A new era for ERA

While it is troubled times for some uranium miners, with the Fukushima nuclear plant on the brink of a meltdown driving people away from the sector, some are rising above the market worries.

One of the nation’s most well known uranium miners – Energy Resources Australia – has announced that it will be pushing ahead with its expansion plans.

Rio Tinto’s Energy Resources Australia (ERA) has stated that it believes there is an additional 34 000 tonnes of high grade uranium oxide underneath its existing open pit at the Ranger mine, near Jabiru in the Northern Territory.

According to the miner, exploratory drilling at its 3 Deeps project is set to increase the life of the mine.

This is despite the world’s fourth largest uranium producer’s suspension on its operations.

Work on hold

Earlier this year, the miner chose to suspend plant processing operations for 12 weeks as a precautionary measure to ensure water levels in its tailings dam remained below its environmentally authorised limits.

ERA chief executive Rob Atkinson explained that due to its target material, "the Ranger mine is arguably the most regulated and scrutinised mine in Australia."

He added that "this is entirely appropriate given the significance of our location."

However, "at Ranger we had a late finish to the 2009/10 wet season and then an early and very heavy onset to the 2010/11 wet season, to say that this has been challenging for the team at ERA would be an understatement."

It was due to these heavy rains across the region that the miner recently extended the operational suspension until late July, to allow the total levels of water at Ranger to reduce, although this is heavily dependant on rainfall.

A total of 2 490 millilitres of rain has inundated the mine since September last year, the wettest period it has seen since recoding 2 527 millilitres of rainfall in 2006/07.

This rainfall also flooded out Energy Resources’ Pit 3, essentially forming a pit lake.

Due to this, Energy Resources Australia does not expect to obtain access to the high grade ore at Pit 3 until much later this year.

Share price battle

On top of this, it saw shares fall after a forecast first half loss of nearly $50 million.

According to the NT News, ERA supplies uranium oxide to Tepco, which is the firm that runs the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Showing green creditentials

Energy Resources itself has also been under siege, with accusations that it may be lax in environmental monitoring during its operational suspension.

This worry is amplified by the fact that parts of its operations are; while still separate; surrounded by Kakadu National park land.

The Northern Land Council, the largest Aboriginal organisation in northern Australia, requested ERA guarantees its monitoring processes, with its chief executive Kim Hill telling the Sydney Morning Herald that a slumping share price may lead the miner to look for ways to cut costs.

Hill added that the latest situation at the Ranger mine further proves his argument that self-regulation in the Northern Territory resource sector is not working.

Late last year, fears were raised over pollution leaks from the Ranger mine, and it was accused of allowing 100 000 litres of contaminated water to seep from its tailings dam.

ERA chief Rob Atkinson told Australian Mining at the time that this was not affecting the local area, adding that the dam has a seepage area that is very well defined.

Atkinson stated that "during 2010 several major programmes were undertaken to improve ERA water management at the Ranger site.

"A $9 million project to divert stockpile run-off and seepage water flows was completed and this project led to immediate improvements in water quality "

In 2010 ERA installed seven new pontoon based monitoring stations in Magela creek and an additional three real-time continuous monitoring devices in other locations across the mine site.

While it has faced many hurdles, the miner is still focusing on the future and is currently aiming to extract 15 to 20 000 tonnes of uranium oxide.

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