly among people who all claim a care for ecology and our natural environment?

In my fairly brief time as an advocate of nuclear power, I have heard some criticism of the type of process and operation that is delivered at Beverley. The first is that polluted waste solution is re-injected into an aquifer. That’s 100% correct, it is. Some context is required though. Prior to use for this mining purpose, the contents of the aquifer in question are no of use for other common purposes like, for example, agriculture. It is salty and, self evidently, radioactive. The solution that is reinjected is, quite obviously, less radioactive than when it came out. From the point of view of Heathgate, the less radioactive the better; it means they are capturing more product, and making more money. The radioactive material that is re-injected is more mobile than it was before (for a period of some years or perhaps decades), but there will be less of it, and on the basis of the geological surveys, the aquifers are isolated, as I discuss further below.

The second main criticism I have heard is that operations like this run the risk of polluting the Great Artesian Basin. You would expect the folks at Heathgate to take care of this. Why? They run on-site desalination from the Basin to supply their potable water. Pollution of this water source is most certainly not in their interest.

More to the point though, it would be virtually impossible, for two reasons. Between the aquifers that are being mined and the GAB is a very large, impermeable layer of clay. Accessing the Basin by accident is nigh on inconceivable. If one did though, the pressure from the basin would be such that the chances of actually getting anything in there are practically nil. That is what the word Artesian in Great Artesian Basin means: a water body under positive pressure.

That leaves the possibility that there is some obscure innate ecological value that is being disturbed by using the aquifer in the first place. I suppose this is possible. But I seriously doubt it, and in a world of trade-offs, whatever impact we impose by this re-injection is very good deal for the benefit we derive, and considering the extent of damage caused by the alternatives. Thank goodness for you, you don’t have to take my word for it, or Heathgate’s:

Overall, the process of ISL mining of uranium has considerably less environmental impact than other conventional mining techniques. Both sites, which are remote from urban areas and occur in semi-arid pastoral country, have relatively small surface footprints, are environmentally conscious and have initiated some world’s best practice techniques. Both sites are considered to be compliant with the many Acts, Codes of Practice and Regulations.

The use of acid rather than alkaline leaching and disposal of liquid wastes by re-injection into the aquifer is contentious. Available data indicate that both the leach solution and liquid waste have greater concentrations of soluble ions than does the pre-mining groundwater. However as this groundwater has no apparent beneficial use other than by the mining industry, this method of disposal is preferable to surface disposal. Although not yet proven, it is widely believed and accepted that natural attenuation will result in the contaminated water chemistry returning to premining conditions within a timeframe of over several years to decades.

CSIRO Land and Water 2004 Executive Summary

The ore-bearing sands (Beverley Aquifer) are completely confined by clays above (Beverley Clay) and below (Alpha Mudstone)

CSIRO Land and Water 2004, pg 21

These very simple and straightforward realities beg the question for me of how people can get so excited about this place and this type of mining. The fact is, whether it is food, energy, water or any of the other goods and services humans enjoy, essential or non-essential, we never, ever get something for nothing. We will, and must, make an impact. The challenge of attaining sustainability in a world that is heading for 10 billion people is to minimise our negative impacts both in quantity and dispersion and, where possible, be smart in our actions to enhance and increase positive impacts. Deciding whether a process or product is “good” or “bad”, “desirable” or “undesirable” is therefore an entirely relative concept. It is quite devoid of meaning unless the action under judgement is being considered for impacts in many areas of sustainability, and alongside the alternatives.

In a nut shell, the operation at Beverley clears very discreet patches of land, takes otherwise unusable aquifers, acidifies some of the liquid in the formations, extracts it, takes the uranium, and returns the waste to the aquifer, where it stays. In return, we get the raw material to enrich and then fabricate fuel for the generation of a staggering quantity of energy. We get that energy with no greenhouse gas, particulate pollution, or other nasty airborne pollution. From an sustainability perspective, it is not perfect. It is merely excellent.

