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Odds & Sods
Tall Geological Tales, Uranium and Other Things
Thursday, 28th May, 2009  - David Farmer

I note that BHP Billiton is thinking about opening a mine at the Yeelirrie uranium deposit in W.A. (The Australian, May 22nd). I have a tale about this deposit that you may find interesting. You will recall that the great mining boom of the late 1960's exploded with Poseidon and Tasminex and being in Canada at the time I hurried back to be part of the fun.

I picked up some consulting work with Roche Bros., a Melbourne based construction company that were floating a new venture, Gold Copper Exploration N.L. based on a few so-so tin and tungsten deposits in North Queensland. I was allocated a pile of shares and was on my way to a fortune. They were 15 cent shares and they opened on the Adelaide stock exchange at 13 cents, the boys panicked and began dumping them and they finished next day at 6 cents. It was all over and this I believe marked the start of the big collapse (1970) and my shares were soon worthless.

I was offered a job by my old Canadian company, Derry, Michener and Booth in Perth so I wandered over to the west. At the time they had 'grubstaked' a few prospectors and my first task was to investigate a mysterious white carbonate rock flecked with bright yellow that a prospector had brought in. As it happens I had started work with United Uranium N.L. in the Northern Territory in what is now Kakadu National Park and one of their old mines was called the 'Palette' because the rocks were splashed with the colours of the oxides of uranium which are brilliant yellows and greens. So the mineral was carnotite but what was it doing way out east of Laverton? Out I went to find out.

A few hours east of Laverton we came across an ancient stream bed called Thatchers Soak. My scintillometer (measures radiation) went wild and we were in business. It didn't take much thought to conclude that where there's one there will be more so I started to prospect the ancient stream systems across the Western Australian shield. At this time uranium was in ample supply under fixed contracts from mines mostly in Canada and the U.S. As we were a consulting company, without a client for this project to pay the way, pursuing these ideas was not a high priority.

The memory is a bit vague but I had been asked to find some ground along the line of greenstones making up the Mount Keith nickel belt and I considered this a hopeless cause as this area was pegged solid. I thought my time would be better spent looking at the ancient river system to the west of the Leonora-Wiluna road so I drifted that way. As I drove across Yeelirrie station I noted fresh vehicle tracks at about the same time as the scintillometer went wild. Here it was, a duplicate of Thatchers Soak but with much stronger radiation and far wider. For a moment my heart pounded and then I noticed the ground has been pegged by Western Mining-I had missed the elephant by a month.

A short time later I and others at head-office recognised we had made an elementary blunder of epic proportions. No one had checked to see if the W.A. Geological Survey had flown the area with radiometrics-this measures radiation from uranium, thorium and potassium-and they had and the Yeelirrie deposit stood out like a giant bulls-eye. This discovery did though prick some interest and we found a client to pay our way. Airborne results are fast and cheap but we had missed the boat on that one so we needed a way to see if deposits existed that were covered by recent soils or lake deposits which could not be located by flying a scintillometer back and forth.

Dotted across all the stations of the Yilgarn (the vast shield of old rocks that forms the core of southern W.A.) are numerous windmills and many of course were located along the ancient water courses. Off I went with hundreds of plastic bottles and began collecting samples. The results were variable at least partly due to concentration levels being at the limit for that time of detection. I had noticed that the water tanks next to windmills were encrusted with a calcium rich layer, often many centimetres thick that had settled out of the 'salt' rich waters. We changed tack and began to take samples of this crust. The results were convincing and a clever colleague with a much better grasp of chemistry than me was able to interpret these and predict where uranium was likely to redeposit in the old stream beds. The walls were covered with interesting multi-coloured maps and we were making strong headway but the exploration mood was changing. The first oil shock hit and exploration money dried up. By 1973 it was dead so in late 1974 I made my way east and started in the wine trade in mid 1975. Well that is another story and one that thankfully is still ongoing.

This experience though left me with a long term interest in landscapes and how they formed and evolved and I have been able to put that to good use as I try to interpret the history of landscape formation of some of our wine regions. Much of this is written up on Glug. We now know that these ancient streams of the Yilgarn, marked by rows of salt pans and salt lakes are of immense age and were active streams and rivers 200 million years ago. Observations such as this have made me embrace the views of a few who see parts of the Barossa landscape as displaying similar ancient ages.

And one last thing that I know is a bit controversial; Australia is a very stable continent and will remain so for tens of millions of years-until we barge into Asia. I join those who think that we should become the world's repository for nuclear waste. Placed in the middle of nowhere it would be an enormous earner and employ lots of people in white boiler suits looking at screens, doing very little and earning $150,000 each year. The half life of the radioactive elements is nothing next to the landscape age of much of the western interior. Pity the atmosphere on this debate has become so poisoned.

When I served behind the counter at my first shop in the Canberra suburb of Manuka a steady customer but not a regular was Professor Ted Ringwood who developed the idea of trapping radioactive waste in synroc. If Yeelirrie first produces in 2014, 43 years after it was discovered, perhaps his idea of 1978 could be looked at again, as it was and still is a very good solution.

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