Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex, SA

The Port Pirie Uranium Treatment complex began operation in August 1955, operated by the South Australian Government under a contract signed by the Commonwealth and SA Governments with Combined Development Agency of the U.K. and U.S.A. It primarily processed ore from the Radium Hill uranium mine east of the Flinders Ranges, but also processed stockpiled ore from the Myponga (Wild Dog Hill) uranium mine just south of Adelaide. The contract was for a period of seven years at full production.

The capital cost of the Port Pirie plant was £1,800,000. With the expiry of the C.D.A. contract on December 31, 1961, the Port Pirie uranium treatment complex was closed in Febraury 1962.

Additional tailings material has also come from the processing of rare earths. An area of about 30 acres is covered by tailings on the tidal flats of the Spencer Gulf. A number of significant management issues have arisen from the storage of these tailings :

  • first, from the close proximity of homes to the dams (within 400 metres);
  • second, due to the lack of fencing, the site was used as a playground for children over a number of years;
  • third, from the insufficient height of the tailings walls which failed during the high tides of 1981 (Spencer Gulf Environment Alliance 1997).
  • Although the area has now been fenced off and the tailings wall height increased to protect against further high tide events, the experiences of Port Pirie highlight te need for better tailings management.

    According to the SSCUMM report :

    The Committee is not convinced, on the evidence before it, that rehabilitation and remedial work has been satisfactorily completed. It recommends a full public evaluation of the work as soon as possible and that the sites be reappraised at intervals of not more than two years.

    Port Pirie is home to the Broken Hill Associated Smelters, one of the world's largest lead/zinc producers, owned and operated by CRA (now Rio Tinto). There have numerous strikes by unions over working conditions, the most vocal being in early 1987.

    In 1988 a health survey of 537 pre-school children drew a direct relationship between the slower mental development of four-year-olds, their blood/lead levels, and the presence of the Port Pirie smelter.

    portpirie01.jpg - 58.82 K
    A 1958 photograph of the uranium treatment plant, built by the State Government, at Port Pirie. The plant processed all output from the Radium Hill and Myponga mines. Ore concentrates were leached in boiling sulphuric acid to dissolve the uranium, which was precipitated, after further processing, as yellowcake. Leaching vats were housed in the tall building to the right of the four thickening tanks. The tanks were used to settle out solids from the waste material, and water was returned to the plant for re-use; the thickened solids were pumped into the tailings dams at left. During operations from 1955 to 1962, the plant produced over 860 tonnes of yellowcake which was sold to the British and USA governments.

    portpirie02.jpg - 50.65 K
    An easterly view of the BHAS (Broken Hill Associated Smelters) in 1959. The large black dump in the centre is lead blast furnace slag which has been reprocessed for zinc since 1967. The Port Pirie uranium treatment complex, which recovered uranium oxide from Radium Hill ore, is in the foreground.

    Information combined from
    "Nuclear Weapons Proliferation in South Australia 1945-1965" Briefing Paper,
    Nuclear Information Centre, Adelaide; "The Gulliver File" - CRA Dossier; and
    Mining In South Australia, 1982,
    Compiled by J. F. Drexel, Dept. of Mines & Energy South Australia, Special Publication No. 3.
    Page last updated - December 26, 1997.

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