Feature: Water & The Nuclear Fuel Cycle
WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #770, 24 October 2013
Click here to download the full issue (PDF).
- Water and Power Plants
- Licensed to Kill
- How much water does a nuclear power plant consume?
- Other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle
- ‘Hot Water’ documentary
- Jellyfish shut down Swedish nuclear plant
- Climate change, water and energy
- Flooding of nuclear plants
Water, uranium and nuclear power
Jim Green firstname.lastname@example.org
National nuclear campaigner – Friends of the Earth, Australia
- 1. Introduction and summary
- 2. Water and nuclear power plants
- 3. Nuclear fuel reprocessing plants
- 4. Uranium
- 4.1 Olympic Dam GAB Grab
- 4.2 Olympic Dam desalination plant
- 4.3 Beverley ISL uranium mine
- 4.4 Ranger mine
1. INTRODUCTION & SUMMARY
A number of problems associated with the nuclear industry are much-discussed – the repeatedly demonstrated link between “peaceful” nuclear programs and weapons proliferation, the nuclear waste legacy, and the small risk of catastrophic accidents.
Less well understood are the various impacts of uranium mines and nuclear facilities on water resources.
Water & Nuclear Power Plants
* Nuclear power plants consume large amounts of water – 20-83% more than coal-fired plants. Water consumption for nuclear reactors is typically 13-24 billion litres per year, or 35-65 million litres per day. Conversely, the water consumption of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency/conservation measures is negligible or zero.
* Water outflows from nuclear plants expel relatively warm water which can have adverse local impacts in bays and gulfs, as can heavy metal and salt pollutants. The warming effect is particularly problematic if exacerbated by heat waves. For example, a number of European reactors had to be taken offline during a heat wave in 2006, and others had to operate at reduced power.
* Water problems in Australia would be exacerbated by nuclear power. Current examples include the problems in Queensland – pumping water to a (coal-fired) power plant because of dwindling local water supplies, the likelihood of increased prices for electricity, and an increased likelihood of blackouts, and increased competition for scarce water resources.
* Another set of problems will arise for coastal nuclear plants as sea levels rise.
Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plants
* The largest commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, in France and the UK, are major sources of radioactive marine pollution.
* Many European countries have for many years been calling for a sharp reduction in radioactive emissions from the reprocessing plants in France and the UK.
Roxby Downs: The GAB Grab
* The daily extraction of 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water for the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia has destroyed some of the precious Mound Springs and adversely impacted on others.
* Also controversial is the arrangement whereby BHP Billiton pays nothing for this massive water take.
Roxby Downs: Desalination
* There are concerns about the potential impacts on marine life and fishery operations of a proposed desalination plant in the Spencer Gulf region of South Australia. The plant would produce up to 120 million litres of water daily, most of it for the planned expansion of the Roxby Downs mine.
Beverley In-situ Leach Uranium Mine
* Debates over the the environmental impacts of mining typically revolve around the risk of environmental pollution. There is no such debate with the Beverley uranium mine in South Australia. Mining company Heathgate Resources pollutes the aquifer with heavy metals, acid and radionuclides as a routine aspect of its operations, and is under no obligation to rehabilitate the aquifer.
Ranger Uranium Mine
* An increasing series of spills, leaks, incidents and reporting failures since 2000 have undermined the credibility of both mining company Energy Resources of Australia and the current environmental protection framework and highlighted serious regulatory deficiencies.
* The incidents are part of a litany of operational errors and procedural failures at ERA’s Ranger operation. Whilst some of these are not of great individual impact, others are. Cumulatively they document a pattern of systemic under-performance and non-compliance and highlight the growing credibility gap that exists between ERA’s self promotion and the reality of its performance.
2. WATER & NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS
Coal-fired electricity plants consume large amounts of water. Tim Flannery (2007) states that for cities such as Sydney, one fifth of the city’s water needs is consumed by electricity generation.
Unfortunately, nuclear power is even more water-intensive than coal.
Water for a nuclear power plant can be sourced from a river, lake, dam, or the ocean. The water has two uses:
- it is converted to steam to drive a turbine; and
- cooling water converts the steam back to water.
