Critique of Switkowski Report - Uranium Mining

By Monash Uni engineering lecturer Dr Gavin Mudd

This is copied from the EnergyScience Coalition critique of the draft 2006 Switkowski report <www.energyscience.org.au>

For articles, conference papers etc by Dr Mudd on uranium mining and other issues, see:

http://users.monash.edu.au/~gmudd


The Switkowski report fails to properly account for the increasing environmental cost of uranium mining. This includes the magnitude of mine wastes (now greater than 300 million tonnes and growing by some 20 million tonnes per year), the long-term impacts on surface water and groundwater resources, the energy costs of extraction which will invariably increase in the future for proposed mines (including the next Olympic Dam expansion), and the true life-cycle greenhouse emissions.

Uranium market / nuclear power scenarios in the past have always proven to be overoptimistic, often by a large margin.

Exploration (section 2.1.4)

The report over-simplifies exploration. It is widely accepted within the uranium industry globally that future exploration to discover new deposits will increasingly have to be deeper, meaning more expensive drilling and studies, as well as higher energy costs should any mine proceed. In this light, it is worth noting that for the same time period of uranium exploration boom from 1969-1971, numerous major new deposits were discovered across Australia. The current "boom" in uranium exploration from 2004-2006 has not seen any new economic deposit discovered at all - only further drilling at known deposits or prospects.

Production (section 2.1.5).

The increase of Australian uranium production higher than current 12,000 t U3O8/year cannot occur about 2015. This is due to the declining ore grade at Ranger, the long delay in construction and commissioning of the next proposed expansion at Olympic Dam, and the relatively minor production from Beverley (and proposed Honeymoon production is miniscule). Additionally, as noted in submissions to the House of Representatives Inquiry, the alleged production of 15,000 t U3O8/year for the next proposed expansion at Olympic Dam is unlikely to eventuate - ore grade drops by half as well as extraction efficiency likely to decline from the current 65% to less than 50%, thereby suggesting only 8,000 t U3O8/year (40 Mt/year at 0.04% U3O8, 50% extraction).

Australia's Radioactive Waste - Uranium Mining (section 5.1.5, page 59-60).

There are no "well established plans" for rehabilitation at Ranger as the mining-milling plan changes every year. Additionally, the current bond held by the Australian Government is only one-fifth of the estimated cost of full rehabilitation. For Olympic Dam, the bond held by the South Australian Government is only one-tenth of the estimated cost, though no public disclosure of this data has ever been made. Also, the Beverley and Honeymoon projects are not required to rehabilitate contaminated groundwater following mining - this is the largest impact from in-situ leach mining, and both companies acknowledge the potential for groundwater migration at their sites. Not one former Australian uranium mine site has demonstrated successful and stable long-term closure of mine wastes (tailings, waste rock and/or low grade ores).

Radioactive Emissions (section 6.4).

No measurements of radioactive emissions, e.g. radon gas, at Beverley have ever been published, with very few studies at Ranger and Olympic Dam in terms of environmental releases. The claims of low emissions are dubious. The available evidence clearly suggests that radon releases increase overall due to mining (see Mudd, G M, 2005, A Detailed Analysis of Radon Flux Studies at Australian Uranium Projects. Radiation Protection in Australia, December, 22 (3), pp 99-119).

Environmental "Performance" of Australian Uranium Mines (section 7.4.3)

There is a clearly detectable downstream change in water quality in the Magela Creek due to Ranger (that is, magnesium and sulfate elevated by some 300% or so), a scientific fact now universally accepted by the Supervising Scientist and ERA. Recent research has shown that although the concentrations are minor, they have measurable effects on some aquatic species - yet the research is still ongoing to fully evaluate the extent of these impacts. Further to this, many of the incidents had major impacts on water quality on the Ranger site itself, with monitoring often inadequate to properly judge the true extent of impacts from the various incidents. The extent of incidents also shows the seriousness of the risks posed by uranium mining in World Heritage ecosystems and landscapes.