Ranger-3 Uranium Mining Project

(last updated 25 Jul 1997)

Contents:


ERA Orebody-3 Briefing Paper

John Hallam, FOE Sydney.

Introduction

This briefing has been put together with the idea of providing factual background for talking about the issues raised by what ERA hopes will be the next stage in its progress: The development of Orebody-3. In fact however, ERA hopes strongly to be able to develop North Ranger-2, whose proper name is Jabiluka. The confidential `company profile' on which this briefing is to some extent based reflects that desire very strongly.

At present, no mining whatsoever is happening and the Ranger mill is operating in a `campaign' mode, well below its rated capacity of 3000 t/y. ERA is feeding the mill from broken- ore stockpiled from the Ranger-1 orebody, which is virtually worked out. ERA figures that its ore stockpile will last till 1999, and does not need to produce ore from either Orebody-3 or North Ranger-2 till that time. Development of one of these orebodies will have to commence at least two years before this time however, by 1997. Now is therefore `decision time' with respect to ERA's future development plans.

The Numbers

First the numbers, especially tonnages of ore, and ore grades. These may seem boring, but they are important, as by understanding them, you can see roughly where Orebody No-3 and North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka) fits into ERA's scheme of things. So bear with them.

Orebody No.3 contains 56,615 tonnes of U3O8, compared with 18,900 remaining in the No.1 orebody, and 90,400 tonnes U3O8 in the North Ranger No.2 orebody, according to the ERA 1994 Annual Report. According to OSS, (who actually reference their information back to ERA) there is a marginally lower figure of 55,300 t U3O8 in the Ranger-3 orebody, and a somewhat higher figure of 20,600 t U3O8 in the No.1 orebody. According to ERA's `94 Annual Report, of the ore in Orebody-No.1, most of it (15,900 t) is actually contained in the broken ore stockpile, with only 3000 t remaining in the pit itself. OSS gives a somewhat lower number of 14,700 tonnes in the stockpile, and significantly more - (5,900 t) - remaining in the pit.

The ERA Company Profile, dating from early `94, gives a lower figure (of 3,412 t) in the pit, and more in the stockpile, (17,057 t) totalling 20,469 t -nearly the same as the OSS numbers. The company profile gives a figure of 55,300 t for orebody-No.3, and 90,400 t for North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka)

The original Fox Report (Ranger Inquiry) of 1977, using figures of 20 million tonnes of ore for No.1 orebody, and 23 million tonnes for orebody-No.3, and ore-grades of 0.25% U3O8 for Orebody-No.1, and 2.2% for orebody No.3, results in figures of about 50,000 tonnes U3O8 total for Orebody-No.1, and 62,000 tonnes for orebody-No.3, significantly more than ERA's current estimate of 55,300 t.

Ore-grades for orebody-No.3 are 0.31% according to the ERA Company Profile, and 0.32% for Orebody-No.1. This is quite a bit more than the 0.22% originally estimated for orebody-No.3 by the Fox inquiry. North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka) has a significantly higher ore-grade of 0.46%, about 50% higher than orebody-No.3.

Orebody-3 and North Ranger-2 in the Cosmic Scheme.

This business of ore-grades and reserves, though it may seem eye-glazing, is important because it determines the relative importance of these orebodies in ERA's scheme of things, and because ERA argues that in order to fulfil its anticipated market from 1999/2000, it will have to expand its milling capacity by 50% unless it is able to use the 50% richer North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka) ore. With 90,400 t in North Ranger-2, 56,000 tonnes in Orebody-3, and 16,000 tonnes left in and stockpiled from No.1, ERA will possess 162-166 (ERA estimates 166) thousand tonnes U3O8, out of a total of 462,000 tonnes U3O8 for the whole of Australia, with most of the rest at Roxby (Olympic Dam). This compares with global reserves of 2.3 million tonnes, giving ERA around 7% of total global uranium reserves. Put another way, ERA's 160-166,000 tonnes compares to 160,000 tonnes for major uranium producer Niger, 171,000 tonnes for Uzbekistan, and 277,000 tonnes for the whole of Canada, the world's largest producer. In terms of production, according to the `94 Company Profile, with North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka) in production, ERA says it will rank as number-2 or 3 in the ranks of global uranium producers. In terms of total reserves however, it can only be number-2, as the number-1 slot is of course, filled by Olympic Dam (Roxby).