As Woods (2006) notes, the distinction between water usage and consumption is important. ‘Once through’ power stations use large quantities of water, but most of this water is returned to the source and can be used again. In ‘closed cycle’ systems, the steam is cooled in towers or ponds and the water that is not lost to evaporation is recycled through the plant again. Regardless of the system used, all power stations consume some of the water they use, mostly by evaporation. A closed cycle system uses about 2-3 % of the water volumes used by the once-through system, but the water consumption of the two systems is of a similar order of magnitude.
Woods (2006) concludes a parliamentary research paper by stating that: “Per megawatt existing nuclear power stations use and consume more water than power stations using other fuel sources. Depending on the cooling technology utilised, the water requirements for a nuclear power station can vary between 20 to 83 per cent more than for other power stations.” (See EPRI, 2002 for detailed figures).
Woods (2006) calculates that nuclear power plants consume 13-24 million litres per year per megawatt of electrical output. He bases his calculations on the lower end of the estimates of water consumption, so the true figures can be higher.
A typical nuclear reactor generates 1,000 megawatts, which equates to annual water consumption of 13-24 billion litres, or 35-65 million litres per day.
Water usage (as opposed to consumption) for once-through nuclear power systems can reach one trillion litres per year.
WATER CONSUMPTION OF DIFFERENT ENERGY SOURCES:
(litres per kilowatt-hour of electrical output)
Coal 1.9 #
Combined Cycle Gas 0.95
Solar PV 0.11
Above table compiled from various sources:
- Paul Gipe, 1995, Wind Energy Comes Of Age, John Wiley & Sons.
- American Wind Energy Association.
- Meridian Corp., “Energy System Emissions and Materials Requirements”, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC. 1989, p. 23.
- Rose (2006)
# A small number of air-cooled coal-fired electricity plants exist but they have a number of disadvantages – higher capital cost, lower efficiency resulting from the higher turbine back pressure, greater greenhouse gas emissions. (Rose, 2006.)
To give an example, operating a 2,400 Watt fan heater for one hour consumes 4.5 litres of water if coal is the energy source and 6 litres if nuclear power is the energy source. That calculation does not account for the water consumption associated with uranium mining.
Tim Flannery (2007) notes that wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power consume little or no water. Likewise, the vast array of energy efficiency/conservation measures which reduce demand for electricity in the first place are highly advantageous in relation to water consumption, a point emphasised by Flannery.
The extraction of water for a nuclear power plant can impact on the water source, through pollution with heavy metals and salts and because the water returned to the water source (in a once-through system) is warmer than the extracted water. These issues are summarised by the US Environmental Protection Agency <www.epa.gov/cleanrgy/nuc.htm>:
“Nuclear power plants use large quantities of water for steam production and for cooling. When nuclear power plants remove water from a lake or river for steam production and cooling, fish and other aquatic life can be affected.
“Water pollutants, such as heavy metals and salts, build up in the water used in the nuclear power plant systems. These water pollutants, as well as the higher temperature of the water discharged from the power plant, can negatively affect water quality and aquatic life.
“Although the nuclear reactor is radioactive, the water discharged from the power plant is not considered radioactive because it never comes in contact with radioactive materials. However, waste generated from uranium mining operations and rainwater runoff can contaminate groundwater and surface water resources with heavy metals and traces of radioactive uranium.”
The Christian Science Monitor reported on the impacts of the mid-2006 heat wave in western Europe on nuclear power plants (Sachs, 2006):
“The extended heat wave in July aggravated drought conditions across much of Europe, lowering water levels in the lakes and rivers that many nuclear plants depend on to cool their reactors. As a result, utility companies in France, Spain, and Germany were forced to take some plants offline and reduce operations at others. Across Western Europe, nuclear plants also had to secure exemptions from regulations in order to discharge overheated water into the environment. Even with an exemption to environmental rules this summer, the French electric company, Electricité de France (EDF), normally an energy exporter, had to buy electricity on European spot market, a way to meet electricity demand.
“Overall, about one-third of all water used in Europe is used for cooling electrical generators, including those powered by both nuclear and fossil fuels. Environmental officials in several European countries, including France and Germany, have warned that water levels in some reservoirs are at historic lows and have not returned to pre-2003 heat wave levels.”
