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News Extra: Australia opens huge weapons test site to mining

15 August 2014

The world's largest weapons test range in the remote Australian outback will be opened to mining after the country's parliament agreed to ease access to an area larger than Denmark. The Woomera Prohibited Area in the country's arid centre stretches across more than 49,000 square miles (127,000 encompassing 13% of the area of South Australia.

The chief executive of the South Australia Chamber of Mines and Energy, Jason Kuchel, said the value of mineral resources in the Woomera could top A$1 trillion, with the Gawler Craton sector alone being worth A$35 billion.

Woomera has been inaccessible to the public since 1947, when Australia and its US and UK allies used the range for Cold War rocket and nuclear tests, most notably at the Maralinga site where the UK undertook surface nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Two decontamination programmes were carried out in subsequent years to clean up the site, but the epicentre of the nuclear tests has been excluded from mining operations to avoid disturbance of plutonium.

Some areas, so-called red zones, will be retained solely for defence use. Other zones will allow access to mine workers, tourists and others during specified times of the year.

Under the terms of the bill, civilians entering the area will have to apply to the Department of Defence for a permit when weapons testing is not under way, with applications assessing the possible security risks of entrants. Miners would be excluded from areas outside red zones only for periods between 14 and 70 days, and weapons testing would take place under timeshare arrangements with the military.

The Woomera range is prized by weapons developers because of its relative freedom from electronic signals interference, large size and extremely remote location, making it difficult to eavesdrop on military activity there. In 2009, Australian authorities blocked a Chinese company from buying a nearby copper and gold mine because of security fears.

The Australian government is keen to encourage a large expansion in mining operations to reinvigorate the country’s flatlining economy.

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