Originally published in RTown News
November 26, 2010
BHP is upfront about its “core business strategy of diversifying investment across geographies and commodities.” It’s ridden the waves of globalization to mine coal, iron ore, copper, gold and silver as well as uranium. It’s always looking for “tier-one assets”, large, lucrative mineral deposits wherever they exist. It’s eyeballing West Africa and is in joint ventures with Vale of Brazil. Having one-half of the world’s potash reserves, BHP would target Saskatchewan.
But BHP is also aware of the profitable uranium deposits in the north. One executive in a Sept. 21st Star Phoenix story, “BHP Eyes Us”, said that “potash and uranium, probably in (that) order are the ones that interest us...for now…it’s a pink mineral not a yellow element (uranium yellowcake) that’s at the forefront.” But what might the darling of globalization be thinking now that their potash bid has failed?
OPEN FOR URANIUM BUSINESS
|Uranium barrels at BHP mine, SA.|
But the bottom line is about political and economic power, not international peace and security. Revenue from uranium is a pittance compared to potash and oil and gas, and so Premier Wall apparently has no problem with more foreign uranium companies in the province. Cameco is technically a Canadian company, but like Potash Corp, it exports most of its mineral product to the US and has lots of US shareholders. The French, state-owned Areva is the other main corporate actor in the north. Might Wall see BHP Billiton as a better bridge to the Chinese uranium market with which it already has dealings?
THE OLYMPIC DAM MINE
Like Saskatchewan, Australia suffers from the ecological impacts of uranium mining. The planned expansion at Olympic Dam is staggering, on the scale of Alberta’s tar sands. Birds there, too, die after landing in toxic tailings ponds. If BHP gets the go-ahead its open-pit mining will grow to become a 14.4 cubic kilometer wound on Mother Earth. Visualize this carefully: that’s a cut 4.1 km by 3.1 km to a depth of 1 km. Just to remove the biological habitats on top of the ores, the so-called “overburden”, will take five years.
IS BIGGER BETTER?
|The Concentrator/Hydromet Plant at Olympic Dam|
Producing uranium for one reactor for one year leaves over 600,000 tonnes of tailings waste. Uranium tailings at Olympic Dam are expected to increase six-fold to 58 million tonnes a year. BHP plans to create up to nine more tailings dams to add to the four in place, which would have their heights increased from 30 to 65 meters. Australia has already had radioactive tailings spills or leaks (1994, 2008), as has happened in Northern Saskatchewan (1984, 1989). Increasing tailings enlarges this risk.
MYTH OF CLEAN ENERGY
Electrical consumption is expected to increase six-fold, requiring 775 Megawatts (MW); that’s one-fifth of Saskatchewan’s total electrical capacity, to fuel just one uranium mine. BHP has proposed the use of solar thermal plants to produce some electricity. Think of that: a uranium mine that leaves radioactive tailings and weapons-grade spent-fuel from nuclear reactors, using up all this renewable energy. We clearly need to replace both fossil fuel and nuclear energy with renewables if we are going to get on a sustainable path.
Olympic Dam exposes the uranium industry’s claim to be clean energy. Like uranium companies here, BHP promotes nuclear power as being low-carbon energy. This intentionally ignores mining. But BHP’s mine expansion will increase greenhouse gases to between 4.7 and 6.6 million tonnes a year, which would likely make it impossible for South Australia to meet its 2050 target of 12 million tonnes.
BHP AS CORPORATE CITIZEN
Most revealing are their tactics with Aboriginal people, Australia’s Traditional Land Owners. BHP side-steps principled consultation and uses divide and rule, bribery and disinformation. Under the 1982 Indenture Act, the corporation has exemptions or can override much of the South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1988. Under the confidentiality clause BHP even has veto power over public releases of information.
It certainly seems that we are lucky to not have BHP as a big corporate player here. But, not so fast: as I’ll discuss next time, these divide and rule, bribery and disinformation tactics sound a lot like how the uranium industry and Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) presently operates in the north. Maybe BHP can help us better see what is happening in our own back yard.