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Olympic Dam mooted as nuke dump site

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The area around BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam site has been raised in informal discussions within government as a prospective site for a future high-level nuclear waste dump, InDaily can reveal.

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While a decision on whether to proceed with an international nuclear repository – as strongly recommended by this week’s Scarce Royal Commission final report – won’t be made until November at the earliest, it’s understood the viability of the Stuart Shelf region of the Gawler Craton, much of which is covered by the Olympic Dam indenture agreement, is “a question that’s been asked” in State Government circles.

The discussions also raised the prospect of an approach to Oz Minerals, whose Prominent Hill operation is around 130km northwest of Olympic Dam.

A Government source told InDaily: “Logic would suggest at some point we’d have to engage [both] those companies and say ‘what do you think?’”

An Oz Minerals spokesman told InDaily the company has been “monitoring the discussion around the potential for a nuclear storage facility in South Australia with interest, however the State Government has not raised the issue with Oz Minerals at this stage”.

BHP Billiton, which made a submission to the Royal Commission “which included recommendations on reforms we believe will reduce barriers to entry to extraction and exploration of nuclear materials”, today reiterated a statement made in response to the final report, which stated the company “looks forward to participating in any future discussions around the issues raised”.

“The Olympic Dam copper mine produces uranium, gold and silver as by-products and is a core part of BHP Billiton’s portfolio,” the company said.

“The Olympic Dam operation also has a strong track record in managing health, safety and environment risks, including in relation to uranium extraction, transport, and waste management.”

It’s understood the Rann Government approached BHP in its first term to canvas using Olympic Dam for a low-level state repository, a suggestion the company declined.

It has since maintained that stance, unsurprisingly given the relatively low financial return of such an enterprise, saying in February that it had not been shortlisted for the national waste repository for low and intermediate level waste “and we expect this process to run its course”.

“While we have a strong track record in managing health, safety and environment risks, including in relation to uranium extraction, transport, and waste management, our focus is firmly on ensuring we are a globally competitive mining operation,” it said.

However, the economic returns of a high-level international repository would be of a different quantum altogether, at least according to the multi-billion dollar estimates contained in the Scarce Royal Commission report.

It’s considered the sort of money on offer for a corporate partner would at the least be attractive to a smaller operation such as Oz Minerals, if not BHP themselves.

InDaily has been told it is “logistically possible” the geological conditions of the region match the brief for a prospective waste dump, but the attraction of the BHP operation is that its indenture covers a large mining lease area, the totality of which the company is unlikely to ever mine.

Crucially too, there is a large buffer around the lease area where native title has been extinguished, which would help hose down a potential flashpoint problem of community consent.

Insiders consider the Gawler Craton region, which covers approximately 440,000 square kilometres of central SA, has “the best and most stable geology, and also happens to be extremely isolated”, with Woomera another likely option for consideration.

Premier Jay Weatherill said this week that “it stands to reason any facility of this sort would be in the more remote areas north of the state”.

InDaily understands that no approach has been made to either company at this point, but “the question has been asked” informally within Government.

“There’s a long way to go before the Government even gets to that point,” a source said.

SA’s Chamber of Mines and Energy chief Jason Kuchel said he was “surprised that’s been discussed” at this point, but added “I’m not aware of anything precluding it, excepting that it possibly gets in the way of mining”.

He said SA had “such a stable geology there’s many locations that would be suitable”.

“Obviously if the Government were to proceed then, as it keeps reinforcing, community acceptance of any location is probably going to be the prime driver,” he said, adding that “if you’ve tentatively chosen [such] a site you’d obviously want to drill quite extensively to ensure you didn’t have another Olympic Dam sitting there”.

Meanwhile, 25,000 South Australians randomly selected for the first of two Citizens’ Juries to debate the nuclear waste dump issue will receive letters in the post tomorrow.

Respondents will be whittled down to 50 jurors, who will meet over two weekends in June and July.

“Ultimately it will be a decision for the Government to make, however this process will enable us to have an informed debate and gain a clear understanding of the community’s position on this important matter for our state’s future,” Weatherill said in a statement.

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