Frequent Radioactive Leakes at Beverly Uranium Mine

From Australian News, Green Left Weekly

issue #477 23 January 2002.


About 62,000 litres of radioactive liquid burst from a pipe at the Beverley uranium mine in northern South Australia on January 11. In the following days, it was revealed that 24 spills have taken place at the mine in the past two years.

The revelations of the Beverley mine spills are an embarrassment to the SA government in the lead up to the February 9 state election.

The mine is operated by Heathgate Resources, a subsidiary of United States' nuclear giant General Atomics. It officially opened on February 21, 2001, but operated on a "trial" basis before that. Like the recently approved Honeymoon mine in SA, the Beverley mine uses an in-situ leach mining technique which involves injecting an acidic solution into aquifers and extracting uranium-bearing solution. Liquid wastes are injected back into the ground water.

On January 11, a pump continued operating after a shut-down of the plant. Pressure built in a pipe, causing it to rupture. The liquid contained ground water, the acid leach solution and dissolved heavy metals, including an estimated 8-13 kilograms of dissolved uranium.

Most of the liquid was contained in holding ponds, but about 4000 litres escaped the plant perimeter and flowed onto a pathway and into a drain. Heathgate plans to deal with the liquid in the holding ponds the same way it deals with all its wastes -- by simply pumping it into ground water.

Heathgate and the SA government have downplayed the environmental and health consequences of the January 11 spill. Heathgate vice-president Stephen Middleton said radiation levels were "marginally" above the background radiation level after the spill. He said none of the mine's 75 workers came into contact with the spilt liquid.

Dr Dennis Matthews, nuclear spokesperson for the South Australian Conservation Council, said a plume of radioactive radon gas would have been released by the accident and may have contaminated workers. The Australian Workers Union has called for an inquiry into the accident.

On January 15, the SA government revealed that 24 spills have taken place at Beverley in the past two years, three involving more than 2000 litres of acid liquid. Most of these spills occurred in the past year, the first year of commercial operations at the mine.

Claims by SA mining minister Wayne Matthew that none of the previous spills contained uranium-bearing ("pregnant") liquid were false; at least some of the earlier spills, such as a 500-litre spill in August 1998, were of pregnant liquid.

A former employee at Beverley told the January 16 Adelaide Advertiser that there have been "frequent" unreported spills of pregnant liquid at Beverley, that a fire and an acid spill had taken place and that dust from radioactive yellowcake has been allowed to blow across the site. He said he reported the incidents to the state government's Office of Minerals and Energy Resources nine months ago but no action was taken.

The SA government said it will commission an independent review of monitoring and reporting procedures with a view to establishing a more publicly transparent system. In a January 15 editorial, the Advertiser argued that proper reporting procedures should already be in place.

The South Australia Nuclear Free Future Party, established to contest the February 9 state election, has called on the government to guarantee the public release of reports from inquiries into the Beverley spills.

Cherie Hoyle, one of the party's three candidates for the Legislative Council, said she was outraged at the SA government's "long-term cover-ups and collusion" with uranium mining companies. "This is the same government that wants to bring all the nation's radioactive waste to our state. How can we trust them to manage these issues?", Hoyle asked.

The Australian Conservation Foundation is calling for the full disclosure of information, including reports by Heathgate and the SA government into trial mining in the late 1990s, an end to the discharge of liquid wastes into ground water, rehabilitation of existing contaminated ground water, and regulation of the uranium mining industry by the SA Environmental Protection Agency instead of the Health Commission's Radiation Protection Branch.

From Green Left Weekly, January 23, 2002.

contact: Bruce A. Peterson

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