North Ranger-2 Vs Orebody-3

The Ranger mill has been designed to operate at a capacity of 3000 t/y U3O8, and to be able to be expanded to 6000 t/y, with relatively minimal alterations. At the time of the 1977 Ranger Inquiry, it was confidently expected that the Ranger mill would quickly be upgraded from 3000 t/y to 6000 t/y capacity.

The 1977 Ranger Report gives an idea what an actual doubling in Ranger milling capacity would mean. As the rate of mining ( but not the ultimate size of the pits or tailings piles) would double, there would need to be in operation more drills, front- end loaders, and trucks. At the mill, the size of the crushing equipment would remain the same, though it would be in use for longer periods. The number of rod-mills, ball-mills, and leaching tanks would need to be increased, and the size of the sulphuric acid plant would have to be doubled, while the solvent-extraction circuit would have to be duplicated. [Ranger Inquiry 2nd Report p84]

ERA itself is quite inconsistent in what it says about the relative impact of developing orebody-No.3 or North Ranger-2, though they make their preference for developing North Ranger-2 amply clear. The main environmental argument ERA brings against Orebody-3 is that at the production levels to which the company is committed, a 50% increase in milling capacity will be required with concomitant (but not quantified) increases in the use of water and the production of tailings, as well as SO2 emissions. In addition, ERA argues that as an underground operation that is designed to be low-impact, North Ranger-2 will have much less impact than Orebody-3, though this supposed advantage will be offset by the need to construct a 20 Km long haul-road from the North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka) portal to the Ranger mill.

Thus, according to the ERA company profile, if Ranger-3 is developed first, ERA will need to invest in a mill expansion to meet `forecast' production requirements , whereas no mill expansion will according to ERA, be required if NR-2 is developed first. North Ranger, according to ERA, would owe its `minimal' impact to the fact that it will be underground, out of sight except by air, `remote' from the Magela wetlands, and will not be requiring a mill or tailings dam of its own. The effect of the addition of NR-2 tailings to the ones from Ranger-1 and possibly 3, at the higher ore-grade of NR-2 on radon emissions is not mentioned.

The current rate of production of the Ranger mill is far below the 300 tonnes/year for which it was initially designed, and this has resulted in the introduction of a discontinuous `campaign' mode of production. Thus, in 1994, Ranger actually produced only 1,461 t U3O8 and in 1993 it had produced the even lower figure of 1,335 tonnes U3O8. In 1992, the Ranger mill produced 2,980 tonnes, and in 1991, 2,908 tonnes. Sales have however, exceeded actual mill production by significant margins, partly via the sale of stockpiled tonnage, and partly via the sale of spot-purchases and long-term purchases of Kazakhstan product. Thus in 1994, ERA actually sold 1,934 tonnes on Ranger product, and 1,510 tonnes of Kazahkstan product. ERA has a contract with KATEP that runs to 1997.

Conversations with a member of OSS staff revealed that an ERA briefing to OSS staff about six months previously had produced the impression that ERA's sales would rise to 4,500 t/y by 1999/2000. The ERA `Company Profile' produces a table of `possible new contracts' of 1,500 t/y of which 550 t/y would be from US and European purchasers (unspecified) and 500 t/y from a contract with Tokyo Electric. However, the actual status of these contracts is not at all clear: They are called only `possible' new contracts, and the expiry of old contracts is not mentioned. Also, though the ERA/Katep contract is supposed to run out in 1997, if prices remain depressed (less likely) or simply fail to rise by as much as ERA thinks they will (quite likely), there will be advantages for both ERA and Katep in prolonging the arrangement. Katep would find having ERA market its material a way behind the legal labyrinth of the US/CIS suspension agreements, while ERA would maintain access to material that is cheaper than its own. It is therefore not at all clear that a mill production of 4,500 t/y has any reality in it.

