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 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.
British Lithium Pressured Due To Calls for Electric Cars
The British demand for lithium is set to reach 75,000 tonnes by 2035 as the government works towards their ban on the sale of high-polluting diesel and petrol vehicles within the UK. This comes as automakers worldwide continue to insist on the benefits electric vehicles will have on slowing the rate of climate change.
It is estimated that the UK will require 50,000-60,000 MT of lithium carbonate a year by 2035 for battery production to satisfy government needs. This is assuming production remains at 1.2 million vehicles per year, and the amount of lithium required does not increase.
British Lithium, which hopes to begin constructing a quarry to produce 20,000 MT of lithium carbonate a year in a $400 million investment, are not without competitors, both within the UK and abroad.
Competition For Lithium Rises In Europe
After only five years after its initial launch, Cornish Lithium is setting its sights on becoming a UK powerhouse in mining lithium, aiming to begin commercial production in under four years. Jeremy Wrathall, a former investment banker and current managing director of Cornish Lithium, had the future in mind when founding the company.
“In 2016, I started to think about the electric vehicle revolution and what that would mean for metal demand, and I started to think about lithium,” he said in an interview with AFP. “A friend of mine mentioned lithium being identified in Cornwall, and I just wondered if that was a sort of unrecognised thing in the UK.”
Lithium was first discovered in Cornwall around 1864 and has not been mined again since 1914 when it was produced as an ingredient in fireworks. Now, however, Cornish Lithium is reportedly in the testing stage to see if the metal can be produced commercially to meet the growing demand required for the electric car sector.
Despite Cornwall’s close historic ties to mining lithium, Wrathall insists that the project is purely commercial.
Cornish Mining Revival For Lithium Production
“It’s not a mission that drives me to the point of being emotional or romantic,” he says. “It’s vitally important that we do get this technology otherwise Europe has got no lithium supply.”
The European Commission has also stated their goal to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 to aid the environment. That being said, the majority of lithium extraction currently relies on power provided by environmentally damaging fossil fuels─a slight contradiction.
Alex Keynes, from the Brussels-based lobby group Transport & Environment, is adamant that mining for lithium should be done sustainably.
“Our view is that medium-to-long term, the majority of materials including lithium should come from efficient and clean recycling.
“Europe from a strategic point of view should be looking at securing its own supply of lithium.”
Despite growing competition from abroad, British Lithium Chairman, Roderick Smith, continues to place importance on the mining of lithium within the UK.
“Imagine what the UK economy would look like if we lost our automotive industry,” Smith says. “The stakes are high for the UK.”
Smith expects the UK to compete with other European countries to secure a lithium battery plant in the near future.