BHP could be back in production at the Kalgoorlie Nickel Smelter within three weeks after a fire that forced the facility to shut down on Sunday, with the company saying its furnace was not damaged in the blaze.
Nickel West is yet to provide its own estimate of the damage caused by the fire, which Department of Fire and Emergency Services personnel have placed at about $10 million.
No one was injured in the blaze, which took 17 firefighters more than three hours to bring under control.
It is believed an area of about 20m to 30m around an electrical transformer that caught alight was affected.
However, a Nickel West spokeswoman said its key bit of equipment, the furnace hearth, was not affected.
“The furnace hearth itself was undamaged and is safe and stable,” she said.
“The fire commenced in a transformer adjacent to the furnace causing damage in a localised area.
“An assessment of the building and plant continues with access plans completed and remediation activities commencing.”
It remains unclear when it will be safe to restart normal operations, but the Kalgoorlie Miner understands BHP anticipates it will take between one and three weeks to return to production.
The shutdown prompted concerns a longer term suspension could stretch the whole way down the Nickel West supply chain and potentially have an impact on the speed of plans to redirect its product from stainless steel to the battery market.
Feed from the smelter is needed for BHP’s refinery in Kwinana, which is currently being converted to produce battery-grade nickel sulphate for battery makers.
The smelter, which was built by Western Mining Corporation and officially opened by then-prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1973, processes nickel concentrate into 65 per cent pure nickel matte.
Nickel West produced 91,000t of nickel metal last financial year.
A costly furnace upgrade originally scheduled for 2019 was one of the reasons the “non-core” division was in danger of folding after BHP failed to move it on to a new buyer in 2014.
The timeframe for the furnace rebuild has since been extended beyond that to between 2024 and 2027, with plans to keep the nickel business running until 2040.