Contextualising the negative impacts of the mining is only possible when you appreciate the scale of the energy being exported. In the packing plant, a shipping container awaited with about 60 drums of yellow cake, each weighing around 290kg. That’s 17.4 tons of U3O8 awaiting export. This will go on to provide around 8.7 million GJ of zero carbon energy in typical modern light water reactor. For comparison, my flight home took me via Pt Augusta, where I enjoyed a view from the air of the Northern and Playford coal fired power stations. To generate the equivalent energy contained in the shipping container of U3O8  from these stations would demand the digging and transportation over 13,000 laden railway cars.

A much younger me visiting the Leigh Creek Coal Mine, 2002. I dare say the hole is a bit bigger these days. I have less hair...

As the depleted uranium from the enrichment process and the waste products from the power generation plants find their way to Integral Fast Reactors, about another 250 times the energy will then be available, at no additional mining impact.

This world of ours is full of complex decisions that need to balance competing needs to attain something called sustainability. The last thing we should be doing is making the easy ones harder than they should be.

This is an easy one. If you want a good outcome for global sustainability, in-situ leach uranium mining for nuclear fuel is a hell of a good deal. Australia should do more if it.

If you just want amazing views and some close encounters with bearded dragons, try and get a seat on the flight to Beverley.

Many thanks to Sue and Martin, my hosts and guides for the day.

About these ads

28 Comments

  1. USGA report on ISL operations in US mines report that it is very difficult to remediate ground water sources for Uranium and Selenium. No wells were able to be returned to baseline conditions after mining, there is no effective groundwater remediation plan for accidental contamination (from well casing or cementing failures, blowouts, above ground spills from pipeline or storage liner breaks, other drilling concerns … so the risk is very high), long-term stabilization of sites is still a significant concern, bioremediation may be an important future tool (but has not been adequately studied or tested yet). Authors conclude: “To date, no remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions” (here).

    Current research for the NSF re-iterates the same: “Current immobilization technologies in use or under research include chemical precipitation of U(VI) and the chemical or biological reduction of U(VI) to U(IV) and precipitation of insoluble uraninite (U(IV) oxide). At ISL sites in Wyoming and Texas, none of these methods has successfully remediated the groundwater to the US EPA MCL after mining operations ceased” (p. 2).

    Since ISL is often used as a cost effective strategy for mining low grade ores … best practices and diligent oversight and regulation of ISL mining operations is also a key concern: “alarming volume of environmental violations” at Cameco Corp.’s ISL mine in Wyoming (Casper Star-Tribune). Fuller list of ISL environmental impacts and ongoing groundwater reclamation efforts here.

  2. Here are the conclusions from the USGS report cited by EL:

    ‘Conclusions

    Can we answer the question: “Has any ISR mine in the United States returned post-mining groundwater to baseline?” Answer: Not based upon analysis of the Texas database because “final value” records were found for only 22 of 77 PAAs (13 of 36 mines).

    We can conclude that in Texas, ISR mines are characterized by high baseline arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, radium, and uranium. After mining and restoration, for those well fields that reported “final values” in TCEQ records, more than half of the PAAs had lowered levels of many elements, including some that dropped below MCL.

    Of those elements for which MCL is established, the majority of PAAs showed increases in uranium and selenium after mining and restoration and decreases in arsenic, cadmium, fluoride, lead, mercury, nitrate, and radium to below baseline for the majority of well fields.

    Analytes for which secondary standards have been established show that sulfate is the only constituent that increased in the majority of well fields after mining and remediation, whereas chloride, TDS, iron, and manganese decreased. Chemical constituents for which no MCL or secondary standards were set are higher than baseline for calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, conductivity, alkalinity, and ammonia. Sodium, potassium, silica, and molybdenum were lower than baseline in the majority of well fields after mining and remediation.’

    If you look at the third paragraph you might be tempted to ask, why ‘remediation’ should be a goal? I tend to think of ‘remediation’ means restoring to whatever other productive use the land could have (one could define this broadly). Not, to restore to exactly the same state … how would that be possible for any mining operation?

