Australia holds about one-third of the world’s known uranium sources. At the present time, there are three uranium mines operating in the country: the Ranger in the Northern Territory, Olympic Dam and Beverley with Four Mile in South Australia.
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element that occurs naturally in soil, rock and water. For years people have used it as a colorant for ceramic glazes and tinting in early photography. Today, uranium powers nuclear reactors that produce electricity. It is also an important material for the medical, industrial and defence industries.
We can trace the country’s uranium mining back to 1906 when a small amount of uranium ore was taken and processed to produce radium. This was then used to paint watches and clock faces before they realized its safety risks.
In 1954, the modern era of uranium mining started to explore its potential as an energy source.
How is Uranium Mined?
Uranium resources can be extracted in three ways: open-cut, underground and in-situ recovery (ISR).
Open-cut or open-pit mining, like what they do in Ranger and Olympic Dam, is a practical method when the uranium ore is located near the surface. First, they remove and set aside the soil and rock on top of the ore by drilling and blasting. Then they excavate it with a series of benches or steps to go deeper.
Underground mining, as the name implies, is getting higher concentrations of uranium that are too deep. They build access shafts and tunnels with less waste rock removed.
In-situ recovery, like what they do at the Four Mile Uranium Mine, uses wellfields to pump oxygen and a weak acid mining solution through the ore body to dissolve the uranium minerals. The dissolved content is then extracted to the surface and transferred for processing.
Safety Practices in Uranium Mines
Like other mining facilities, uranium mining companies take safety precautions. The Australian radiation safety regulations are among the most comprehensive in the world. The As Low as Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) principle guides operations, regulating dose limits so it’s safe even for the public living near mines.
Mining operations in Australia are under the Code of Practice and Safety Guide for Radiation Protection and Radioactive Waste Management in Mining and Mineral Processing through ARPANSA. The Health Department ensures that companies are complying with basic radiation exposure standards while the Mines Department is on the day-to-day overseeing of occupational health and safety requirements.
In addition to that, there is also the Code for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material (2019) to establish uniform requirements for transport by road, rail and waterways.
Monitoring Radiation in Mining Facilities
Uranium itself is barely radioactive, but the uranium’s decay products in the ore and in tailings are potentially hazardous. Radon gas that emanates as radium decays is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
As for safety measures in mining facilities, dust is controlled to lessen inhalation of harmful substances. Radiation and radon levels are also low and seldom exceed the limit.
Aside from that, personnel follow strict hygiene standards and have respiratory protection for areas identified by air monitoring.
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