Nuclear power would only exacerbate the problems being experienced in Queensland, as reported in The Australian newspaper:
* “Queenslanders are footing a $300 million bill so water can be pumped to a power generator for just four years before the plant is shut down. And they face hefty power bill increases because of the cost of supplying recycled water to the two main power stations servicing the drought-ravaged southeast of the state – Swanbank and Tarong. The revelations came as the Tarong station announced yesterday a 70 per cent cut in output in response to water restrictions. With anger already rising over the Beattie Government’s intention to pay for its $8 billion water infrastructure plans with water price increases of up to 150 per cent, the 2.5 million residents of southeast Queensland face the prospect of power blackouts and hikes in electricity bills.” (March 15, 2007, <www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21384755-2702,00.html>)
* “Southeast Queensland’s 2.5 million residents are facing power blackouts and level-five water restrictions as the region’s two main power stations are forced to cut production because of the worsening drought. As unions warned of possible job losses in the power sector, the Queensland Water Commission announced yesterday that water supplies for cooling the Tarong and Swanbank stations would be slashed from April 10 as part of the level-five restrictions.” (March 9, 2007, <www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21350071-2702,00.html>.)
Former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie was less than enthusiastic about nuclear power: “At a time when our farming communities are hurting badly, it is a folly for [Prime Minister John] Howard to be entertaining the thought of nuclear power stations in Queensland or anywhere else. Many towns and shires in our state are struggling to get enough drinking water, let alone enough to satisfy the amount a nuclear station would need to guzzle.” (28/10/06)
So we have the problems which have affected nuclear power in Europe:
- lower water levels in lakes and rivers from which nuclear power plants draw water
- water warming due to climate change
- water warming due to a heat wave
- local water warming from water outflows from nuclear power plants.
And the problems being experienced – or looming – in coal-powered Queensland, which would be exacerbated by nuclear power since it is more water intensive:
- expensive water pumping to power plants because of dwindling local supplies
- increased competition for scarce water resources
- increased prices for water
- reduced electricity output
- increased power prices
- increased probability of blackouts.
The consumption of large volumes of water is not nearly so much of a problem for coastal sites using sea-water – but other problems arise. A US report, ‘Licensed to Kill: How the Nuclear Power Industry Destroys Endangered Marine Wildlife and Ocean Habitat to Save Money’, details the nuclear industry’s destruction of delicate marine ecosystems and large numbers of animals, including endangered species. Most of the damage is done by water inflow pipes, while there are further adverse impacts from the expulsion of warm water. (See the report and video at: <www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/licensedtokill>.) Another documented problem is ‘cold stunning’ – fish acclimatise to warm water but die when the reactor is taken off-line and warm water is no longer expelled. In New Jersey, local fishermen estimated that 4,000 fish died from cold stunning when a reactor was shut down.
Another concern is the potential impact of rising sea levels on coastal nuclear power plants. Stéphane Lhomme from Sortir du Nucléaire argues: “Nuclear is not saving us from climate change. It’s in trouble because of climate change.” (Quoted in Sachs, 2006.)
EPRI – Electric Power Research Institute, March 2002, Water & Sustainability (Volume 3):U.S. Water Consumption for Power Production—The Next Half Century, Topical Report EPRI, Concord. www.epriweb.com/public/000000000001006786.pdf
Tim Flannery, February 12, 2007, “Saving precious water at the flick of a switch”, www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/saving-precious-water-at-the-flick-of-a-switch/2007/02/11/1171128807960.html
Dr. Ian Rose, ROAM Consulting, paper commissioned by Queensland government, October 26, 2006, www.thepremier.qld.gov.au/library/office/NuclearPowerStation261006.doc
Susan Sachs, August 10, 2006, “Nuclear power’s green promise dulled by rising temps”, Christian Science Monitor, www.csmonitor.com/2006/0810/p04s01-woeu.html
Guy Woods (Department of Parliamentary Services), December 4, 2006, “Water requirements of nuclear power stations”, Research Note no. 12, 2006–07, ISSN 1449-8456. www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2006-07/07rn12.pdf
3. NUCLEAR FUEL REPROCESSING PLANTS
Civil reprocessing plants – which process spent nuclear reactor fuel – release significant quantities of radioactive wastes into the sea and gaseous discharges into the air. Cogema’s reprocessing plant at La Hague in France, and BNFL’s plant at Sellafield in the UK, are the largest sources of radioactive pollution in the European environment (WISE-Paris, 2001). The radioactive contamination from these facilities can be traced through the Irish Sea, the North Sea, along the Norwegian coast into the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, and gives rise to elevated contamination levels in biota. There are increases in the rates of childhood leukaemia and other radiation-linked diseases in the vicinity of both Sellafield and La Hague although the link between the reprocessing plants and these increases is contested.
