in South Australia.
Mining, first practised by the Australian Aborigines, has played a vital part in the development of this nation. Mining has been, and still is to a very large extent, the backbone of our economy, an important factor in forming our society and underlies much of our character. Mining has provided us with a high standard of living, stimulated secondary industries and rescued many of the Australian colonies from severe economic depressions, particularly South Australia.
The Australian mining industry is far more important than just providing for the people of Australia. The mining industry is also a major source of minerals for all the people of the world. Consequently it is also vital to our overseas trade.
Mining of Uranium ores has been a controversial issue because of its use in atomic weapons and the potential for accidents at nuclear power stations. Many Australians still feel that it should be left in the ground and not be mined at all. Widespread, and often violent, protests occurred in South Australia in the 1980s. Because some uranium deposits have been found on Aboriginal lands, there have also been conflicts with Aboriginal people.
Apart from its value to chemists, the only significant use for uranium during the 1800s was to colour glass and ceramics. Uranium's radioactivity was first observed in 1896. Two years later, in 1898, Marie Curie discovered that de decay of uranium produced minute amounts of radium, which emits light and heat. These remarkable properties led to a rapid expansion in the mining of uranium ore in the early 1900s. Subsequent discoveries were made in the U.S.A., Portugal, Canada, Zaire and South Australia.
In South Australia, uranium minerals were first discovered at Radium Hill in 1906 and Mount Painter, in the Northern Flinders Ranges, in 1910. The Mount Painter deposit, discovered by G.A. Greenwood, was later renamed Radium Ridge. This ore, and that from some other nearby deposits, was mined by the Radium Extraction Company of South Australia for the next two years. (Sir) Douglas Mawson had some of this uranium shipped to France, where Nobel Prize winner Madam Marie Curie was involved in radioactivity research. Several locals from Leigh's Creek (Copley) bought shares in the company. Some of them were James William Duck, storekeeper, Mary Ann Duck, Ella and Edith Levick, Harriet Francis O'Hearn, William Henry James, teamster and Eugene O'Hearn, blacksmith. Like the early copper companies operating in the northern Flinders Ranges in the mid 1800s, it shipped the ore to Europe for processing, and like them went into liquidation, after only a very short time, in 1917.
The workings were once more re-opened in 1923 by the Australian Radium Corporation which also built a small crushing and screening plant on site. The materials were then transported by camels and loaded onto trucks for further transport to the Copley railway station and finally to Dry Creek. Both the Mount Painter and Radium Hill deposits were mined intermittently until the early 1930s, when mining ceased. The minerals were processed for their radium content which commanded a high price for the use in medicine. Uranium itself had little use then and interest only increased after 1939 with the discovery of nuclear fission.
After 1939 uranium was studied much closer, first to make nuclear weapons but later as a source of heat to generate electricity, to preserve food, treat cancer, improve crop and livestock breeds and to keep checks on various kinds of pollution. Wartime use of uranium stimulated intense exploration at Radium Hill and Mount Painter. Exploration had been requested by the British Government and the Chifley Government in Canberra offered a reward for economic discoveries and also guaranteed economic prices for uranium ores. Later in 1952, the Menzies government brought in taxation exemptions on profits earned by companies mining and milling uranium ores.
In 1954 the Radium Hill deposit was re-opened and underground mining established on a more permanent scale. The ore was at first treated at Port Pirie and from there exported to England and America. Between 1953 and 1955 small quantities of uranium ore were also obtained from Myponga. Radium Hill closed during 1961 and no further uranium mining occurred in South Australia for some time.
New uranium deposits were discovered at Beverley in 1969, Honeymoon 1972 and Olympic Dam in 1975. This last one proved to be the world's largest copper/uranium deposit, measuring 7 kilometres by 4 kilometres, enough to supply the world for the next sixty years. More than $3 billion have been invested in these three mines during the last fifteen years and they provide employment for 1,500 people.
Both the Beverley and Honeymoon ISL, In Situ Leaching, projects were mothballed in June 1974 and again in 1983 as a result of the then government uranium policy and low ore prices. Both projects have since been revived. The Honeymoon mine was acquired by Southern Cross Resources in 1997. The mine project is ready to go but is waiting for a final decision by the Minister for the Environment.
At Beverley, the second largest uranium deposit in South Australia, Heathgate Resources acquired the mine in 1990 and expects to produce about one thousand tons a year for the next twenty-five years. Through the ISL method, sulphuric acid and oxygen are pumped underground to dissolve the uranium, which is then pumped to the surface. Beverley began commercial production early in 2001.
The most recent South Australian discovery of uranium was made in early 1999 about 35 km north of Quorn.