Discovered 1906 Ore Processed 969,300 tonnes Operating Mine 1906 to 1930s (radium)
1954 to 1962 (uranium)
Average Grade U3O8 0.09-0.13% U3O8 Produced 852 tonnes
Radium Hill was Australia's first uranium mine and was even a producer of radium for the Curies in France.
The first sign of uranium mineralisation at Radium Hill was discovered in 1906 by prospector A. J. Smith, who at first thought the heavy dark rock to be an ore of tin. The Radium Hill Co. took over the claim, and six hundred tonnes of ore were mined by 1911. Other companies worked without success, and by the end of the First World War five shafts had been sunk and abandoned. The ore concentrate was treated in New South Wales and Victoria to yield a few hundred milligrams of radium and a several hundred tonnes of uranium by-product.
The Radium and Rare Earths Co. erected a plant at Dry Creek, near Adelaide, in 1923 to produce radium and radium bromide from the Radium Hill ore, but this proved to be uneconomic by 1932. The radium produced was used for medical purposes and the uranium by-product was used as a bright yellow pigment in glass and ceramics. An attempt was also made to recover other by-products, such as titanium white used in paint pigments, but the complex ore prevented further development.
In 1944, the Commonwealth Government received a request from the Britain for assistance in evaluating Australian uranium provinces. The Second World War ended before the program was completed, and the South Australian Government took over the project for Radium Hill.
By 1952, Radium Hill had been proved large enough to mine, and many problems associated with ore beneficiation had been solved. The underground mine was recommissioned in 1954 and operated by the South Australian Government to satisfy a cost-plus contract signed by the Commonwealth and SA Governments with the UK-USA Combined Development Agency for delivery of uranium oxide over seven years.
A town to accommodate eleven hundred people was built, water piped in from New South Wales, a railway spur constructed to connect Radium Hill with the Broken Hill-Port Pirie line, and a power transmission line constructed from Morgan. A new shaft was sunk to more than four hundred metres. The mine was officially opened on 10TH September 1954 by the Governor-General, Field Marshall Sir William Slim.
Output of the mine eventually reached six hundred tonnes of ore per day. After crushing, the ore passed into the ball-mill for fine grinding. The ball-mill was operated above design capacity to cope with high ore production rates from the mine. A heavy media flotation process was used to separate davidite, the principal uranium mineral, from the resultant slurry by disc filters. This concentrate, containing about 0.7% uranium, was railed 300 kilometres to a treatment plant at Port Pirie designed to produce 160 tonnes of uranium oxide per year and operated by the SA Department of Mines.
The mine operated from September 1954 to December 1961, with an output of 969,300 t of 0.09-0.13% ore. There were spike samples as high as 9% U3O8 (7). The main uranium mineral at Radium Hill, davidite, was present as a complex iron-uranium titanate associated with ilmenite, magnetite, rutile, haematite, quartz and biotite (7).
The Port Pirie uranium treatment plant operated from 1956 to February 1962, treating about 152,400 tonnes of the 0.59-0.76% U concentrate to produce 852 tonnes of U3O8. This was sold through the Combined Development Agency.
The CDA was the agency responsbile for obtaining uranium for both the rapidly expanding British and American nuclear weapons programs. (6)
Radium Hill was operated on land previously occupied by Aboriginal people, and its yellowcake was incorporated (along with Australia's other source material) into nuclear weapons later tested on Aboriginal land and people, in the same region. From the cradle to the grave with a vengeance!
Although the uranium grades at Radium Hill were moderate, the rare earths grade was exceptional, with values up to 7% rare earth oxides (7). This was over twice the rare earths grade at the Mary Kathleen uranium mine, which was also considered a rare earths ore with minor uranium.
A proposal was made public in the 1970's (1980's ?) to mine and extract the rare earths from the remnant tailings at Port Pirie, although the project was abandoned due to intense public opposition and known community health problems from the uranium tailings and lead-zinc smelting.
A July 1979 New South Wales government report on former workers at Radium Hill showed a cancer-related death rate four times the national average. Since 1960, said the report, 59% of the miners who worked underground at the mine over a period of two years or more have died of cancer. The Health Ministry - while unable to confirm or deny the report - was able to trace 600 of the former 3000 Radium Hill employees: 40% of these had already died of cancer (1).
In 1982 the South Australian Health Commission and Adelaide University commenced a study of ex-miners at the Radium Hill mine. In July 1986, the Commission issued a progress report. Pointing out that only 20% of the mine's workers (out of the 60% of the workforce it traced) had died up to that time, the Commission commented that it was "far too early to draw inferences about the effects of radiation exposure on lung cancer rates" (2). Although there was a relatively high proportion of deaths from "injuries and poisonings", the Commission said that "it should not be concluded ... that working in Radium Hill was especially hazardous" (2). More lung cancers were attributable to the workforce than in the community at large, but the Commission could not decide whether these were due to radon exposure in the underground workings, or the heavy rate of smoking. Moreover "significant numbers of Radium Hill miners were immigrants, some of whom may have had uranium mining experience in high-exposure mines in other countries" (2).
The Radium Hill study was finally published in 1991, nine years after its inception. It dismissed some of the complacent interim conclusions of 1986, and concluded that radiation may have contributed to premature deaths among the workforce. The Federal Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Cook, held out the possibility of compensation to 56 families of victims of Radium Hill (3).
Today derelict radioactive tanks stand on the fringe of Port Pirie township as a reminder of the past industry. Washed by high tides and eroded by winds are about 200,000 tonnes of tailings. Until townspeople raised the alarm, children played in the water holes among the tailings. Only grudgingly and after considerable public protests did the authorities fence off the area.
Recently, in late 1997, it was discovered that radioactive solid wastes from the Field Leaching Trial currently being conducted at Beverley by Heathgate Resources were to be disposed of at the "Radium Hill Shallow-Ground Radioactive Waste Disposal Site", operated by Mines and Energy, SA (MESA) (5).
This is the first time it has become public knowledge that the old underground workings from the Radium Hill mine were a licensed repository for such wastes. How has it come to pass that the public has been excluded form such important decisions ? What technical and engineering assessments have been undertaken by the respective South Australian government departments, and were they made public ?
Let us hope that the old Radium Hill site is not merely being used as a sacrifice zone for radioactive waste for endless generations to come.
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