What is abundantly clear is ERA's determination to develop North Ranger-2. The company Profile notes that:

`ERA's goal of 9% of world market share is dependent on timely development approval for North Ranger' and: `Without North Ranger, ERA will become a second - ranking producer of declining competitiveness after 2000.' finally, according to the Company profile, ERA sees North Ranger-2 as `A vital marketing asset, offering-life-of-reactor supply potential'

However, ERA has not been entirely honest in pushing North Ranger-2 as the nice clean `low-impact' `alternative' to Orebody-3, since it is clear that
(a) ERA is entirely prepared to go ahead with whichever orebody gets the political nod first, and
(b) ERA actually wants to develop both orebodies, not just one.
According to ERA's 1994 Annual Report, p12,

`The preferred development sequence of the two orebodies is North Ranger-2 followed by Ranger-3 within three years of a commencement of mining at North Ranger.'

Yet, elsewhere in the 1993 annual report p17, ERA says that:

`On economic grounds, there is little to choose between ERA's two undeveloped orebodies, Ranger-3 and North Ranger-2. Ranger-3 has the advantage of being an open pit located adjacent to the Ranger process plant. ERA already has within its workforce the skills needed to mine Ranger-3. The development of North Ranger-2 requires however, a high level of expertise in underground mining - expertise which is readily available in the ERA management team.'

ERA did in fact complete a feasibility study for North Ranger 2 in August 1993, and one for Ranger-3 in June 1994. These studies should be made publicly available.

It's interesting to look back over the Ranger final submission to the Ranger (Fox) Inquiry, to see the way in which ERA's attitude to mining Jabiluka ore at its Ranger mill has changed dramatically. It may also be interesting to ask just what if anything has been the technical basis for this change in attitude. In its Company profile and its last two annual reports, ERA is at pains to stress the advantages of the use of the Ranger mill for North Ranger (Jabiluka) ore. On p17 of its 1993 Annual Report, ERA says that:

`In addition to Ranger-1, ERA has two viable orebodies to meet uncommitted demand later this decade. The company is fortunate in that the mineralogical and metallurgical characteristics of each are similar to those of Ranger-1. Both can therefore be processed through the existing Ranger plant with only minor modifications.'

ERA repeats in a number of places in the Company Profile and the North Ranger profile of 2/94, that the

`The Ranger plant can process North Ranger ore without the need for significant modifications' and: `U3O8 production will increase by about 50% with North Ranger ore for the same annual tonnage milled.'

ERA does not mention that both radiation levels within the plant, and the radium content and radon emanation from the tailings produced from North Ranger ore will of course, rise by exactly the same proportion.

This trumpeting of the advantages of the North-Ranger-2 production in conjunction with the use of the Ranger mill and a 20 km haul-road as compared to straightforward development of Orebody-3 is in sharp contrast to what Ranger told the Ranger Inquiry in their final submission of 1976. According to p17 of the Ranger final submission:

`Ranger concludes from the following evidence that a common treatment plant is not feasible and that individual treatment plants are the most efficient and desirable arrangements for treating ore on the scale proposed by Ranger and Pancontinental mining from orebodies of the kind represented in the two occurrences, and further that the Ranger proposal to locate an ore treatment plant near its orebodies is the most efficient and practical means of dealing with solid, liquid, and gaseous effluents, whether radioactive or not, in such a way that its employees, the general public, and the natural environment are afforded maximum protection, whilst causing the least possible interference with other industries in the region.'

Ranger went on to state that:

`In a common treatment plant, there are technical problems in treating mixed ores, and technical, economic, and operating problems in sampling and metal accounting for various ores.' `In a common treatment plant there are economic and operating inefficiencies in batch processing. The separate ores must be compatible to avoid batch processing. Ranger and Pancontinental ores have important differences.'

One wonders just what these differences are or were, and just what factors apart from the change in ownership of Jabiluka, and the change in its name to North Ranger-2, have made these differences irrelevant. One difference certainly, was the presence of gold in the Jabiluka ore, which Pancon had planned to extract by means of a cyanide-based process. There is no mention in any of the ERA material of the presence of anything but uranium.

