The Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) is the federal government’s statutory safeguards agency.
ASNO is notorious for its dishonesty and unprofessionalism. ASNO’s falsehoods include claims that nuclear power does not pose a WMD proliferation risk, that Australia only sells uranium to countries with ‘impeccable’ non-proliferation credentials, and that all of Australia’s uranium is ‘fully accounted for’.
ASNO is also notorious for its secrecy, such as its refusal to publicly release:
Country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.
‘Administrative Arrangements’, which are not nearly as innocuous as the name suggests – they contain vital information about the safeguards arrangements required by Australia.
Information on nuclear accounting discrepancies (Material Unaccounted For) including the volumes of nuclear materials, the countries involved, and the reasons given to explain accounting discrepancies.
The quantities of Australian-obligated nuclear material (primarily uranium and its by-products) held in each country are confidential and ASNO acquiesces to that situation. (ASNO states: “The actual quantities of AONM held in each country, and accounted for by that country pursuant to the relevant agreement with Australia, are considered by ASNO’s counterparts to be confidential information.”)
At least some export agreements allow for further secrecy under the rubric of ”state secrets”.
As an example of ASNO’s activities, it misled parliament’s treaties committee in 2008 by claiming that “strict” safeguards would “ensure” peaceful use of Australian uranium in Russia and by conspicuously failing to tell the committee that there had not been a single IAEA safeguards inspection in Russia since 2001. The treaties committee made the modest recommendation that some sort of a safeguards system ought to be in place before uranium exports to Russia were approved, only to have its recommendation rejected.
Since 2001 a fast-tracked in-situ leach (ISL) mine, the Beverley uranium mine, has been operating in the northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia. The mine is owned by General Atomics, a US-based company, and managed by its subsidiary, Heathgate Resources.
Heathgate sells uranium to nuclear weapons states which are in breach of their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to at least one country with a recent history of secret nuclear weapons research (South Korea), and to countries which refuse to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
ISL involves pumping acid into an aquifer. This dissolves the uranium ore and other heavy metals and the solution is then pumped back to the surface. The small amount of uranium is separated at the surface. The liquid radioactive waste – containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid – is simply dumped in groundwater. From being inert and immobile in the ore body, the radionuclides and heavy metals are now bioavailable and mobile in the aquifer.
Heathgate has no plans to clean up the aquifer as it says the pollution will ‘attenuate’ – that the aquifer will return to its pre-mining state over time. This claim has been queried by the scientific community as being highly speculative with little or no firm science behind it.
Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Jillian Marsh noted in her submission to 2002-03 Senate References and Legislation Committee that: “The government chose not to demand that the groundwater be rehabilitated, an unacceptable situation for the Australian public at large given our increasing reliance on groundwater and the increasing salinity of land surfaces and water systems.”
The 2003 report of the Senate Committee said:
The Committee is concerned that the ISL process, which is still in its experimental state and introduced in the face of considerable public opposition, was permitted prior to conclusive evidence being available on its safety and environmental impacts.
The Committee recommends that, owing to the experimental nature and the level of public opposition, the ISL mining technique should not be permitted until more conclusive evidence can be presented on its safety and environmental impacts.
Failing that, the Committee recommends that at the very least, mines utilising the ISL technique should be subject to strict regulation, including prohibition of discharge of radioactive liquid mine waste to groundwater, and ongoing, regular independent monitoring to ensure environmental impacts are minimised.
Another feature of ISL mining is surface contamination from spills and leaks of radioactive solutions. The SA Department of Primary Industry and Resources lists 59 spills at Beverley from 1998-2007. Examples include the spill of 62,000 litres of contaminated water in January 2002 after a pipe burst, and the spill of 15,000 litres of contaminated water in May 2002.