The OSPAR Commission regulates marine pollution in the North-East Atlantic under the terms of the 1992 OSPAR Convention (<www.ospar.org>). Fifteen European countries are parties to the Convention, as is the European Union. Most of these countries have been calling for a sharp reduction in radioactive emissions from Sellafield and La Hague.
At the Ministerial-level OSPAR meeting in 1998, all parties agreed to progressive and substantial reductions in radioactive discharges to achieve, by the year 2020, close to zero concentrations in the marine environment above historic levels.
At the 2000 OSPAR meeting, a resolution was passed stating that: “The current authorisations for discharges or releases of radioactive substances from nuclear reprocessing facilities shall be reviewed as a matter of priority by their competent national authorities with a view to, inter alia, implementing the non-reprocessing option (for example, dry storage) for spent nuclear fuel management at appropriate facilities.” (OSPAR, 2000.)
The 2000 OSPAR resolution was supported by 12 countries – Denmark, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Norway, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Iceland, and Ireland – but not by France or the UK.
OSPAR, 2000, “OSPAR Decision 2000/1 on Substantial Reductions and Elimination of Discharges, Emissions and Losses of Radioactive Substances, with Special Emphasis on Nuclear Reprocessing”, <www.ospar.org/v_ospar/strategy.asp?v0=5&lang=1>.
WISE-Paris, 2001, “Possible Toxic Effects from the Nuclear Reprocessing Plants at Sellafield and Cap de la Hague”, European Parliament Directorate General for Research, www.wise-paris.org/english/stoa_en.html
4.1 URANIUM – ROXBY DOWNS: THE GAB GRAB
The Great Artesian Basin (GAB) is a vast body of underground water that lies deep under the surface from central to north-eastern Australia.
The GAB supports many Mound Springs – natural up-wellings of water which deposit water-borne minerals that form into mounds. These unique arid land habitats support rare and delicate micro flora and fauna, some species of which are unique to a particular Spring.
South Australia’s Mound Springs have great ecological, scientific, anthropological and economic significance. They are listed as endangered ecological communities under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. That followed the 2001 recommendation from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which found that ongoing extraction of artesian water is likely to play a continued role in the decline of the Mound Springs and that an intensification of water extraction may cause the extinction of many more Springs.
BHP Billiton extracts 35 million litres of GAB water daily for the Roxby Downs (a.k.a. Olympic Dam) uranium/copper/gold/silver mine. The company is licensed to extract up to 42 million litres daily. The mine is the largest single-site industrial user of ground water in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since GAB water extraction for the Roxby Downs mine began in the 1980s, many Mound Springs have experienced reduced flows and some have ceased flowing altogether.
BHP Billiton (and previous mine owner WMC Resources) sometimes acknowledges the adverse impacts of its GAB grab on Mound Springs, albeit reluctantly. Sometimes BHP/WMC deny it. Sometimes the company obfuscates, claiming for example that no “major” springs are affected. In fact, there is no doubt that water extraction for the mine has ruined some Mound Springs and adversely affected others.
WMC Resources invested in borefield infrastructure on the false assumption that impermeable faults separated their borefields from the Mound Springs.
BHP Billiton does not pay one cent for the water it extracts from the GAB. In February 2007, BHP Billiton announced an $8 billion half-yearly profit – but the company still refuses to pay one cent for its massive GAB grab.
In 1996, the then Liberal SA government said it could not impose charges for WMC Resources’ water extraction because it would breach the Roxby Indenture Act. Whether or not that was true, the government could of course have moved to amend the Indenture Act.
In a disingenuous defence of the company’s failure to pay one cent for GAB water, BHP Billiton says it has funded the construction of infratructure such as pipelines and pumps. So what? That in no way justifies the extraction of water free of charge.
BHP Billiton states that the company saves more water through its pastoral bore-capping program than it uses for the Roxby Downs mine. But the draw-down effects from its water take are localised – and more to the point they are localised in areas which adversely impact on Mound Springs.
BHP/WMC claims that it has an incentive to minimise water usage since it has invested in water extraction and piping infrastructure. The claim is false and illogical. Having invested in the infrastructure, there is no incentive to minimise water extraction from the GAB.