Another important difference between current ERA plans and those of Ranger in 1976, concerns the precise method of mining Orebody-3. According to the 1976 Ranger final submission to the Fox (Ranger) commission,

`The lower ore in the number-3 orebody will probably have to be mined by underground methods,'

While according to the ERA Annual Report of 1994 p13,

`Ranger-3, to be developed as an open pit, will employ selective mining techniques to reduce mining dilution.' Underground mining is not mentioned.

According to the Ranger inquiry, the number-3 orebody would require the removal of 160 million tones of overburden to produce a pit 190 metres deep. Ore would then be mined by underground methods to a depth of 420 metres. This is a massively deep pit unless of course, underground methods are indeed to be used by ERA. An OSS official in conversation, suggested that a decision to go underground would not be taken until much later in the life of the orebody, when the company has a more detailed knowledge of the precise configuration of the orebody, and the economics of doing so are clearer.

Environmental Comparison of North Ranger-2 and Orebody-3

A comparison of the possible environmental impacts of the two orebodies reveals the following problems:

(1) Orebody-3 lies in part directly underneath Djalkmara billabong, and the wetland filter from RP-4 and RP-2. This means that water management and the possible contamination of Magela Creek (to which it is relatively close) will be an issue. Ranger doesn't mention this anywhere in either its Company Profile nor in its annual reports, and seems not to have considered the issue even as a way to enhance its case for developing North Ranger-2 in preference to Orebody-3.

The northern lip of Orebody-3 underlies Djalkmara Billabong, and according to conversations with OSS, Djalkmara will have to be separated from the pit (which will in any case constitute a Restricted Release Zone (RRZ) )- by bunds. Because there is both a shallow aquifer near the billabong and the creek, and a deeper one within the pit, both containing much more water than the aquifers of the No.1 pit, according to OSS, `there may be a groundwater issue'.

As an underground operation, North Ranger-2 will also require de-watering, and is also relatively close to Magela creek. The mine entrance at North Ranger-2 has been shifted to a position further east than that originally planned by Pancon, further from Magela Creek. ERA devotes much space in its North Ranger-2 proposal, to a comparison of its proposal with the original Pancon proposal. While the ERA proposal certainly does have a lesser impact on the North Ranger lease area, that is because some of the impact has effectively been shifted south to the Ranger site via the haul-road. For example, the North Ranger lease will not experience water management problems associated with tailings and milling, because these problems (including the additional radon emanation associated with the tailings from the 50% richer ore) will be transposed to the original Ranger lease.

Interestingly, in its 1976 Final Submission to the Ranger commission, Ranger said that transporting tailings back to the Jabiluka (North Ranger-2) mine for use as mine fill would be an `unacceptable' expense. It would be interesting to see if they would contemplate it now.

(2) The mill expansion argument is problematic. ERA says that if it has to rely on Ranger-3 orebody, to fulfil its projected contracts, it will have to increase the size of its mill by 50%. This assumes a production capacity of 4,500 t/y U3O8. I am not at all convinced that this will actually happen, nor am I sure that ERA really has the contracts to make it happen. It may, but the probabilities are in my own opinion against it. The `possible new contracts' listed in the ERA Company Profile are not firm, and the expiry of existing contracts is not mentioned.

Administrative Loops and Hoops

The legal and administrative hoops through which ERA has to go to develop Orebody-3 as we saw, are minimal. As the development of Orebody-3 was essentially covered in the Ranger inquiry, and as the current ERA plan to develop Orebody-3 is not radically different from that canvassed in the inquiry, a new environmental impact assessment won't be required as it would for the development of North Ranger-2. However, ERA does have to make an application to the NT Department of Mines, and will have to present a detailed proposal for development of the orebody in a few months.

ERA is able to use broken ore from the number-1 orebody stockpile up to 1999, but will want to commence development work on either Orebody-3 or North Ranger-2 by 1997.

Continuous milling is planned to resume `market permitting' by 1996,and the No.1 pit will be used as a tailings repository by late this year. According to the `Company Profile',

`A decision on the next mine must be taken by 1st of July 1995 if the market responds as forecast.'

