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BHP Billiton & uranium mining

category indonesia / philippines / australia | environment | other libertarian press author Tuesday May 09, 2006 15:35author by Campaign Against Nuclear Dumping Report this post to the editors

Olympic dam & uranium mining

In our opinion the Roxby Uranium is contrary to BHP’s environmental policies. It bares a striking similarity to the experience of the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea.

In our opinion the Roxby Uranium is contrary to BHP’s environmental policies. It bares a striking similarity to the experience of the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea. BHP owns most of OTML. BHP says that the current mine is not compatible with its environmental values.

Despite claims that its uranium mining is «incidental» to its copper operations. Western Mining Corporation’s Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs, SA, is the greatest producer of uranium in the world. All of this uranium contributes to further waste creation, risks from nuclear power plants and the production of plutonium - the deadliest substance to humans and used in nuclear weapons.

However, Australia could become a world leader in development of, and investment in, clean, safe renewable energy sources. We don’t need to further expand Roxby uranium mine.

Mine Expansion

Expansion of the mine would mean a new 5 square kilometer open cut, an annual increase of uranium exports from 4.5 to 15 thousand tonnes and a tripling of water useage and tailings waste creation.1

A number of corporations around the world have been subject to high profile public campaigns, exposing their behavior as being non-ethical. In many cases these campaigns have seriously affected the share price and level of profitability of the campaign target. The campaign to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine was very successful in this. On many occasions the protests resulted in the plummeting of owners. North Ltd’s, share price. Ultimately North Ltd was taken over by Rio Tinto who, in 2004, signed an agreement with the traditional owners, the Mirrar people, not to mine unless the Mirrar give consent to it.

We are calling on WMC to cancel the proposed expansion of Olympic Dam mine, and to stop mining uranium. This is an issue of immense public opposition.

BHP Billitons $9 billion take-overbid

BHP Billiton’s Health, Safety, Environment and Community Policy states:

«Wherever we operate we will: Develop, implement and maintain management systems/or health, safety, environment and the community that are consistent with internationally recognised standards and enable us to: identify, assess and manage risks to employees, contractors, the environment and communities».

«We will review regularly and report publicly our progress and ensure this policy remains relevant to the needs of our stakeholders. We will be successful when we achieve our targets toward our goal of zero harm and are valued by the communities in which we work». (CEO Chip Goodyear, Jan 2003).

However, BHP Billiton makes absolutely no mention of radioactive materials, the hazards of uranium mining, such as exposure to lung-cancer causing Radon gas, or being accountable to the legacy of uranium mining (depleted uranium half-life is 4.2 billion years).

Workers Health & Public Health

Olympic Dam workers are told that the radiation doses they receive are below or close to background levels, the implication being that the radiation doses are ‘safe’. However, the doses received at the mine site are additional to background radiation and thus workers are at additional risk of fatal cancers.

Specifically, international cancer incidence and mortality data demonstrate statistically significant links between radiation and all solid tumours as a group, as well as for cancers of the stomach, colon, liver, lung, breast, ovary, bladder, thyroid, and for non-melanoma skin cancers and most types of leukemia.

WMC’s data from 1999-2000 show that worker doses averaged 1.7 millisieverts with some workers receiving 10 mSv. In the mine, 60% was external gamma exposure and 36% radon decay products; in the mill 77% was long-lived alpha-emitting radiation and 23% gamma radiation.

Over the years the permitted levels of radiation exposure for workers and the public have dropped dramatically as research, particularly from radiation biologists, indicates harmful effects still exist at much lower exposure levels. For workers, the permitted dose was set at 500 millisieverts per year in 1934, 150 mSv (averaged over five years) in 1991. The limit for mmbers of the public is just 1 mSv. Why are WMC workers considered to be 20 times more expendable than members of the public?

Radioactive & Toxic Waste

Since the Olympic Dam mine opened, it has produced a staggering amount of tailings waste - 60 million tonnes, currently growing at a rate of 10 million tonnes annually. 80% of the radioactivity of the original ore remains in the tailings - as well as a range of other toxic materials. Uranium tailings contain over a dozen radionuclides, the most important being thorium-230, radium-226, radon-222 (radon gas) and the radon progeny including polonium-210. The large number of bird deaths recorded in a 2004 survey attests to the toxicity of the tailings.

The tailings waste is simply dumped on site at Olympic Dam with no plans for its long-term management. WMC says it plans to manage the waste to «industry standards» - in other words, the company will walk away from its toxic legacy soon after the mine’s closure, yet the radioactive waste will pose an environmental and public health threat for many thousands of years. What sort of a legacy is that to be imposing on future generations for thousands of years to come?

Overseas, nuclear power plants are producing over 10,000 tonnes of high-level waste annually yet there is not a single disposal site for any of this waste. As Premier Mike Rann argued in his 1982 book, uranium ought not be exported from Australia until disposal solutions for high-level waste have been «conclusively demonstrated» not just «promised hopefully in the future».

Water Use

The Olympic Dam mine uses over 30 million litres of water daily, drawn from the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) which supports many mound springs - unique arid land habitats that have world-class natural and cultural significance. The Mound Springs support rare and delicate micro flora and fauna; many species are unique to a particular spring. They also have high cultural significance to the Arabunna, traditional custodians of the land in which these mound springs are located. By WMC’s own admission, the springs have been adversely affected by WMC’s water take. To accommodate the planned expansion, WMC wants to increase its water take to 100 million litres per day, from the GAB and/or, a desalination plant.

Weapons Proliferation

Without uranium mines we would be living in a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons which still threaten all life on earth.

Australian uranium exports have resulted in the production of over 63 tonnes ofplutonium - enough to build approximately 6,000 nuclear weapons. Since Olympic Dam is responsible for about one quarter of all of the uranium that has been exported from Australia, we can estimate that Olympic Dam uranium has resulted in the production of enough plutonium to produce approximately 1,500 nuclear weapons. If the planned expansion goes ahead, Olympic Dam uranium will result in the production of enough plutonium to build over 500 nuclear weapons each year.

The international nuclear safeguards system has been discredited time and time again. Efforts to improve the system have been slow and partial. Retired diplomat Professor Richard Broinowski, in his 2003 book Fact or Fission? The Truth About Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions, details how the safeguarding of Australian nuclear exports has been steadily weakened in many ways and that accounting for Australian nuclear exports is «tenuous, and subject to distortion or abuse.»

WMC’s Legal Favours

WMC enjoys completely unjustifiable legal privileges under the SA Roxby Indenture Act. The Act overrides the proper process and powers of the Environment Protection Act, the Water Resources Act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act and even the the Freedom of Information Act. It would make sense for Olympic Dam, as the biggest mine in the state, to be subject to the most stringent performance standards, but it is illogical and indefensible that the mine is subject to the weakest standards. If WMC is such as good environmental performer and such a good corporate citizen, as it claims, why doesn’t the company voluntarily relinquish these outrageous legal privileges?

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs?

Already the planned mine expansion is being sold as a large job generator. However, expansion in the 1990s resulted in a 20% increase in full-time jobs, whilst water input, energy input and uranium output all increased more than two-fold. As always, the task for WMC management will likely be to minimise jobs by adopting cheaper, mechanised processes wherever and whenever possible.

MORE INFORMATION:

Campaign Against Nuclear Dumping: www.geocities.com/olympicdam SA Nuclear Information Centre: www.ccsa.asn.au/nic Friends of the Earth; www.foe.org.au

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