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REPORT: BHP Billiton Wants to Increase Radioactive Waste as Olympic Dam

BHP Billiton is seeking permission to increase the amount of radioactive waste being stored at the Olympic Dam in South Australia, documents submitted t...

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|Jan 14|magazine5 min read

BHP Billiton is seeking permission to increase the amount of radioactive waste being stored at the Olympic Dam in South Australia, documents submitted to the federal government said. The company believes it can amplify the tailing capacity, which includes uranium and copper, without seepage rates rising.

BHP is requesting to raise the current design height of one of the walls around the dam from 30 meters to 40 meters. Along with increasing waste storage capacity from 48.4 million cubic meters to 64.8 million cubic meters, BHP believes it can extend the life of the facility by five years.  

“Due to the requirement for ongoing tailings storage capacity, as a result of the continued operation of the mine and processing plant, taking no action is not a feasible alternative,” the company said in its documentation.

BHP confirmed raising the embankment height of the facility would not result in additional seepage rates or raise radiation exposure to the public.

“A feasible alternative, and one that remains the option in the event that the design height of the tailings storage facility is not increased, is to construct and commission a new tailings cell. This option is not preferred, primarily because of the associated increased environmental impacts of additional land clearing and the heightened risk to avifauna from increased tailings storage facility surface area,” the mining company added.

The increase isn’t without opposition, however.

According to Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Dave Sweeney, raising the volume of tailings will undoubtedly cause more leakage.

"There is no question that increased pressure would add to the chances of increased seepage," Sweeney said. "We see tailings management as one of the big, unspoken problems with uranium mining. It is an unresolved environmental management problem."

In September, BHP revealed it was working on site to develop a strategy involving heap leach for tailings treatment. The company said it will conduct a three year trail before deciding whether to move forward.

If approved, the expansion at the Olympic Dam is expected to be completed by 2023.