Heathgate’s record in Australia
Heathgate’s activities at Beverley (and Beverley Four Mile) have been extremely divisive among Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners. Some Adnyamathanha Elders have formed an Elders Group as a separate forum from the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association. Enice Marsh said: “There have been many attempts over the past 10 years to try and bring greater accountability to what’s happening in Native Title, and to stop the ongoing assault on our Yarta (country). Many of us have tried with very little resources, limited understanding of the legal system and environmental laws, and despite a mountain of bullying, lies and deceit from mining companies, lawyers, and self-inflated thugs in our own community who dare to call themselves ‘leaders’.”
Heathgate has a track record of secrecy, such as its failure to publicly acknowledge a series of leaks before the 2002 SA state election and its refusal to release key environmental reports until the South Australian Ombudsman found that its commercial-in-confidence claims were spurious.
Heathgate also has a disgraceful track record of spying on environment groups. GA / Heathgate has employed at least one private investigator to infiltrate environment groups in Australia. The infiltrator, known as Mehmet, had previously infiltrated green groups as part of an undercover police operation before he moved into the private sector to set up his own security company, Universal Axiom. He also provided personal protection to visiting GA executives. When asked about the company’s tactics, a Heathgate spokesperson said the company was privately owned and had a policy of not responding to media questions.
People who worked at Friends of the Earth at the time − around the turn of the century − say they were highly suspicious about Mehmet from the get-go. His activities might have been laughable and pathetic except that he provided exaggerated information about the likely attendance at a protest at the Beverley uranium mine in May 2000. That led to an excessive police presence at the protest and police brutality against environmentalists and local Aboriginal people including the capsicum spraying of an 11-year old Adnyamathanha girl. The following video clip details this brutality. Heathgate applauded the police action (in a 2000 media release which is no longer available online).
After a 10-year legal case, 10 people were awarded a total of $700,000 damages. Supreme Court Judge Timothy Anderson described the imprisonment of protesters in shipping crates as “degrading, humiliating and frightening” and noted that the action constituted an “affront to the civil liberties of the protestors”. He added: “The conditions were oppressive, degrading and dirty, there was a lack of air, there was the smell from capsicum spray and up to 30 persons were crammed into a very small space.”
Some General Atomics / Heathgate lowlights
The following video clip from ABC TV’s ‘Hungry Beast’ program explains some of the connections of Neal Blue, head of General Atomics. Over the years Blue has had commercial interests in oil, Predator drones, uranium mining and nuclear reactors, cocoa, bananas and real estate.
Radioactive spills and gas leaks at a uranium processing plant in Oklahoma led to the plant’s closure in 1993. The plant was owned by a GA subsidiary, Sequoyah Fuels Corporation, and processed uranium for use in reactors and for use in depleted uranium munitions. A nine-legged frog may have GA to thank for its dexterity. A government inquiry found that GA had known for years that radioactive material was leaking and that the radioactivity of water around the plant was 35,000 times higher than US laws permitted.
In 1992, a leak at the Oklahoma plant forced the evacuation of a building only two weeks after federal inspectors allowed it to resume operating. Later that year, the company announced that the plant would be closed after it had been ordered to temporarily shut down three times in the previous six years. Sequoyah Fuels Corporation President Joe Sheppard said the company could no longer afford rising costs related to regulatory demands.
The shenanigans and jiggery-pokery at the Oklahoma plant − documented by the World Information Service on Energy − include the disposal of low-level radioactive waste by spraying it on company-owned grazing land, and the company’s attempt to reduce the amount of property tax it paid on the grounds that radioactive contamination reduced the value of the land!
Fortune Magazine recounts one of the controversies surrounding GA / Heathgate’s uranium ventures in Australia. When uranium prices increased in the mid-noughties, the company was locked into long-term contracts to sell yellowcake from Beverley at earlier, lower prices. Heathgate devised plans to renegotiate its legally-binding contracts. Customers were told that production costs at Beverley were higher than expected, that production was lower than expected, and that a failure to renegotiate contracts would force Heathgate to file for bankruptcy.
