The Guardian January 23, 2002


Damage control in the nuclear state

by Bob Briton

As well as posing a threat to the health and security of residents, the 
consequences of South Australia's nuclear status are developing into a 
major issue for the forthcoming state elections on February 9.

Recent events at the Beverley uranium mine in the north of the state have 
been serious enough to break through the silence usually maintained by mine 
operators Heathgate Resources and the Radiation Protection Branch of the 
State's Department of Human Services.

They have also sparked renewed calls for a review of the uranium mining 
industry and for greater transparency of the mechanisms meant to maintain 
safety standards.

The emergency at Beverley became known to the public the Saturday before 
last, a full day after a ruptured pipe had spewed 62,000 litres of uranium-
bearing water and sulphuric acid mixture onto the plant's grounds and under 
its perimeter fence.

Only the efforts of a worker using a backhoe to dig a ditch to collect some 
of the liquid prevented it from spreading further.

The press release from acting Mines and Energy Minister Rob Lucas did not 
mention the fact that uranium was present in the liquid.

Early reports claimed that a computer malfunction had allowed pumps to keep 
operating while valves regulating the liquid had been closed. Later on, 
government spokeswoman Kate McShane revealed that the Chief Inspector had 
found human error to have been involved in an "incorrect switching 
procedure" being used during maintenance.

Risks to workers at the mine, and to the environment, are being downplayed 
by both Heathgate Resources and the Government but a number of other 
developments cast doubt on their reassurances.

For one thing, this isn't the first leak from the controversial mine, which 
uses the in-situ acid leach technique banned in the United States.

Four years ago, environmental groups pressed Heathgate representatives at a 
public meeting for details of an "incident" vaguely referred to in an 
environmental impact statement for the mine.

It was only five months after the event that the public became aware of the 
spill of 500 litres of uranium carrying liquid, confirming the suspicions 
of green groups who were monitoring developments.

Last week, the Government confessed that there have been 24 spills at the 
mine. Four of those involved leakages of over 2000 litres of acid mining 
liquid, some containing uranium.

Even this belated frankness has been overshadowed by reported claims from a 
former mine employee that spills occurred on a weekly basis, that leaks of 
less than 200 litres were not reported to the State Government and that a 
fire in an air-conditioning system had closed the plant down at one stage.

A former senior maintenance worker told the "Advertiser" newspaper that 
morale at the mine was very low and that he had concerns for staff safety. 
Under considerable pressure, the acting Minister moved, not to investigate 
standards at the mine, but to overcome "deficiencies in terms of public 
notification and our processes within the Government as well..."

Early reports from government sources said that production at Beverley was 
set to resume last week but, upon his return to his post, Mines and Energy 
Minister Wayne Matthew said that it wouldn't come on line again until it 
was thoroughly inspected to his Department's satisfaction.

At odds with this tough talk are reports that the plant is already back in 
production of yellowcake. Heathgate concedes that the plant is circulating 
liquid in order to carry out tests and maintenance.

Last Friday, however, came the bombshell from Labor environment spokesman 
Kelvin Thomson, following his visit to the mine, that the plant was back at 
50 percent capacity and that trucks carrying yellowcake were leaving the 
plant bound for Outer Harbour and export.

Calls from Democrats Deputy Leader Sandra Kanck for the thorough scrutiny 
of the mine's maintenance and accident reports, a review of the supervisory 
role of Mines and Energy and the suspension of production at the mine, have 
been brushed aside. 

Brian Noone, Greens candidate for the State Legislative Council, has also 
queried the role of government authorities in overseeing the uranium 
industry.

He has called for independent authorities to be granted access to the site 
to assess the situation.

The Democrats and the Greens and the SA Nuclear Free Future group all 
oppose the in-situ acid leach method used at Beverley and at the Honeymoon 
mine operated by Southern Cross Resources, as does No Pokies MLC Nick 
Xenophon.

In fact, a broad movement in opposition to the uranium mining has been 
gathering strength in response to the clear threat posed by the accident-
prone industry.

As well as the various leaks at the Beverley mine, there was the leak of 
sulphuric acid-containing liquid between the "impermeable" aquifers at the 
Honeymoon mine in 1999, and the fires at the Olympic Dam site last year and 
in 1999. For a fuller list of disasters visit the site of the Sustainable 
Energy and Anti-Uranium Service at http://www.sea-us.org.au

For example, while polling shows that 86 per cent of South Australians are 
opposed to a nuclear waste dump being established in the State's north, 
Premier Rob Kerin remains committed to its creation.

As usual, when push comes to shove, the interests of big business prevail 
over the will of the people. The movement in opposition to this dangerous 
industry needs to become even more active to ensure that its message gets 
across.

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