Conclusion

While it is obviously desirable to raise the issues related to the environmental impact of Orebody-3 as strongly as we can, we should never forget that ERA will use whatever arguments they can, and whatever leverage they can, to make possible the development of North Ranger-2 (Jabiluka), development of which will put them in the front rank of uranium producers worldwide. If arguments aimed at raising the issues of the environmental impact of Orebody-3 were to give ERA arguments in favour of North Ranger-2 as a `clean' alternative, and thus allow development of that orebody, this would negate much of the work done in previous years to keep the ALP semi - honest on uranium, and would be a disastrous setback. This cannot be allowed to happen. That said, there are sufficient problems associated with the development of both orebodies to demand an environmental review (or possibly even an EIA) not only for the development of North Ranger-2, for which an EIA can be expected, but for orebody 3. The difficulty with orebody-3 is that in strict legal terms, the EIA process has already been gone through. However, this should not be an insuperable obstacle, so long as we can show that there are problems, and that the Ranger Inquiry of 1975-77 did not deal with them in a way that is useful for the present reality.


OREBODY-3 APPROVAL AT RANGER URANIUM MINE 'PREMATURE' SAYS F.O.E.

FRIENDS OF THE EARTH PRESS RELEASE 16/5/96

Friends of the Earth have called on the Federal and NT Governments to put the approval and development of Orebody-3 at the Ranger uranium mine on hold until the Senate Select Committee on uranium, recently set up in the Senate as an initiative of the W.A. Greens, and the environmental review process for the Jabiluka uranium project are complete. It was announced yesterday by the Northern Territory Minister of Mines and Energy Mike Read, that his department has granted approval for Energy resources of Australia to mine Orebody 3, within the existing Ranger project area.

According to FOE uranium spokesperson John Hallam: 'Approval for Orebody Three at this point by the NTDME is highly premature. We are about to enter two parallel processes of environmental assessment which will have to consider the cumulative impacts of all uranium mining operations for the whole region, namely the formal environmental impact assessment for the development of the Jabiluka orebody, under the procedures of the 'Environment Protection-Impact of Proposals' Act, and the recently created Senate Select Committee on Uranium Mining. The Senate Select Committee will be looking at all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, but will be concentrating especially on the impacts of mining in the Kakadu National Park. As such, it will have to consider the cumulative impacts of all uranium mining activities, including not only the new Jabiluka project, but Orebody-3.'
'While it is true that Orebody-three was included in the original environmental assessment done under the Ranger Inquiry of 1975-77, the fact is that Orebody-3 does have some special problems, notably that it is directly under Djalkmara billabong, and will therefore have to be de-watered extensively. This will require the removal of Djalkmara Billabong. According to an article by Dr. K.A. Bishop in the Australian Journal of Ecology 1995,20, 81-107, Djalkmara Billabong plays a crucial role in providing recruits for upstream dry-season refuges, a key ecological process for fish within this seasonally-flowing creek.'

'In fact, it seems that the timing of the current approval may have been designed to avoid precisely the scrutiny that the Senate inquiry and the environmental impact assessment procedures will focus on it.'

ERA and the NTDME should not be allowed to get away with this sleight-of-hand. Orebody-3 should be delayed until the Senate Select Committee on uranium mining has been allowed to assess it in the light of the data revealed by the formal environmental assessment for the Jabiluka proposal' Mr Hallam concluded.

Friends of the Earth is currently helping to organise a national day of action against uranium mining on 24th of May, as part of the Stop Uranium Mining Coalition. Anti-uranium actions are scheduled around Australia on that day.

The Stop Uranium Mining Coalition includes Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, People for Nuclear Disarmament, The Anti-Bases Coalition, Paddlers for Peace, Sydney Peace Squadron, the Greens, Pax Christi, The Australian Conservation Foundation, The National Union of Students (NSW and National) Sydney University SRC, the NSW Fire Fighters, the Maritime Workers Union, the Firefighters Union, The Wayside Chapel, Resistance, and Socialist Worker.

Contact: John Hallam, Uranium Campaigner Friends of the Earth Sydney
Tel. +61-2-9283-2006, Fax: +61-2-9283-2005, Email: nonukes@foesyd.org.au


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