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.