The Prime Minister wrote to state premiers in early 2007 stating: “I seek your agreement … to establish proper entitlements, metering, pricing and reporting arrangements for water extracted from the Great Artesian Basin.” But the Prime Minister later defended BHP Billiton’s “right” to free GAB water.
The SA Government recognises that “the major threat to maintaining habitat diversity is a reduction in Great Artesian Basin pressure resulting in the extinction of Springs and loss of habitat diversity.” Yet the Roxby Downs mine enjoys indefensible legal favours, with the Roxby Indenture Act giving the mine a raft of exemptions from the Natural Resources Act 2004 (including the Water Resources Act 1997), the Environment Protection Act and the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
BHP Billiton was considering increasing its daily water take from the GAB by an additional 120 million litres as part of the proposed mine expansion, but currently its preferred plan is to source the additional water by building a deslination plant near the Spencer Gulf.
With the proposed mine expansion, BHP Billiton would be using 62 Olympic size swimming pools of water each day for its operations (155ML/2.5ML=62), sourced from some combination of GAB water, a desalination plant taking water from the Spencer Gulf, and possibly also Murray River water.
WMC Resources mounted an extensive campaign against the World Heritage nomination of the Lake Eyre Basin in the 1990s. WMC had (and BHP Billiton has) a vested interest in preventing World Heritage nomination because of its profligate use of water from the GAB. In February 1995, Liberal SA Premier Dean Brown wrote to Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating stating that a prerequisite for SA government support for a national nuclear waste dump in SA was that the federal government abandoned the pursuit of World Heritage nomination for the Lake Eyre Basin. (<www.geocities.com/jimgreen3/waste9.html>).
The Mound Springs are of profound cultural significance to the Aboriginal people of the region. The Arabunna people are the traditional custodians of the Lake Eyre South region, where affected Mound Springs are located. In the mid-1990s, WMC Resources used divide-and rule tactics against Indigenous communities in order to secure a water pipeline across Arabunna land to the Roxby Downs mine. This led to violence and one death. WMC Resources could not foresee the violence and the death but it could certainly foresee the divisions and tensions arising from its tactics. Some years later, WMC Resources no longer attempted to defend or justify this disgraceful behaviour. (More information: <www.geocities.com/olympicdam/articles.html>.)
In 1994, WMC admitted that some 5-6 billion litres of waste had leaked from the tailings dams at Roxby Downs and into the groundwater and soil below. The leak had occurred unchecked for at least two years. (More information: <www.sea-us.org.au/roxby/sa-inquiry.html>.)
On March 10, 2006, The Australian newspaper reported on documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation. The documents, written by scientific consultants to BHP, state that the mine needs urgent improvements in radioactive waste management and monitoring. They call on government regulators to “encourage” changes to the tailings management, noting that radioactive slurry was deposited “partially off” a lined area of a storage pond thereby contributing to greater seepage and rising ground water levels.
Another problem with the tailings ponds is bird deaths. The ABC reported in January 2005 that over 100 bird deaths were recorded in one four-day period (<www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200501/s1279971.htm>).
BHP Billiton should be required to:
- Close as soon as possible Borefield A, which is immediately within the Mound Spring arc as well as a wind-back rather than an expansion of Borefield B which directly threatens the Hermit Hill spring group.
- Pay for its water – just as all other Australians are required to pay for water.
- Relinquish the indefensible legal privileges provided by the Roxby Indenture Act
* Mudd, G M, 2000, Mound Springs of the Great Artesian Basin in South Australia: A Case Study From Olympic Dam.
* Mudd, G M, 1998, The Long Term Sustainability of Mound Springs In South Australia: Implications For Olympic Dam. Proc. “Uranium Mining & Hydrogeology II Conference”, Freiberg, Germany, September 15-17 1998, pp 575-584. <http://civil.eng.monash.edu.au/about/staff/muddpersonal/1998-UMH-2-ODam-v-MoundSprings.pdf>.
* More info from Dr Mudd:
* Daniel Keane, “The sustainability of use of groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin, with particular reference to the south-western edge of the basin and impact on the mound springs”, https://nuclear.foe.org.au/olympic-dam-uranium-copper-mine/
Pictures of the Mound Springs:
Sophie Cook: www.flickr.com/photos/cookielovescake (Radioactive Exposure Tour)
4. 2 – URANIUM – ROXBY DOWNS: DESALINATION
BHP Billiton provides the following information regarding its plans for a desalination plant:
* BHP Billiton and the SA government have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly study the desalination option.