However former employees said that Blue had allegedly directed Heathgate to increase its production costs. Customers were not told that bankruptcy was unlikely since GA had agreed to continue providing Heathgate with financial assistance.
Two of Heathgate’s Australian directors, Mark Chalmers and David Brunt, consulted an attorney who advised them that the plan could be considered a conspiracy to defraud. Chalmers and Brunt left the company.
Exelon, one of Heathgate’s uranium customers, sued. The lawsuit was settled for about $41 million. Because of the increased uranium price, Blue ended up well in front despite the cost of the settlement with Exelon − more than $200 million in front by some estimates. Blue was unrepentant: “It made more sense to, in essence, just pay the fine.”
Blue has even been sued by his own company. Several years ago, ConverDyn, a uranium conversion plant jointly owned by GA and Honeywell, sued Blue, Heathgate and GA in relation to allegations of a failure to meet contractual obligations to deliver certain amounts of uranium.
Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson declined to comment when asked about GA / Heathgate’s activities in 2009.
GA / Heathgate has repeatedly flown US politicians (and their families and aides) to Australia for high-level talks and it has paid for Labor MPs to travel to the US. The company has used the services of PR firm Hawker Britton, which includes many former Labor politicians and staffers.
Money well spent, it seems. In 2006, then SA Treasurer Kevin Foley said: “I have visited the Beverley mine and, recently, in San Diego I met Mr Neal Blue, the chairman of General Atomics – an outstanding company that is producing uranium oxide from the Beverley mine. I only hope that further deposits of uranium can be found. The sooner we can find it, dig it up and get it out of the country, the better.”
BHP Billiton planned to supplement underground uranium mining at Olympic Dam with a massive open-cut mine. Export of uranium was expected to increase from an average of 4,000 tonnes per year to 19,000 tonnes per year and the production of copper, gold and silver was also expected to increase.
However in August 2012 the company shelved plans for an open-cut mine, saying that a smaller version of the project will be considered in coming years. The existing underground mine will continue operating.
The company has not been required to study the viability of mining copper, gold and silver without also extracting and selling uranium − an option (PDF) which would allow for ongoing, profitable mining while addressing at least some of the major problems.
The mine operates under the Roxby Downs Indenture Act, which provides overrides and exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. BHP Billiton is in a legal position to determine what consultation occurs with Traditional Owners, who is consulted, and nature of any consultation. The company decides the level of protection that Aboriginal heritage sites receive and which sites are recognised. It is ironic and hypocritical that BHP Billiton supports Reconciliation Australia’s ‘good governance’ program and has provided over $2 million to Reconciliation Australia, yet will not relinquish its exemptions from the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Kokatha Traditional Owners c.2004
The Indenture Act also allows wide-ranging and indefensible exemptions from key environmental laws such as the SA Environmental Protection Act 1993, Freedom of Information Act 1991, and Natural Resources Act 2004. Those exemptions were retained when the Indenture Act was amended in 2011 in preparation for the planned expansion. The amended Indenture Act lapses in December 2012 and will need to be renegotiated if BHP Billiton revives its plan for an open-cut mine in some form or other.
In 2011, SA Liberal Party industry spokesperson Martin Hamilton-Smith said “every word of the [amended Indenture] agreement favours BHP, not South Australians.” It beggars belief that the SA Labor government would agree to such one-sided terms; and it beggars belief that Mr Hamilton-Smith and his Liberal colleagues waved it through Parliament with no amendments.
The only politician to insist on some scrutiny of the amended Indenture Act was SA Greens MLC Mark Parnell. He was accused of holding the state’s economy to ransom. The transcripts of his late-night Parliamentary questioning of the Labor government are posted here and here. Time and time again the government spokesperson said that BHP wanted such-and-such a provision in the Indenture Act, and the government simply agreed without further consideration or consultation.
Olympic Dam is a state within a state − and it has shades of a Stalinist state. When a mine worker provided the media with photos of multiple leaks in the tailings dams in 2009, BHP’s response was to threaten “disciplinary action” against any workers caught taking photos.
