Here is the recently published article by Barry Brook and me that appeared in the SACOME journal. In this article, we consider the greenhouse implications of the proposed expansion of Olympic Dam alongside the impact of the mined uranium in global greenhouse mitigation. It directly references comments from Green’s MLC Mark Parnell about the mine being a “huge carbon black hole”. Oh really? Read on…

“It’s easy to tell horror stories about uranium if you rob it of the context of its role in global energy supply. We deserve much better than such rhetorical chicanery.”

South Australia is host to the single largest known deposit of uranium in the world, at Roxby Downs. The recent plans to massively expand production at its Olympic Dam mine will take uranium production from 4,000 tonnes of uranium oxide (tUO2) in 2010-2011 to 19,000 tUO2 by the early 2020s. This enlarged open-cut polymetallic mine, run by BHP Billiton, will also produce 730,000 tonnes of copper (the principal product) and 25 tonnes of gold.

Olympic Dam.  Picturesque

Some environmentalists have objected stridently to this plan for an expanded mine, including Greens MLC Mark Parnell who said: “Our state risks being left with a huge carbon black hole as we become the greenhouse dump for one of the world’s richest companies“. Such hyperbolic claims are easily made and can sound persuasive. But are they be supported by evidence? Let’s consider the accuracy and context of such an argument from a climate science perspective.

Mark Parnell.  I agree with him on many things. But not this.

The greenhouse gas emissions from the mine expansion will come predominantly from heavy use of diesel and other liquid fuels for vehicles and mining equipment, and a 650 MW increase in electricity demand (likely gas powered), including the supply of 200 ML/day of desalinated water to the site. The result is that carbon dioxide equivalent emissions could peak at 4.7 million tonnes per year (tCO2-e). The Environmental Impact Statement acknowledged this would add almost 10 per cent to South Australia’s forecast emissions in 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario.

Now, let us consider the net effect of this on global greenhouse gas emissions.

The uranium from the expanded mine will fuel nuclear power plants in countries like the U.S., France, U.K., South Korea, China and Japan, to be used for electricity generation. A modern 1,000 MWe thermal nuclear reactor requires about 170 tUO2concentrate each year, in order to fabricate 16 tonnes of slightly enriched fuel rods. This plant will then produce 8,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of reliable, on-demand electricity, used to directly displace baseload coal or gas.

This means that the 19,000 tUO2 from the expanded Olympic Dam mine will provide enough fuel for a year’s operation of 112 GWe of nuclear power, which will generate about 900,000 GWh of electricity that releases no CO2 or other atmospheric waste like sulphur, soot and heavy metals. To put this in perspective, all of Australia’s power stations sent out 242,000 GWh in 2009.

One of us (Prof. Brook) recently published a meta-review in the peer-reviewed journal Energy which estimated the full life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for coal, gas and nuclear power electricity generation. This work puts emissions from a typical pulverized fuel coal plant at 915 tCO2-e per GWh, compared to 470 tCO2-e for a combined-cycle natural-gas plant, and 20 tCO2-e for a nuclear plant. Some of the full life-cycle emissions for the nuclear plant of course come from the fuel mining and milling.

Nicholson, Biegler & Brook (2011)
“How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies”
Energy doi: 10.1016/j.energy.2010.10.039

It is now simple to work out the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from generating 900,000 GWh of electricity from coal (824 million tCO2-e), gas (423 million tCO2-e) and nuclear (18 million tCO2-e). That is, the uranium from the expanded Olympic Dam, when fed to nuclear power plants, would generate 3.7 times the total current electricity demand of Australia, and avoid 405 to 806 million tCO2-e from being emitted to the atmosphere by displacing gas and coal. In this context, the additional 4.7 million tCO2-e generated by the mine expansion is little more than rounding error!

Indeed, Australia’s total emissions (all sectors) in 2010 were 560 million tCO2-e, and South Australia’s at up to 31 million tCO2-e. Therefore, the uranium from the expanded mine would be sufficient to offset all of Australia’s current domestic greenhouse gas emissions, or between 13 to 26 times South Australia’s total emissions. Note that these are not just emissions from stationary energy generation, but also from transport, industry, agriculture and so on.

By any reasonable measure that is not a “huge carbon black hole” – it is a massive win for global greenhouse gas mitigation.

The news gets even better. As we have explained in previous SACOME articles, current nuclear technology extracts less than 1 per cent of the energy from mined uranium. With the future large-scale deployment of next-generation technologies like the Integral Fast Reactor, which is able to repeatedly recycle the used nuclear fuel and use all of the depleted uranium, we will unlock the potential to extract 150 times more heat and electricity from uranium than we currently do.

If you crunch these numbers, you find that the 19,000 tUO2 per annum production from the Olympic Dam expansion would eventually yield 130 million GWh of zero-carbon electricity, and so avoid up to 120 billion tCO2-e, which is four times the total current global emissions from fossil fuels. All of this from one (albeit large) expansion of one uranium mine in one country.

It’s easy to tell horror stories about uranium if you rob it of the context of its role in global energy supply. We deserve much better than such rhetorical chicanery. Clearly, it’s time that environmentalists got sensible about uranium mining, nuclear power and carbon emissions.

