Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

ASNO

  Annual Report 1998-99

 

A WORLD FIRST IN AUSTRALIA: THE IAEA CARRIES OUT VERIFICATION ACTIVITIES AT RANGER MINE

Australia’s Additional Protocol to the NPT Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA came into force in December 1997. Under this Protocol Australia has given the IAEA the right to extended, or complementary, access to locations other than those already subject to routine safeguards inspections. A key function of the strengthened safeguards arrangements is to detect - or conversely confirm the absence of - undeclared nuclear activities, and thus a new feature of the Additional Protocol is access to uranium mines. Since the IAEA is generally unfamiliar with verification at such facilities, over the last year ASNO has worked very closely with the Agency to develop inspection strategies. Drawing heavily on the mine inspection plans developed jointly between the IAEA and ASNO, the Agency conducted its inaugural mine visit in June 1999 at the Ranger mine and mill in the Northern Territory, owned and operated by Energy Resources of Australia Limited (ERA).

In accordance with the IAEA’s rights under the Protocol, the visit was carried out at short notice which, given the remoteness of the site, raised a few logistical challenges. On the morning of the 23rd June 1999, the two IAEA inspectors performing a routine inspection at ANSTO, Lucas Heights, Sydney, notified the attendant ASNO inspector that the Agency required access to the Ranger Uranium Mine and Concentration Plant on 28 and 29 June. Given the short notice, only circuitous flights from Sydney to Darwin via Brisbane and Cairns could be organised. The drive to the accommodation selected by the inspectors took a further two hours but was still 50 km from the Ranger mine at Jabiru. Later, the inspectors explained that the motel had looked much closer to Jabiru on the maps obtained from the Internet which they had used for planning purposes back in Vienna. In the event the arrangements worked well, despite the bridge over the South Alligator River being under repair and only open between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on working days.

The senior IAEA inspector followed a work plan compiled at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna. Although he adhered to this as closely as possible, some variation due to local conditions and circumstances was required. The IAEA inspectors had brought with them a GPS unit to check the locations at which they took samples and a digital camera to record

IAEA inspector records the Ranger mill control board
parameters on 28 June 1999Photograph courtesy of ERA

the progress of the inspection and details of inspected areas. ERA advised there were no commercially confidential areas and no restrictions were placed on the inspection team.

Samples were taken of the coarse ore stockpile and the fine ore stream. At the Solvent Extraction-Precipitation, Drying and Packing area a sample was obtained from a uranium ore concentrate (UOC) product drum. Samples were also taken from the patchoukas (new tailings) and from the tailings ‘beach’ at Tailings Pond No. 1. The inspectors explained that the purpose of these last two samples was to see if a comparison was possible between new (current) tailings and others that were older. They were advised that there would be at least two years difference between the two samples.

IAEA inspectors watch staff take a sample from the Ranger
tailings dam on 28 June 1999Photograph courtesy of ERA

The Agency inspectors sought a substantial amount of additional site information, which included: the physical dimensions and capacities of all major components of the plant, e.g. the Counter Current Decantation tanks and the calciners; the suppliers of these items; and weekly, monthly and yearly production records.

Due to rebuilding activities, the only part of the site not readily accessible to the inspectors were the calciners, where the inspectors took swipe samples from the walls of the calciner/packing building. Here the intention was to check for any indication of the presence of hydrogen fluoride (HF), which would suggest that, as well as milling, conversion of UOC to uranium hexafluoride might have been undertaken. Such operations would be contrary to the declared purpose of the site and thus an indicator of ‘undeclared activities’.

A visit was also made to Jabiluka where a sample of ore was taken for the inspectors by ERA’s site geologist. A small package of samples was then prepared for analysis at the IAEA’s Analytical Laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria.

ASNO is appreciative of the high level of cooperation extended by ERA to ensure that the Agency’s visit ran smoothly and was as productive as possible.

 

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