Uranium minerals were discovered in South Australia at Radium Hill in 1906 and later at Mount Painter in 1910. Mined intermittently until the 1930s, little interest was shown until the discovery of nuclear fission. Then wartime use of uranium stimulated exploration and in 1954 Radium Hill was opened up. Other deposits have since been discovered, among them Rum Jungle, Mary Kathleen, Alligator River, Yabiluka, Ranger, Narbalek, Koongarra, Yeelirrie, Ben Lomond, Mount Isa, Beverly, Honeymoon and Olympic Dam.
Olympic Dam has many outstanding features, particularly in the way it was found. Most major mines in South Australia such as Kapunda, Burra, Blinman, Wallaroo and Moonta, were discovered by change by pastoral workers noticing copper stains on rock outcrops. The discovery of the Olympic Dam deposit, three hundred metres below the surface of the Stuart Shelf, was made in a Melbourne Office.
After six years of studies, including model building, studies of geological and geophysical maps, and numerous aero-magnetic surveys, Western Mining Corporation took out Exploration Licence 190 in 1975. In June of that year the first hole, (RD1) drilled by Ted Whenan to locate the expected copper was a failure. A month later they did find the copper. The deposit proved to be one of the world's largest, nearly seven kilometre long, four kilometres wide and one kilometre deep. Enough to keep mining for the next sixty years. When RD10 was completed it not only contained copper but also uranium.
Widespread exploration by other companies followed like it had a hundred years before, when supposedly very rich ore deposits were discovered at Callington, Talisker, Kanmantoo, Yudanamutana and Sliding Rock. Within the shortest possible time thirty-six licences, covering more than 50,000 square kilometres, were taken out. By 1984 more than 250 km of drill core had been obtained, adding a vast knowledge to the mineral content of the Olympic Dam deposit and the general mineral content of the area.
To evaluate and develop this huge deposit Western Mining Corporation approached the BP Group and in 1979 a joint venture agreement between them was signed and approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board. The obligations and responsibilities of the Joint Venture Partners and the South Australian Government were incorporated in an Indenture Agreement signed by all parties on 3 March 1982. Within a few months of approval work was started in earnest at Olympic Dam and before the end of 1979 a permanent on-site camp was established to house the drilling crews.
Early 1980 saw the completion of facilities for a hundred men, including prefabricated housing, power, water supplies, workshop, plant store, sample preparation block and a 1500 metre airstrip. During 1981 it was decided to sink a shaft, (Whenan Shaft) to a depth of 500 metres. It was completed in September 1982 when horizontal drives were started at the 420 metre level.
With the completion of Whenan shaft underground development could take place. Drives were started in 1982 at the 420 metre level. Above ground development went also ahead full steam, not only at Olympic Dam or Roxby Downs, but also at Adelaide and Melbourne.
At the mine site construction of a small pilot processing plant commenced in mid 1983 to test the metallurgical processes. By 1984 more than three hundred people were living at Olympic Dam, some in houses or caravans while others found a home in the single persons quarters. A pre-school centre was opened and primary students were transported every day to nearby Andamooka, a daily round trip of 64 kilometres.
That same year a copper concentrator was commissioned to produce concentrates for Finland were they were subjected to all kinds of smelting tests. The CSIRO Mineral Chemistry was developing a process for the removal of uranium from the mine's concentrates, and were successful in 1985 using the hydrometallurgical treatment process. By this time more than $150 million had been used in the discovery, exploration, evaluation and feasibility studies of the mine.
Finally on 11 June 1985 it was announced that the project was considered economically viable and six months later on 8 December the joint venturers, Western Mining Corporation (51%), and the BP Group (49%), committed themselves to the mining of the ore deposit of the Olympic Dam Project.
Ten years had passed since the discovery. Ten years of investing millions of dollars without a guarantee of a profit or even recouping the money. Ten years of public debate, political manoeuvring, uncertainties and protests. Ten years of drilling, testing, exploring, evaluation, feasibility and environmental impact studies. Never had any mining company invested so much time and money in proving a deposit before it started mining it.
After the decision, development was expanded on an even larger scale. One of the most important being the construction of a service decline for personnel and material access from the surface. This had previously only been possible via the Whenan shaft. Another major development was an underground ore handling system for the drill, extraction and trucking levels associated with the stopes.
Early in 1987 a 100 km pipeline, to bring water to the desalination plant for mine and town, was completed followed a few months later by new mine offices, changerooms, first aid and security buildings. Before the end of that year power from ETSA was connected and more than twenty kilometres of underground roadways completed. The mine now employed more than six hundred people. Finally on 5 November 1988 the mine was officially opened by the South Australian Premier John Bannon.
Within a short time more than 500 tons of ore were brought to the surface every hour via the Whenan shaft. At the nearby processing plant copper, uranium oxide, gold and silver are produced for the Australian and overseas markets. The first 120 tons of yellow cake left the mine in November 1988. Within three years the mine had established an international reputation as a reliable supplier. It was named Best Exporter in the 1990 Australian Export Awards and a year later the mine won the South Australian Business Section of the National Landscape Awards.
During 1998 it produced 31,590 ounces of gold, 73,645 tonnes of refined copper, 1,740 tonnes of Uranium Oxide Concentrate and 306,679 ounces of silver. Since then major expansions have taken place which include two additional shafts and 200 kilometres of underground roads. During 2001, the mine employed more than 1.200 people, supported the township of Roxby Downs with a population of 4,000 people, paid royalties to the South Australian government of nearly $30 million, mined 9 million tons of ore, produced 200,000 tons of refined copper, 4,300 tons of uranium, 80,000 ounces of gold and 850,000 ounces of silver.
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