SOUTH AUSTRALIA – The Australian Greens, that country’s political party of the environmental persuasion, wants BHP Billiton to expand its Olympic Dam copper-uranium-gold-silver mine but not mine the uranium component of the ore.
The Greens are asking the state and federal governments to force BHP Billiton to examine the feasibility of a non-uranium option, saying that it would use less water and energy.
They also cite a report by Monash University lecturer Gavin Mudd that says the uranium-free option is feasible. He objects to mining uranium because of high level nuclear waste, the risk of uranium finding its way into weapons, and an uncertain economic future.
All good points, but on a practical level, how does someone exploit a uranium mine without mining uranium? What else would have to be left in the earth if the uranium-bearing ore is not removed?
The Olympic Dam mine has been in underground operation since 1988. Production comes from a number of ore zones occurring from 350 metres to 1,000 metres below the surface. Annual ore production is 12 million tonnes from which 235,000 tonnes of refined copper, 4,500 tonnes of uranium oxide, 100,000 oz of gold and 800,000 oz of silver are produced.
The expansion would result in an open pit capable of producing 60 million tonnes of ore annually. For the total operation copper output would jump to 750,000 t/y, gold to 800,000 oz, silver to 2.1 million oz and uranium oxide to 14,500 t/y.
Imagine choosing not to receive the revenue from 10,000 tonnes of U3O8 every year. Certainly, BHP cannot leave the uranium-bearing material in situ. It must be moved if the copper and precious metals are to be recovered. If the uranium-bearing ore is not processed, it must be stored somewhere, and storage has its own inherent risks.
That leads us to our Hot Topic: Does it seem practical to expand BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam project in Australia without recovering the uranium?
To vote yes or no, please go to CMJ‘s home page,www.CanadianMiningJournal.com, and click on the Hot Topic box on the left side of the page.