  3. Yes. This is beautiful country. I worked over a wide area of the country nearby in 1967-1968 with the Electrolytic Zinc Company, prospecting for willemite, (zinc silicate) and on drilling the ore body which is now the Beltana mine.

    EZ company had found some. It was the only known deposit outside Iran, and is an essential flux used in the smelting of sphalerite (zinc sulphide, the main ore of zinc). The world was dependent on the Iranian ore deposit for the supply of willemite, although only very small quantities were needed. Part of my work was drill supervision to delineate the orebody. It is now the Beltana mine, an open pit mine.

    I recently revisited the area again with Terry Krieg. I love the area. We looked out over the Beverly Mine from the north end of Arkaroola. We were most surprised by the small visible impact of the mine site.

    It is easy from that height to envisage that it was once covered in ocean.

    That statement doesn’t do its significance justice. It contains the world’s type section for the Arcadia period. This is the last period of the Precambrian era. There is a continuous sequence of rock with nothing missing,
    from the last snowball ice through the period when multicell life began. That is a continuous record from about 650 to 500 million years ago. It records how sea levels rose and fell, the tectonic events as Australia pulled away from South America and sediments filled the ever widening sea and ever deepening basement, rainfall, sedimentation, meteorite impacts and the first of the multicell animals. Importantly it records the deposits with rocks dropped from melting icebergs. At the time the location was at latitude 7 degrees north – i.e close to the equator.

    Fascinating country. What a history.

    You say:

    You would expect the folks at Heathgate to take care of this. Why? They run on-site desalination from the Basin to supply their potable water. Pollution of this water source is most certainly not in their interest.

    I think that is a very weak reason and should not be used. We all know that mining companies have a time frame of the life of the mine, whereas once we the Great Artesian Basin is polluted, the damage is irreversible. After all, that is one of the main reasons for opposing the CSG development – the risk to the GAB. So it should not be used as an excuse for this. Neither do I have a lot of faith in the claims about unbreachable clay layers. The one sound reason you give, in my opinion, is the fact that the water pressure in the GAB aquifers is higher than in the orebody aquifer. Therefore, any hydraulic connection would allow water to pass out of the GAB not into it.

    In comparing uranium mining versus coal, someone made a comment on BNC recently that made the point: What would you prefer? One ship in and out of Darwin or Adelaide or 20,000 ships of same tonnage passing in an out through the Great Barrier Reef.

  4. gricowan,

    When Atomic Energy Canada began the development of their Underground Research Laboratory in Manitoba Canada, as part of the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program, one of the first things they did was to characterise initial conditions at the site before disturbance. This included characterisation of ground water over a wide area of the Canadian Shield and to depths down to 1000m.

    One of the surprising results was that natural concentration of uranium in the ground water was high (from memory it was well above allowable drinking standards, but I may have that wrong). Water with high uranium concentration was the drinking water for many towns on the Canadian Shield – eg Lac du Bonnet.

    AECL designed and built a filter to remove the uranium. It was inexpensive and provided to all the towns and from memory was cheap enough for individuals to purchase them for their own water supply. I ma have some of these details wrong but could get them if there is an interest.

    So, for me, your one-line comments is not a concern.

  5. @SteveK9, I think your thinking is spot on. We need to make sure our actions actually serve our sustainability goals. We can insist on no change in conditions, and simply regulate a process like ISL out of existence. This would obviously suit some people. But then we have to do something else instead which is almost guaranteed to be far worse. Is anyone seriously suggesting that big hole in the ground at Leigh Creek is going to be returned to “baseline conditions”? Replacing all the critters that were displaced along the way? I think not. Can we return our climate to “baseline conditions”?

    The information from @EL to me raises the question of not can we achieve perfect baseline conditions again, but need we? The message of this post is “choose your impacts”. It looks to me like ISL as it has been practised in Australia so far is a heck of a good choice.

