Daily Bulletin


News

  • Written by Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University

One day before calling the election, the government approved the controversial Yeelirrie uranium mine in the remote wilderness of Western Australia, about 500km north of Kalgoorlie.

The Tjiwarl Traditional Owners have fought any uranium mining on their land for the last 40 years, and the decision by the government wasn’t made public until the day before Anzac Day.

This region is home to several of Australia’s deposits of uranium and not only holds cultural significance as part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming Songline, but also environmental significance.

Read more: An end to endings: how to stop more Australian species going extinct

If the mine goes ahead, groundwater levels would drop by 50cm and wouldn’t fully recover for 200 years. And 2,422 hectares of native vegetation would be cleared.

I visited the site 16 years ago and, like the rest of the Western Australian outback, there’s a wonderful paradox where the land appears barren, but is, in fact, rich with biodiversity.

It's not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine The former pilot open cut at Yeelirrie, February 2003 – unrehabilitated from the early 1980s. Photo G M Mudd

Native animals living in underground water, called stygofauna, are one such example of remarkable Australian fauna that aren’t obvious at first glance. These animals are under threat of extinction if the Yeelirrie uranium mine goes ahead.

Stygofauna are ecologically fragile

Most stygofauna are very tiny invertebrates, making up species of crustaceans, worms, snails and diving beetles. Some species are well adapted to underground life – they are typically blind, pale white and with long appendages to help them find their way in total darkness.

It's not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine Yeelirrie stygofauna. Photograph by Giulia Perina, Subterranean Ecology Pty Ltd

In 2016, the Western Australian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised against building the Yeelirrie uranium mine because it would threaten the stygofauna species there, despite the proposed management strategies of Cameco Australia, the mine owner.

Stygofauna are extremely local, having evolved in the site they’re found in. This means individual species aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

EPA chairman Tom Hatton said:

Despite the proponent’s well-considered management strategies, based on current scientific understanding, the EPA concluded that there was too great a chance of a loss of species that are restricted to the impact area.

Yeelirrie has a rich stygofauna habitat, with 73 difference species recorded.

It's not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine A species of stygofauna in Yeelirrie. Photograph by Giulia Perina, Subterranean Ecology Pty Ltd

And to get to the uranium deposit, the miners need to dig through the groundwater, a little like pulling the plug in the middle of the bathtub. Stygofauna have adapted to living at different levels of the water, so pulling out the plug could dry out important parts of their habitat.

Stygofauna are also susceptible to any changes in the chemistry of the groundwater. We simply do not know with confidence what mining will do to the groundwater chemistry at Yeelirrie in the long term. Various wastes will be backfilled into former pits, causing uncertainty for the welfare of surrounding stygofauna.

Read more: Maybe we can, but should we? Deciding whether to bring back extinct species

The approval conditions suggest that the mine should not be allowed to cause extinction – but if this does happen, nothing can be done to reverse it. And there would be no penalty to Cameco either – which has said it can’t guarantee such a condition can be met.

So are the economic benefits worth wiping out a species?

Short answer: no. But let’s, for a moment, ignore these subterranean animals and look at whether the mine would be beneficial.

Yeelirrie is one of Australia’s largest uranium deposits – and yet it has a low grade of 0.15% (as uranium oxide). This refers to the amount of uranium found in rock. For comparison, the average grade of uranium mines globally is normally 0.1 to 0.4% of uranium oxide (with some higher and others lower).

And Cameco’s Cigar Lake and McArthur River mines in Canada have typically been 15-20% of uranium oxide. Despite such rich ore, McArthur River was uneconomic and closed indefinitely in early 2018.

What’s more, the future of nuclear power is not bright. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the number of nuclear reactors under construction around the world is at its lowest point in a decade, as renewable energy increases. The amount of nuclear electricity produced each year is flat. And nuclear’s share of global electricity is constantly falling behind renewables.

Read more: Electric cars can clean up the mining industry – here's how

But, in any case, we don’t yet know enough about these stygofauna to warrant their extinction. They could, for instance, have untold benefits to medical science, or perhaps have wider environmental and cultural significance.

And, ethically, what right do we have to wipe out a species? They have evolved and survived just like us. At the end of the day, there are much safer, cheaper, more ethical and cleaner ways to generate electricity to boil a kettle.

Authors: Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University

Read more http://theconversation.com/its-not-worth-wiping-out-a-species-for-the-yeelirrie-uranium-mine-116059

Writers Wanted

Should pregnant women have a COVID vaccine? The evidence says it's safe and effective

arrow_forward

Is the truth out there? How the Harvard-based Galileo Project will search the skies for alien technology

arrow_forward

Trampoline training: 6 tips for safe trampolining

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's interview with Ray Hadley, 2GB

RAY HADLEY: Prime Minister, good morning to you.   PRIME MINISTER: G’day, Ray.   HADLEY: Gee, you’ve had a week.   PRIME MINISTER: Well, there's been a lot of weeks like this. This time last...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Ray Hadley's interview with Scott Morrison

RAY HADLEY: I'm going to go straight to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison is on the line right now. Prime Minister, good morning to you.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Ray.   HADLEY: Just d...

Ray Hadley - avatar Ray Hadley

Defence and Veterans suicide Royal Commission

Today the Government has formally established a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide following approval by the Governor-General.   Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Royal Commi...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Why it takes time to buy a business

Covid has sent shockwaves through the business for sale marketplace. At Bsale we are finding there are now more buyers in the market than sellers which creates a unique opportunity. With enforc...

Vanessa Lovie - Bsale CEO - avatar Vanessa Lovie - Bsale CEO

4 Ways To Make Your Business Look Nicer

If you own a business of any kind, you already know the importance of your building looking nice both inside and out. The more presentable it looks, the more professional it looks. A professional lo...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com

9 Smart Hacks for Your First Day at Work

No matter how much work experience you have, the first day with a new company can be very stressful. Even the biggest professionals find the change of location and work collective a little frighte...

Chloe Taylor - avatar Chloe Taylor