Barry Brook and Ben Heard

(BTW Barry was pretty generous with the co-author credit here, I was really more of an style editor to be honest!).

15 comments

  1. If you want a carbon black hole, you look at the Galilee Basin in QLD.

    My understanding is that the mine’s first purpose is copper, so it would be going ahead with or without the uranium, perhaps a little more slowly and less profitably. Any calculus of the carbon impact form mining and processing has to be divided by the proportionate profitability of the other metals being extracted.

  2. There’s certainly no disputing the greenhouse gas emission numbers, but it probably would have helped if BHP Billiton hadn’t decided to put a desalination plant in the Upper Spencer Gulf – an absolutely indefensible decision. On the other hand, if environmentalists had been pragmatic and campaigned specifically against that, rather than the whole expansion, it might have been an effective campaign.

  3. Agree that the Whyalla desal is a PR own goal. An interesting factoid is that Arafura Resources bought land at Whyalla from OneSteel/Arrium, a BHP cast off. The Arafura plant will produce 20,000t a year of ThO2 greater than Olympic Dam’s 19,000t of U3O8. Which output is more likely to eventuate? Another snippet is that Gillard’s promise to nix the diesel rebate was itself cancelled by threats over the OD expansion among other projects
    http://www.indaily.com.au/?iid=62287&sr=0#folio=5

    I don’t care for the line that uranium export offsets CO2 in mining. Why not a new coal fired power station if the offset argument holds? Using Arckaringa Basin not Leigh Creek coal. The offset argument dates back to ex Federal MP Alexander Downer if I recall. It is plainly stupid to build new gas fired plant when gas is at a premium and we’re supposed to be setting an example of fossil fuel restraint. It’s hypocritical and weak if nuclear power is supposed to be benign. If the gas power station was at Roxby Downs (they once used diesel I believe) a new pipe would be required. Alternately the gas plant could be at Pt Augusta with beefed up transmission to OD. The pipe from Moomba that passes near Pt Augusta would need supplementing with Queensland gas. In fact SA gas is committed go to Qld for the Gladstone LNG plant barring a fracking miracle.

    BHP used to call themselves The Big Australian. I think they are the big boofheads for the Spencer Gulf desal and using gas power when local gas is running out. I wouldn’t be surprised if nothing happens for a decade.

  4. Here are a couple of additional wacky ideas. Why power a copper and uranium mine with a gas fired power station – BHP should consider eating its own dogfood and build itself nuclear capacity to provide the power to run the mine. Electric draglines are better earth movers than diesel powered trucks.

    Also, why not use nuclear process heat in the desalinization system? The nuclear capacity for power could be set up as a cogeneration plant with the inevitable waste heat used in the desalination process – that happens to be a rather beneficial use of the large quantities of low temperature heat that get rejected from all steam plant systems.

    With those refinements, the lifecycle emissions from nuclear energy can drop by another factor of two compared to the numbers you used here. With just a couple of more refinements – like nuclear powered concrete plants and nuclear powered enrichment facilities, you could make those emissions essentially disappear.

    BTW – for BHP – there is a good reason to build a nuclear plant to power a uranium mine. It encourages the increased use of the mine’s product by helping to make it easier for everyone to license and build new nuclear power plants.

    1. Yes, well, I’ve long known that you are the wackiest of the lot Rod.

      I’m not sure the process heat from a local NPP at the mine would last the distance to Spencer Gulf to be of much use. But heck knows they should have NPP on the table for their own power supply. As John Newlands says, why would you want the power source for the world’s largest mine to be subject to the potential problems of gas supply?

  5. RA I think the public would agree. An NP powered uranium mine ‘completes the loop’. If some intractable nuclear waste were concreted down an old shaft it’s a symbolic ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ return of nucliides whose precursors may have originated there.

    Rather than the alleged 19bn litres of diesel needed for the big open cut they could also use CNG and LNG powered machinery, the cryogenic tanks perhaps railed across from Western Australia. Short reach mining machines could be electric or pneumatic. Ammonium nitrate explosive could be made onsite as I believe they already use amine chemistry in extracting yellowcake.

    In recent years mining companies have come to expect governments will do everything for them, to wit carbon tax exemption for export coal. BHP Billiton made $23.5 bn profit last year so they are not poor. It’s not just Olympic Dam but several other possible mines and processing plants out that way that will need electricity and desalinated water. I think that region could eventually use a gigawatt of extra power. The couple of small (40 MWe?) solar thermal plants proposed for Whyalla and Pt Augusta are irrelevant to the whole exercise.

  6. @Ben you are correct that moving process heat is not easy of efficient. It is far easier to move electricity over transmission lines. Therefore, put the nuclear plant near the salt water supply and build transmission lines and fresh water pipes
    to the mine.

  7. Rod said: BTW – for BHP – there is a good reason to build a nuclear plant to power a uranium mine. It encourages the increased use of the mine’s product by helping to make it easier for everyone to license and build new nuclear power plants.

    It would be a great help if a big company like BHP would gnaw at the legal barriers to NP’s in Australia; they have bigger teeth than ordinary pressure groups and citizens. But I don’t think they’ll take the trouble: if uranium is no more than a by-product to them, they won’t see any profitability in it. Which is a pity.

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