  6. Ofc ISL changes the chemistry of the aquifer it taps for it’s mining purpose. It’s removing minerals from it. once depleted it will never go back to being exactly the same, and that should not be the goal either.
    these elements were in practice being cleaned out of the aquifer in the process:
    arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, radium, and uranium.

    None of these elements are wanted in potable drinking water. so taking them out moves the aquifer closer to being potable than ever before. we do not at present have non energy intensive ways to actually clean this water to potable status. but that would be the holy grail of ISL technology. imagine actually getting close to 100% of all the goodies locked away in that ISL site. would that be a miners wet dream or what?

  7. Excellent and informative article, Ben.

    It’s a pity that a scattergun blast of largely irrelevant, cherrypicked quotes has been used by an early commenter in an attempt to discredit your work. Sure, somewhere on our planet, similar operations have been found to be not perfect. So what?

    As you stated so prominently, it is indeed folly to make perfection the enemy of excellence. The operation you describe is truly excellent.

    If only the coal mines close to where I live or the one you used as an example, Leigh Creek, were so environmentally benign or had such a high energy rate of return on energy invested.
    (Deleted personal opinion of another commenter’s position.)

    Is EL advocating open pit mines in preference to in-situ leaching?

  8. @ John Bennetts

    If you look at the Conclusion I quoted from EL’s link, you will see that the operations in the US on a qualitative basis look good. An increase in uranium dissolved in the water offset by a decrease in dissolved lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, radium … Seems OK to me. Not that this sounds like potable water before or after, but it without a detailed analysis of toxicity (which was not in the report), it sounded like an improvement to me … who cares if it is not returned to baseline?

  9. PL@9:02AM
    Thankyou for your lesson on the Arcadia period but I think most of the commenters here know what caused the previous changes in Earth’s temperatures, sea level rises and ice cover. I believe climate scientists may also understand the phenomena behind these geological changes. (Snipe deleted)

  10. @John Bennetts the capacity of some to simply avoid a point that is hard to argue in favour of sniping with selective quotes does indeed seem boundless. I couldn’t bring myself to do it personally. I’m always reassured by the fact that posts have far more readers than commenters; it’s not actually representative. Thanks for the compliments on the post.

    @Steve K9 thanks for actually rounding out the reference with the conclusions… amazing how what one can find seems to depend on what one may be looking for!!!

  11. Thanks Ben. Has any clapped out sheep or cattle farm been returned to “base-line” conditions after the operators went broke or left for any other purpose? Have the extinctions been reversed? The forests or woodlands restored? The introduced species of non-native grasses removed (there have been about 5000 introduced)? Have any introduced dung beetles been un-introduced? Have all the toxic sheep dips been dealt with?

    On the last, the answer is NO. There are 25-50,000 disused sheep dips in NSW alone … all are a water hazard …

    http://www.atse.org.au/resource-centre/func-startdown/217/

  12. @Ms Perps it is not often I feel the need to leap to the defence of PL. but the geological history of the area is completely fascinating and defies basic expectations in many ways i.e in cooler periods with a lot of ice, the inland ocean was still present, whereas warmer periods of higher sea levels saw the ocean disappear. Tectonic action raising and lowering the whole continent was apparently the reason for this. It is really interesting stuff and I’d be prepared to give PL the benefit of the doubt on that one.

  13. Ben, great article. The line that reads : “Prior to use for this mining purpose, the contents of the aquifer in question are no of use for other common purposes like, for example, agriculture.”

    has a typo? assume this means “now of use” ?

    Could you elaborate briefly on the agricultural uses as it pertains to your sentence?

    This page for example mentions agricultural use of radiation but lacks any further detail ->

    http://www.aboutnuclear.org/view.cgi?fC=Radiation_and_Radioactivity,Benefits_of_Radiation

    Agriculture — The increase in the volume and quality of grains and cereals has been vastly improved by selectively growing superior strains labeled by radioactive isotopes. These improvements are helping to alleviate famine in third world countries.