* The Roxby Expansion EIS is investigating: locations for a desalination plant, the intake pipeline, and the discharge outlet; and the potential short and long term impact of brine discharge.
* BHP Billiton says the proposed desalination plant would draw about 320 million litres of seawater per day from the Upper Spencer Gulf via an intake pipeline and, after desalination, about 200 million litres of brine would be piped into the Gulf.
* The brine would have salinity levels of around 65 parts per thousand, compared with 37 parts per thousand for normal seawater.
* BHP Billiton is studying the potential effects of brine on marine species and communities such as cuttlefish, prawns and yellow-tail kingfish.
* The desalination plant would use approximately 30 megawatts of electricity. Options for the supply of this energy include electricity from the state grid and the supply of renewable energy such as solar and wind.
(Seawater Desalination Plant, Information Sheet #4, August 2006, www.olympicdameis.com/downloads/index.htm#guidelines)
A joint media release from the SA government and BHP Billiton on February 17, 2006 states:
* The proposed desalination plant has an estimated cost in excess of $300 million.
* BHP Billiton would establish a 330km pipeline to Roxby Downs.
* The plant would also supply water to the Upper Spencer Gulf and the Eyre Peninsula.
* BHP Billiton says it is likely to need an additional 70-120 million litres of water each day to meet its expansion targets. The proposed desalination plant would produce up to 150 million litres of water daily.
The prawn and sardine fishing industries have expressed concern over the potential impact of the desalination plant on nursery waters in the upper Spencer Gulf. The combined value of the two industries is estimated at $60 million a year, and the sardine industry supplies the blue fin tuna farming industry in Port Lincoln, valued at $220 million a year. The upper Spencer Gulf is a shallow body of water which receives very little rainwater inflow from the surrounding land. In 2006 the SA Environment Department proposed the upper Spencer Gulf attract the highest level of zoning protection as part of a new statewide marine protection system. (Jeremy Roberts, March 12, 2007, ” BHP warned over mine’s desal plant”, The Australian, <www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21364561-2702,00.html>.)
The Australian newspaper, drawing on documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, reported that the endangered southern giant petrel and the southern right whale may live in areas affected by the proposed desalination plant. The animals are included in BHP Billiton’s list of flora and fauna potentially affected by the expansion. Southern right whales were recently seen near Port Augusta in the upper Spencer Gulf, The Australian reported in July 2006. The BHP Billiton documents obtained by FoI refer to the Spencer Gulf as “a unique breeding ground” for the cuttlefish which may be affected by the desalination plant. (Michelle Wiese Bockmann, July 10, 2006, “Whale may threaten Olympic Dam”, <www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19735435-2702,00.html>.)
4.3. URANIUM – BEVERLEY IN-SITU LEACH URANIUM MINE
Since 2001 a fast tracked in-situ leach (ISL) mine, the Beverley uranium mine, has been operating in the northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia. The mine is owned by General Atomics, a US-based company, and managed by its subsidiary, Heathgate Resources.
ISL involves pumping acid into an aquifer. This dissolves the uranium ore and other heavy metals and the solution is then pumped back to the surface. The small amount of uranium is separated at the surface. The liquid radioactive waste – containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid – is simply dumped in groundwater. From being inert and immobile in the ore body, the radionuclides and heavy metals are now bioavailable and mobile in the aquifer.
There has never been a commercial acid leach mine in the USA given environmental approval. Experiences with its use in the Eastern Bloc and elsewhere have left aquifers heavily polluted.
Heathgate has no plans to clean up the aquifer as it says the pollution will ‘attenuate’ – that the aquifer will return to its pre-mining state over time. This claim has been queried by the scientific community as being highly speculative with little or no firm science behind it.
According to Dr. Gavin Mudd, a hydrogeologist based at Monash University: “The critical data which could answer scientific questions concerning contaminant mobility in groundwater has never been released by General Atomics. This is especially important since GA no longer maintain the mine is ‘isolated’ from surrounding groundwater, with desires to expand the mine raising legitimate concerns over the groundwater contamination legacy left at Beverley.”