Mining consultants Advanced Geomechanics noted in a 2004 report that radioactive slurry was deposited “partially off” a lined area of a storage pond at Olympic Dam, contributing to greater seepage and rising ground water levels; that there is no agreed, accurate formula to determine the rate of evaporation of tailings and how much leaks into the ground; and that cells within a tailings pond covered an area more than three times greater than recommended, requiring “urgent remedial measures”.
Under the open-cut mine expansion plan, the production of radioactive tailings, stored above ground, would increase seven-fold to 68 million tonnes annually. The tailings contain a toxic, acidic soup of radionuclides and heavy metals. There have been numerous spills and leaks – e.g. in the mid-1990s it was revealed that about three billion litres had seeped from the tailings dams over two years.
Radioactive tailings, Olympic Dam. Photo by Jessie Boylan
In 2010, a mine worker was sufficiently concerned about occupational health issues at Olympic Dam that he leaked information to the media. The leaked documents show that BHP uses manipulated averages and distorted sampling to ensure its official figures of worker radiation exposure slip under the maximum exposure levels set by government. The risks will escalate with plans for a massive expansion of the mine. The BHP whistleblower said. “Assertions of safety of workers made by BHP are not credible because they rely on assumptions rather than, for example, blood sampling and, crucially, an assumption that all workers wear a respirator when exposed to highly radioactive polonium dust in the smelter.”
Uranium production at Olympic Dam was expected to increase to 19,000 tonnes per year under the open-cut expansion plan, sufficient to fuel 95 power reactors which would produce 2,850 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste per year (in the form of spent nuclear fuel). That amount of spent fuel contains 28.5 tonnes of plutonium − enough for 2,850 nuclear weapons each year.
BHP Billiton sells uranium to nuclear weapons states in breach of their NPT disarmament commitments, dictatorships, states refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, states blocking progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, states with a history of secret nuclear weapons research, and states stockpiling ‘civil’ plutonium. A new low was set in 2006 when the federal government, with BHP Billiton’s support, negotiated a uranium export agreement with the secretive, repressive, militaristic, undemocratic regime in China. The expansion of the Olympic Dam mine is heavily predicated on the export of copper-uranium concentrate to China.
For the open-cut expansion plan, BHP Billiton proposed an increase in water consumption from 35 million litres daily (from the Great Artesian Basin) to over 250 million litres daily (up to 50 million litres daily from local groundwater, up to 42 million litres daily from the Great Artesian Basin, and the remainder from a proposed desalination plant at Point Lowly, near Whyalla). That’s over 100,000 litres every minute – in the driest state in the driest continent. The water take from the Great Artesian Basin has had adverse impacts on the precious Mound Springs and the desalination plant is also controversial.
Update – December 2013 – Mine expansion still on hold
“BHP’s reluctance to seek a partner for an expanded Olympic Dam project in South Australia may surprise as it’s stuck on the back burner, squeezed by low commodity prices and high development costs estimated by analysts at around $30 billion. In August last year, BHP said it would look for a less costly design for the Olympic Dam mine, which had been expected to bring in billions in tax dollars and create thousands of jobs. Up to now, it hasn’t announced any new plans for the site. At first glance, finding a competitor to share development costs and risks with BHP makes sense. If they also bring in new technology then so much the better. The problem for BHP is that a partner might actually want to get the project moving, even at a much-reduced scale. That would test BHP’s desire to keep annual spending below $15 billion in future, down by a third from last year’s bill totaling $21.7 billion. With uranium prices continuing to hover near eight-year lows, and several countries debating nuclear power in their energy mix, BHP can avoid such tough decisions by keeping full control of the asset.” — Wall Street Journal, 10 Dec 2013.
Above and below: Over 500 people attended the Lizard’s Revenge protest at Olympic Dam, July 2012, despite the risk of the sort of police brutality faced by protesters at Beverley a decade earlier. www.lizardsrevenge.net