Rio Tinto's Ranger Mine suffers radioactive acid spill

Date of publication: 
9 December 2013

Rio Tinto Group’s Energy Resources Australia said a tank split at its Ranger uranium mine, which is surrounded by Kakadu National Park, spilling a mixture of acid, ore, mud and water.

The 1,450-cubic-meter leaching tank developed a hole, which caused it to split and release slurry today, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Processing at the facility will be suspended while a clean up takes place, it said.

Operations at the mine must be suspended indefinitely and the company should conduct a full audit of the operations at the plant, the Australian Greens party said in an e-mail that described the spill as radioactive. ERA doesn’t dispute that the slurry is radioactive, company spokesman Dan Hall said by phone today.

“Containment systems stopped the flow, and this has meant there is no impact to the surrounding environment,” Tim Eckersley, general manager of operations at ERA, said in the company statement. “ERA is focusing on clean up and recovery.”

World heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, located in Australia’s Northern Territory, is the nation’s largest national park, and more than half of it is Aboriginal land. While Ranger mine is surrounded by Kakadu, it’s separate from the park, according to the company’s website.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the traditional owners of the land, called for an independent investigation of the spill.

Justin O’Brien, chief executive officer of GAC, said photographs and descriptions from eye witnesses showed the tank burst with such force that it bent and twisted nearby infrastructure and coated equipment in the slurry.

“What could be safely described as one of Australia’s biggest nuclear accidents has occurred,” O’Brien said. “No one has demonstrated to us that there hasn’t been contamination.”

Rio Tinto owns 68.4 percent of Energy Resources.

—Editors: Garry Smith, Jim McDonald


A radioactive acid spill at Australia’s Ranger Mine

Michael Allan McCrae –

8 December 2013

A leach tank with 1,450 cubic metre capacity failed at Ranger Mine spilling mud, water, ore and acid.

Workers discovered the breech at 1 a.m. Saturday, a hole in the side of Leach Tank 1. A crane attempted to block the hole but was toppled when the tank gave way. No personnel were injured.

Energy Resources Australia (ASX:ERA), Ranger Mine’s operators, said the spill was contained.

“Containment systems stopped the flow, and this has meant there is no impact to the surrounding environment,” said ERA General Manager Operations Tim Eckersley.

ERA is focusing on clean up and recovery, and the protection of the environment and the health and safety of our people remains paramount.”

The company said that it is “. . . confident that the nearby Kakadu National Park will not be impacted as a result of this incident.” The park, which surrounds Ranger Mine, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Production at the company has ceased. Federal and territorial regulators are investigating the incident.

The company said that “. . . is taking this incident extremely seriously.”

On its Facebook page the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation called the accident a “catastrophic failure.”

The company opened 9.62% lower at A$1.17 .


Greens call for end of Ranger uranium mine operations after slurry spill

8 December 2013

The Greens are calling for a permanent end to operations at the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory after a radioactive spill at the site yesterday morning.

A tank containing up to a million litres of uranium ore and acid split, damaging the crane that was trying to repair it and surrounding infrastructure at the mine near Kakadu National Park.

Mine operator Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) says it has contained the spread of the slurry, and has temporarily shut down processing operations at the site.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt says government officials have already been on site.

“It is unacceptable, it is something which we have taken immediate action of, and instructing that there be an immediate clean up,” he said.

But West Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says the mine should now be shut down for good.

“The company thinks that the way to save operations at Ranger is to go underground through the 3 Deeps projects,” he said.

“As far as the Greens are concerned the company should be as good as its word and close that facility when its lease runs out.

“I think this latest disaster doesn’t improve anyone’s confidence that the mine is capable of running for another 10 or 15 years.”

Senator Ludlam says there are a number of lessons to be learned from the incident, and has called for the Federal Government to reconsider giving more approval power over uranium mines to state and territory governments.

“I think some short-term lessons include the company disclosing how many other of these leach tanks there are, and whether they’re in the same condition as the one that burst,” he said.

“But in the longer term, this is a very strong sign for Environment Minister Greg Hunt that under no circumstances should he let regulation of the uranium sector go back to the states and territories.”

Radiation not the concern, says expert

A uranium expert at the University of Adelaide says the slurry that spilled from the tank is likely to have a low level of radioactivity.

Professor Steven Lincoln says uranium ore is broken down when it is mixed with either sulphuric or nitric acid, as part of the uranium refining process.

He says it is the acid, rather than the uranium, that is the concern.

“So at this level the radioactivity is not a worry,” he said.

“The chemicals they used are more worrisome than the radioactivity.

“And sulphuric acid is a very strong acid, so it’s something you keep very carefully under control.”

ERA says it can confirm all the uranium and acid which spilled from the split tank has been contained within the mine’s controlled water management system.

It says its water systems, including retention ponds, captured surface water from the area where the spill occurred.

ERA says the water system has ensured uranium and acid did not impact the surrounding environment, including Kakadu National Park.

A spokesman for the Federal Environment Minister also said the leak has been contained and will have no impact on the surrounding area.

The company says no-one was injured.