Jillian Marsh, Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner, noted in her submission to 2002-03 Senate References and Legislation Committee that: “The government chose not to demand that the groundwater be rehabilitated, an unacceptable situation for the Australian public at large given our increasing reliance on groundwater and the increasing salinity of land surfaces and water systems.”
The 2003 report of the Senate Committee noted “a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance” in Australia’s uranium mining industry, it identified “many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment”, and it concluded that changes were necessary “in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage”.
On ISL mining, the 2003 Senate report stated:
“The Committee is concerned that the ISL process, which is still in its experimental state and introduced in the face of considerable public opposition, was permitted prior to conclusive evidence being available on its safety and environmental impacts.
“The Committee recommends that, owing to the experimental nature and the level of public opposition, the ISL mining technique should not be permitted until more conclusive evidence can be presented on its safety and environmental impacts.
“Failing that, the Committee recommends that at the very least, mines utilising the ISL technique should be subject to strict regulation, including prohibition of discharge of radioactive liquid mine waste to groundwater, and ongoing, regular independent monitoring to ensure environmental impacts are minimised.”
A sham inquiry was subsequently convened by the SA government to justify ISL mining and to justify the government’s indefensible decision not to require rehabilitation of groundwater.
The 2003 Senate report also noted: “Another serious claim made by the ACF concerns the status and release of Heathgate Resources’ reports on the Beverley FLTs [Field Leach Trials], including the Groundwater Monitoring Summary. The ACF states that release of these reports under the Freedom of Information Act was delayed by company claims of commercial-in-confidence for more than two years. A successful ACF appeal to the South Australian Ombudsman finally secured the release of some of these reports, the Ombudsman finding that in no case was a commercial-in-confidence claim justified.”
Another feature of ISL mining is surface contamination from spills and leaks of radioactive solutions. There have been several dozen spills at Beverley, such as the spill of 62,000 litres of contaminated water in January 2002 after a pipe burst, and the spill of 15,000 litres of contaminated water in May 2002.
ISL Uranium Mining Method Far From ‘Benign’
By Dr. Gavin Mudd
Hydrogeologist / Environmental Engineer, Monash University
The mining technique of in situ leaching (ISL), often referred to as solution mining, is becoming an increasingly favoured method for the extraction of uranium across the world. This is primarily due to its low capital and operating costs compared to conventional mining. Little is known about the environmental impact of this method, and mining companies have been able to exploit this to promote the method as “environmentally benign”.
The ISL process involves drilling groundwater bores or wells into a uranium deposit, injecting corrosive chemicals to dissolve the uranium within the ore zone, then pumping back the uranium-laden solution.
The method should only be applied to uranium deposits located within a groundwater system or confined aquifer, commonly in palaeochannel deposits (old buried river beds).
Although ISL is presented in simplified diagrams by the nuclear industry, the reality is that geological systems are inherently complex and not easily predictable.
There are a range of options for the chemistry of the mining solutions. Either acidic or alkaline chemical agents can be used in conjunction with an oxidising agent to dissolve the uranium.
Typical oxidising agents include oxygen or hydrogen peroxide, while alkaline agents include ammonia or sodium-bicarbonate or carbon dioxide. The most common acidic chemical used is sulphuric acid, although nitric acid has been tried at select sites and in laboratory tests.
The chemicals can have serious environmental impacts and cause long-term and potentially irreversible changes to groundwater quality.
The use of acidic solutions mobilises high levels of heavy metals, such as cadmium, strontium, lead and chromium. Alkaline solutions tend to mobilise only a few heavy metals such as selenium and molybdenum. The ability to restore the groundwater to its pre-mining quality is, arguably, easier at sites that have used alkaline solution chemistry.
A review of the available literature on ISL mines across the world can easily counter the myths promulgated about ISL uranium mining. Whether one examines the USA, Germany, Russia and former annexed states, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Australia or new ISL projects across Asia, the truth remains the same – the ISL technique merely treats groundwater as a sacrifice zone and the problem remains “out of sight, out of mind”.
ISL uranium mining is not controllable, is inherently unsafe and is unlikely to meet “strict environmental controls”. It is not an environmentally benign method of uranium mining.
The use of sulphuric acid solutions at ISL mines across Eastern Europe, as well as a callous disregard for sensible environmental management, has led to many seriously contaminated sites.
