Uranium

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element found in trace amounts in rocks, soil, water and air.

Uranium mining in Western Australia

Uranium is the world's heaviest, naturally occurring element and is found in soil, rocks, human tissue, food, water and the ocean. Enriched uranium is used primarily as fuel for nuclear power stations.  In its natural state, uranium is only weakly radioactive and needs to be enriched before it can be used as a nuclear fuel.

Uranium ore is extracted at the mine and refined into uranium oxide before being exported. Processing mined ore into uranium oxide (sometimes called yellowcake) is usually done at the mine site.  It involves crushing the ore and separating the waste rock.  Chemical processes are then used to extract the uranium.

Uranium mining and production

Australia is the third largest uranium producer in the world.  In 2014-15, Australia exported 5,515 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate valued at $532 million. The majority of Australia’s uranium is produced in South Australia, which accounted for 3,893 tonnes of U3O8 in 2014-15.

As of February 2014, Western Australia has known deposits of about 226,000 tonnes of uranium.

The Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) has published a Guide to Uranium in Western Australia that explains uranium deposit types, mining and production methods in more detail. Geoscience Australia and the Commonwealth Department of Industry and Science also have useful information about uranium and radioactive waste management on their websites.

Australia’s in situ recovery (ISR) Uranium Mining best practice guide: Groundwaters, Residues and Radiation Protection, outlines the best practice principles and approaches that apply generally to mining in Australia, before giving more detailed consideration to best practice environmental protection and regulation for ISR mining. ISR is not currently used in Western Australia.

The following Guidance note provides information for proponents regarding the application requirements for ISR field leach testing in Western Australia.

Guide to Uranium in Western Australia

Safety and uranium mining

WA regulators and the mining industry have been managing the safe mining, transportation and export of radioactive material for 40 years. Not only do stringent State and Federal regulations apply, the uranium sector is also subject to rigorous international standards and regulations.

Uranium regulation

Mining radiation safety in Western Australia is regulated by the Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) and the Radiological Council, which adopts radiation protection standards formed at the highest international levels.

WA regulators have been regulating radioactive materials for more than four decades. Uranium exploration and mining operations are subject to a broad range of safety regulations, protocols and practices, and a more rigorous health monitoring regime, than most other mining operations.

Some of these measures include radiation management plans, which are assessed by the DMP and the Radiological Council, and the appointment of a specialised radiation safety officer.

DMP and the Radiological Council have a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the regulation of radiation safety for mining operations in Western Australia. Refer to the Uranium project approvals chart.

Transporting uranium

Once in production in Western Australia, uranium oxide will most likely be transported by road from the producing mine to existing container port facilities in South Australia or the Northern Territory for shipment to international customers.

The transport and export of uranium oxide is regulated by State and Federal Government agencies. In the case of uranium, there are also international standards that must be followed.

The risk to the public of transporting uranium oxide is very low. While new for Western Australia, uranium oxide has been shipped from other Australian States for more than 30 years. During this time there have been no major transport incidents or radiological damage to people or the environment.

In Western Australia the risks of public exposure to radiation as a result of uranium mining are negligible as there is extremely thorough regulation of uranium mining and the transport of radioactive material by DMP and the Radiological Council. The low levels of radiation of uranium oxide and the strict packaging requirements mean that any radiation exposure to the public from a passing truck carrying uranium oxide is negligible.

DMP and the Radiological Council have published a fact sheet containing further information on the safe transport of uranium oxide.

Environmental impacts

Protecting Western Australia’s environment is one of the State Government’s highest priorities. As with all resources projects in Western Australia, a strict, multi-agency approval process is in place to ensure the environmental impacts of uranium mining are managed and minimised.

Before any exploration or mining approvals are granted, a company must demonstrate that it will manage the environment to the highest standard.

Companies are expected to avoid environmental damage wherever possible but, where this is not practicable, they must demonstrate how they will monitor and minimise the impact and rehabilitate the disturbance.

Contact
For more information contact:
Uranium projects approval coordinator
leadagencyprojects@dmp.wa.gov.au