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WA EPA rejects proposed Yeelirrie uranium mine

By Mara Bonacci - posted Tuesday, 16 August 2016

After nearly 3,000 people lodged submissions with the Western Australian EPA in opposition to the proposed uranium mine at Yeelirrie, on August 3 the EPA recommended that the project be rejected. Traditional Owners and environmentalists welcomed the decision, but remain wary.

Yeelirrie is located 420 km north of Kalgoorlie in the mid-west region of WA, the land of the Wongutha people. Yeelirrie is the name of a local sheep station and, in the local Aboriginal language, means "place of death".

In 1973 Western Mining Corporation (WMC) found a uranium deposit there. The Yeelirrie Mine Proposal was submitted to the WA Department of Conservation and Environment in 1979. The proposal was for the development of an open cut mine, ore treatment plant, town and ancillary services and 850 employees. Environmental approval was given by both state and federal governments.


Trial mines were dug in the 1980s, which found the first large scale calcrete orebody in the world. It is estimated that around 195 tonnes of yellowcake were mined in these trials. WMC spent $35 million preparing to develop the mine until the 1983 federal election and subsequent implementation of the ALPs "three mines policy" in 1984, limiting Australia's number of uranium mines to three.

In 2005, the mine was acquired from WMC by BHP Billiton, who concluded one stage of exploration mining. Then in 2012, Canadian mining company Cameco bought the deposit from BHP for $430 million.

The Yeelirrie uranium proposal was referred to the WA Environmental Protection Authority in November 2014 by Cameco. In 2015 the project was released for Public Environment Review. In August 2016 the WA EPA made a recommendation to reject the Yeelirrie proposal. The final decision will be made by the WA Environment Minister Albert Jacob.

Cameco is the second biggest uranium miner in the world. They have a long history of incidents that impact adversely on traditional owners, communities and the environment ‒a tabledocumenting these incidents is posted on the Conservation Council of WA's website.

Cameco wants to double the rate of production that was proposed by previous owners BHP. This means increasing water demand and an increased number of trucks from Yeelirrie to Port Adelaide.

Cameco's Yeelirrie mine proposal includes:

  • A 9 km long, 1.5 km wide and 10 m deep open pit mine
  • 14 million tonnes of overburden
  • Using 8.7 million litres of water a day
  • Producing 7,500 tonnes per year of uranium (10 percent of annual world demand)
  • To be transported by four road trains a week
  • It would produce 126,000 tonnes per year of CO2 emissions
  • 36 million tonnes of tailings stored in the open pit2,421 hectares would be cleared
  • 22 years of operation
  • Highly variable work force – average of 300.

Uranium prices have been low since the disaster at Fukushima, prohibiting the development of mines, but companies such as Cameco have been trying to get approvals in the belief that the price will go back up. However expectations of a price increase have repeatedly failed to eventuate. In May 2016 the price of uranium price fell to an 11-year low, just under US$26/lb U3O8. The spot uranium price has fallen by more than 20 percent since the start of 2016. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stated that uranium "is the worst-performing mined commodity this year."

Countless companies have exited uranium, and countless projects have been abandoned. Australian uranium explorer Capital Mining is one of very few companies to have prospered, with its share price doubling in a single day in 2015. How did Capital Mining achieve such a phenomenal result in such a bleak market? On the day of its share price doubling, the company announced that it was divesting itself of uranium exploration assets and planned instead to get involved in legalised cannabis growing!

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About the Author

Mara Bonacci is a member of Friends of the Earth's Anti-nuclear & Clean Energy (ACE) Collective.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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