Perhaps the most severe example is Straz pod Ralskem in the Czech Republic, where up to 200 billion litres of groundwater is contaminated. Restoration of the site is expected to take several decades or even centuries. For the USA, solution escapes outside of the ‘controlled mining zone’ and difficult restorations have been documented at ISL sites in Texas and Wyoming – including both acid and alkaline leach sites. Australia has encountered these same difficulties, especially at the controversial Honeymoon deposit in South Australia during pilot studies in the early 1980s and at Manyingee in Western Australia until 1985.
The Honeymoon pilot project used sulphuric acid in conjunction with ferric sulphate as the oxidising agent. The wells and aquifer experienced significant blockages due to the minerals jarosite and gypsum precipitating, lowering the efficiency of the leaching process and leading to increased excursions. The aquifers in the vicinity of Honeymoon are known to be connected to aquifers used by local pastoralists to water stock.
For Australia, water of any quality is precious – and particularly so when the only secure supply of water in a region is from groundwater. With the rise of water treatment technologies such as desalination, water of any quality is a valuable resource – environmentally as well as for possible community and industry use. An acid leach-type ISL project, especially as approved for Beverley and Honeymoon without remediation of polluted groundwater, therefore imposes a major environmental risk and pollution burden on future users of groundwater in these regions. ISL mining is therefore far from sustainable.
Journal articles, conferences papers etc. by Dr. Mudd: http://users.monash.edu.au/~gmudd
4.4 URANIUM – RANGER URANIUM MINE
The impacts of the Ranger uranium mine on the Kakadu wetlands in the Northern Territory are dealt with extensively in: Australian Conservation Foundation, 2005, Submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee, submission #48 at <www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/isr/uranium/subs.htm>.
The following excerpts are copied from the ACF submission:
An increasing series of spills, leaks, incidents and reporting failures since 2000 have undermined the credibility of both mining company Energy Resources of Australia and the current environmental protection framework and highlighted serious regulatory deficiencies.
In April 2000 ERA identified and repaired a leak in a tailings water return pipe located within the Ranger uranium mine Restricted Release Zone (RRZ). Contaminant materials in the RRZ are required to be maintained and managed in this designated area and not be released to the wider Ranger Project Area or the Kakadu environment. Between December 1999 and April 2000 an estimated two million litres of material containing high levels of manganese along with uranium, radium and a suite of other contaminants escaped from this broken pipe and the RRZ. This severe operational failure was compounded by the fact that more than twenty days elapsed before ERA notified the relevant Northern Territory (NT) and Commonwealth authorities of the leak despite the clear reporting requirement contained in section 16 of the Ranger Environmental Requirements …”
Further serious operational problems were exposed at the Ranger with the incorrect stockpile placement of a large volume of low grade uranium ore. 84,500 tonnes of material was placed in the wrong area between the period of January 14 to February 26, 2002. This error resulted in the movement of large volumes of rainfall seepage through the uncompacted stockpile with the subsequent mobilisation of high concentrations of uranium. Although the incorrect dumping of material commenced on January 14 ERA failed to report both this and the resultant increases in uranium contamination in water samples until February 27, 2002. Further, during this period ERA staff provided incorrect information on the stockpile status to an inspection team comprised of Commonwealth and NT supervising authorities.
The deficiencies in infrastructure and corporate culture seen with ERA’s tailings pipeline and stockpile issues were further highlighted with the high profile water contamination and vehicle clearance issues during 2004. Energy Resources of Australia’s Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu was recently found guilty and fined $A150,000 and costs over breaches of the NT Mining Management Act in relation to a contamination incident in March 2004 where around 150 people were exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the maximum Australian safety standard. Twenty-eight mineworkers suffered adverse health effects including vomiting and skin irritation as a result of the exposure.
The recent contamination event at Ranger is the latest in over 120 leaks, spills and license breaches since the mine opened in 1981. Aging infrastructure and a deficient safety/management culture at the Ranger mine has seen the frequency and severity of these incidents increase in recent years.
The incidents detailed above are part of a litany of operational errors and procedural failures at ERA’s Ranger operation. Whilst some of these are not of great individual impact, others are. Cumulatively they document a pattern of systemic under-performance and non-compliance and highlight the growing credibility gap that exists between ERA’s self promotion and the reality of its performance.