    & ANSTO has a short page here->

    http://www.ansto.gov.au/nuclear_information/benefits_of_nuclear_science/food_and_agriculture

    and a little further info here ->

    http://www.ansto.gov.au/nuclear_information/benefits_of_nuclear_science/food_and_agriculture/nuclear_science_for_agriculture

  14. John Bennetts wrote:

    If you look at the Conclusion I quoted from EL’s link, you will see that the operations in the US on a qualitative basis look good. An increase in uranium dissolved in the water offset by a decrease in dissolved lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, radium … Seems OK to me … who cares if it is not returned to baseline?

    Decarbonise SA wrote:

    The information from @EL to me raises the question of not can we achieve perfect baseline conditions again, but need we?

    Two articles on ISL may be worth looking at, and particularly from an Australian perspective (Beverley and Honeymoon projects). Gavin Mudd teaches civil engineering at Monash, and is a specialist in groundwater hydrology, containment migration modeling, mine wastes, and sustainable development of groundwater.

    A) Mudd, Gavin M., “Critical review of acid in situ leach uranium mining: 1) USA and Australia.” Environmental Geology 2001. 41:390-403.

    B) Mudd, Gavin M., “Critical review of acid in situ leach uranium mining: 2) Soviet Block and Asia.” Environmental Geology 2001. 41:404-416.

    At time of review, US had no in-situ acid leach solution mines. Rather, most of their mines use alkaline reagents. The former Soviet Block countries have the majority of experience with this type of solution mining. US had several test projects (Nine Mile Lake and Reno Lake), but each resulted in “potential problems”: 1) gypsum plugging wells and reducing formation permeability, 2) and precipitation of gypsum following restoration “leading to increased salinity and sulfate levels in groundwater” (a: p. 395).

    Mudd adds: “The environmental regulation of mining generally requires the restoration of affected groundwater to be returned to its pre-mining quality or use category. In countries controlled by the Soviet block, the need for restoration of contaminated groundwater following mining was ignored during operation, and the problems and magnitude of groundwater contamination, which are now coming to light in the 1990s, can only be described as extreme” (a: p. 390). The US has historically decided not to license acid leach mines (but to stick with alkaline reagents and post-mining groundwater remediation). This has not been the case in Australia. Beverley and Honeymoon are both acid leach sites, and “Australian ISL projects – historically and currently – proposed not to restore affected groundwater after acid ISL mining” (a: p. 390). Any changes to these environmental practices or standards would definitely be worth passing along.

    The second article by Mudd reviews the historical experience of acid leach mining in the former Soviet block with few groundwater restoration standards in place. Mudd writes: “There has been significant contamination of groundwater at most ISL sites” (b: p. 406), at some locations 27 times the regulatory limit. “At some sites, this contamination has migrated considerable distances to impact on potable drinking water supplies. For other sites, the potential for contamination to reach an undesirable receptor remains significant” (b: p. 414). In addition, many decommissioned sites are closed to local drinking water collection, and restoration efforts are “proving difficult, both technically but also because of a lack of financial resources in these countries” (b: p. 414). Natural restoration is not working at any of these locations, and Mudd recommends (based on this experience) requiring “funds for restoration prior to the commencement of mining” (b: p. 415).

    After reviewing the two proposals for Beverly and Honeymoon in 2001, and in light of the extensive historical and environmental record of acid solution mining in former Soviet Block going back 20-30 years, Mudd concludes: “In Australia, the results from acid ISL trials at Beverley and Honeymoon have never been sufficiently published and thus information is limited on their impacts. Critically, the issues of geochemical conditions in the groundwater following mining have not been satisfactorily addressed, with no clear evidence of natural attenuation at either site. The current configuration of the Beverley and Honeymoon projects – acid leaching with no restoration of polluted groundwater – is more akin to practices in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, where the available evidence suggests that natural attenuation fails to reduce the impacts from such mines (Mudd 1998 and 2001). The standards applied at the Australian sites are not considered an acceptable approach for an arid region that is almost entirely dependent on groundwater” (a: p. 401-02).

