Emissions GR Nuclear

Is the Olympic Dam mine a special case?

Here is an Op Ed published by Geoff Russell and me in the The Adelaide Advertiser newspaper this week. It was in response to this piece by Jim Green.

OLYMPIC Dam uranium can power Australia four times over and close all our coal mines, write Geoff Russell and Barry Brook.

FRIENDS of the Earth’s Jim Green makes important points on the Olympic Dam expansion (The Advertiser, 10/7/12).

Should BHP be given an easy ride on this project? If so, why?

Here’s some background people need before making a decision.

The expanded Olympic Dam will be a massive hole in the ground.

How big? About 12sq km in area and 1km deep.

For comparison, the proposed alpha coal mine in Queensland will be about 400sq km. The various coal mines in the Hunter Valley are also much bigger, not necessarily individually, but they are all big holes and they add up to a much bigger hole than the proposed Olympic Dam expansion.

An aerial view of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mining site at Roxby Downs, which could provide Australia with a new source of clean power. Picture: Matt Turner
The Canadian Athabasca oil sands cover 141,000sq km. These oil sands are not in a desert but under boreal forest. They currently produce 1.3 million barrels of oil a day from those deposits and, at current prices, there are reserves of about 170 billion barrels, which go under 14,000sq km of forest.

Yet Olympic Dam is different. Most of what comes out will be copper but, at peak production, it will also be producing 19,000 tonnes of uranium oxide annually.

How much is that? Enough to power the whole of Australia four times over. Enough to close all of Australia’s coal mines for domestic consumption. So here’s the first question for Jim Green.

We could have nuclear reactors, clean electricity and one mine, just one single mine. Or we could have the whole current nightmare of the Hunter Valley, Latrobe Valley and Bowen Basin disasters, gas fracking and every other filthy deadly fossil fuel industry in Australia.

What’s his choice?

Perhaps you read Jim’s line about the headache of the radioactive tailings and are worried. What a storm in a teacup radioactive tailings are. We need some background on this little panic story.

The land being mined is naturally radioactive, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth mining. After the uranium is separated out and removed, what’s left is called tailings.

These tailings, obviously, are less radioactive than before the process, because the economically extractable uranium has been removed. They are, however, more mobile. They can blow around, contaminate water, and so on. How dangerous are the 68 million tonnes of tailings Jim describes as “through the roof”? Compared with what?

Australia has about 10,000 cases of lung cancer annually, about 1000 in non-smokers. In 1983, when the US EPA was drawing up its regulations on tailings from its uranium mines, it estimated its 175 million tonnes of tailings by the year 2000 might cause about eight lung cancer cases per year, with half being in people who live within 80km of a tailings site. This was calculated on the basis of no treatment at all.

At Olympic Dam, nobody intends to leave the tailings untreated, and few people live within 80km of Olympic Dam. If they are worried about cancer, then the big risks will be cigarettes, alcohol, red and processed meat, wood stoves and vehicle exhaust fumes. BHP will not be just leaving their tailings, and, even if the best laid plans fail from time to time, you would be hard put to measure the consequences.

Would Jim Green perhaps like to compare the risks from the Olympic Dam with the risks from all of Australia’s other coal mines?

Assuming Jim does not want nuclear reactors here, the uranium will go elsewhere. Perhaps to India. We wonder if Jim has seen an Indian coal mine, or one in China? Would you prefer those coal mines or people using our uranium?

Life is about choices. In 1994, Bill Clinton chose to shut down the US “fast reactor” program.

Now the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians and the South Koreans are building these reactors.

With a fast reactor, you get much more than 100 times the energy from the same amount of uranium. With fast reactors you can use current nuclear waste as fuel. With fast reactors, we can shut down all the world’s coal mines. We can stop ripping up the boreal forests for tar sands in Canada and elsewhere. Bill Clinton blew it.

Fast reactors will run on what is called depleted uranium, or on nuclear waste. There is enough of this already mined not only to shut all  the world’s coal mines – but also  to make the Olympic Dam expansion unnecessary.

So our last questions to Jim are: How worried are you about those tailings? How worried are you about climate change? Worried enough to risk the occasional deathless Fukushima accident and go with clean energy from fast reactors? Or are local scare stories more important than solving the major environmental problems and keeping our eye on the big picture?

Geoff Russell is a mathematician and long-time member of Animal Liberation in SA.
Barry Brook is professor of climate science at the University of Adelaide.

To register comments, go to the Brave New Climate Discussion Forum, here:


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

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