  15. EL, do you know if these groundwater sources would be used in any case at all? Even without an ISL mine, the uranium ore body contacting the groundwater would result in illegal levels of radionuclides in the water (especially uranium decay products and also uranium oxides which are toxic). My company tried to get a permit for using groundwater and it wasn’t allowed due to trace arsenic naturally occuring in the rock. It was really not a large concentration. The standards for potable water are very stringent.

    Also I think the choice of alkaline or acidic selection is more complicated. According to the World Nuclear website:

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf27.html

    ISL mines in the USA use an alkali leach due to the presence of significant quantities of acid-consuming minerals such as gypsum and limestone in the host aquifers. Any more than a few percent carbonate minerals means that alkali leach must be used in preference to the more efficient acid leach.

    Looks like acid leach is typically more effective, with alkaline leach being the only option for rocks with lots of gypsum or limestone.

  16. Cyril R. wrote:

    EL, do you know if these groundwater sources would be used in any case at all? Even without an ISL mine, the uranium ore body contacting the groundwater would result in illegal levels of radionuclides in the water (especially uranium decay products and also uranium oxides which are toxic).

    Yes, Mudd writes that even with lax regulations and low oversight of industry in Soviet block countries, one mine site was closed at the time due to contamination of drinking water sites (in Bulgaria), several sites now have active exclusions zones (where potable drinking water cannot be collected), leaching solutions have shown up in private drinking wells, and a large number of sites are “close to areas where potable quality groundwater is extracted by local communities or the groundwater is considered to be an important future water resource” (b: p. 207). Spills and a lack of oversight over mine operations seem to be the most crucial factor in the worse of the contamination cases, and the remediation challenges (these many years later) are immense, costly, likely to last in the decades, and continue to get worse when not addressed (due to flooding of mine sites, failure of surrounding areas to dilute contaminants over time, lack of containment, and more).

    Mudd is not alarmist in his description (others might disagree), the point of the article is to point to the risks of this kind of mining (any kind of mining), and look at specific cases where it has been used on a widespread basis. He seeks to highlight a fairly well documented set of historical concerns (emerging through the 1990s), and recommend that Australia NOT follow the example of the Soviet Union and other eastern block countries, but instead develop a groundwater remediation standard for acid ISL mines, enforce best practices in the industry, and also a requirement for up front funds for decommissioning (which he feels would have made a significant difference in eastern Europe). All the more important in arid places such as Australia, where groundwater is such an important local resource now and in the future.

  17. Mining is certainly a general area of environmental concern. Here’s a story about how green those wind turbines are, made possible by Chinese rare earth mining.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350811/In-China-true-cost-Britains-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html

    Pretty depressing. Mining is something most of us don’t see in the products we buy. Incidentally, it’s one of the fundamental drawbacks of wind and solar – they are diffuse and unproductive so need 5 to 15 times more mined material than nuclear per lifecycle kWh, and mining tends to be very damaging to the environment.

    Ironically the rare earth mining industry produces a lot of thorium as a waste that we currently don’t use. This thorium could power the planet when used in isobreeding reactors (need only 1 ton/GWe-year).

  18. Cyril R. wrote:

    Here’s a story about how green those wind turbines are, made possible by Chinese rare earth mining.

    Let’s not change the topic! Sure, neodymium is a convenience (but by no means a requirement). Enercon is one of the largest turbine manufactures in Europe, and they use no neodymium in any of their turbines. They also have one of the largest turbines in use today: the Enercon E-126 (at 7.5 MW). They also pioneered the direct drive generator, which is very reliable and has a very low O&M cost. They are beautiful machines. Apparently, a patent dispute prevented them from being imported into the States and used on a more widespread basis here. I have no doubt they are expensive, because they need more supports and are heavier (due to absence of neodymium). They use a wound field generator, and lots of copper, instead. For now, the US seems to favor purchasing low cost technology from China (rather than investing in our own production and manufacturing facilities). Perhaps this trend will reverse some day?

  19. : “alarming volume of environmental violations” at Cameco Corp.’s ISL mine in Wyoming (Casper Star-Tribune).

    And within 4 months of that 2008 inspection Cameco and the Wyoming Department of Environmental quality came to agreement how on corrections.

    http://deq.state.wy.us/out/downloads/LQ%20SA%204231-08.pdf

    Inspectors find problems at responsible companies all the time. Responsible company’s then address the problem.

    Here one can find an ‘alarming list’ of restaurant health code violations in King County Washington – even the $100/plate restaurants are occasionally sited.

    http://info.kingcounty.gov/health/ehs/foodsafety/inspections/search.aspx

  20. Re thorium byproduct of rare earths extraction Australia has two active companies. Lynas has nearly completed a plant in Malaysia that will process ore from Mt Weld WA but they downplay the thorium output, perhaps for political reasons. Arafura will build a plant at Whyalla SA using ore from Nolan’s Bore NT. In addition to REOs it aims to produce 20,000t a year of ThO2. Contrast that to the 19,000t a year of U3O8 from nearby Olympic Dam SA if it ever gets to full production. The thorium plant could be up and running before the uranium expansion happens (if ever) since the local grid may be able to handle the power demands.

    A minerals sand company Iluka separates monazite at its facility in Geraldton WA using sand from different deposits. This is also a potential thorium source. Like ISL this nuclear full cycle stuff seems to get an easier run if it is away from cities and doesn’t involve controlled fission. Perhaps we sensitive Aussies could build new coal fired power stations here and get a carbon offset for selling nuclear fuel overseas.

  21. @EL Why on earth, pray tell, would we turn to past practices in the eastern bloc to determine what we should do and how we should do it in outback South Australia in 2012?

    Mudd inhabits the role of the black hat in these discussions, but I find the comparisons to the eastern bloc not remotely relevant or persuasive. This is far outback Australia with some of the most ancient geology on the whole planet; environmentally, it is clearly very different. There IS NO potable water supply within a bulls roar except the mine itself. We never have and never will regulate environmental issues to the low standards of those dark days in that dark part of the world.

    The post references a 2004 report by Australian experts, looking at this exact case and environment. That is assuredly the most appropriate place to draw a conclusion. Theirs is this:

    “As a result of this Review, it is recommended that acid ISL mining of uranium and re-injection of liquid wastes into the aquifer be allowed to continue subject to monitoring showing that there are no excursions of leach solution or waste liquids into other aquifers. A comparison of aerated and nonaerated sampling data is warranted to validate existing monitoring data and assess trends towards natural attenuation. Other minor recommendations are made, none of which precludes continued
    acid ISL mining of uranium in South Australia”

    And again, the key point of the post is this” if we regulate this either to a smaller scale or out of existence all together, we will simply do something else for our energy. Something much, much worse. I think the balance of evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of continuation and expansion of these processes in Australia.

  22. @Geoff Russell pointed out farmland does not get returned to some baseline condition. This in contrast to the frequent requirement that mine sites be returned to native bushland.

    However it is not a universal requirement for mining operations. Some conditions can be interpreted as saying that the land must be left suitable for subsequent mining operations. This would allow a later generation with superior technology to return to the lower grade ore nearby, or at the bottom of the (fertile) pit, refilled only with water. There may be some equivalent for ISL.

    Considering that a vast population of humanity is going to leave a vast footprint on the land, it does seem unreasonable to ask for something to be returned to pre-human wilderness, when another, second-hand, state may be preferable to subsequent users.

    When decommissioning an old power station, it makes sense that the land be returned to a condition appropriate to the installation of a later power station. Similarly, a reprocessing factory should only have to leave the land in a condition satisfactory for use by subsequent chemical works.

Leave a Reply (Markdown is enabled)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s