I cant think about Fukushima, the contracted evacuation zone enforced from today, the ongoing emissions from the nuke plant, without also thinking about the cleanup of the Maralinga nuclear test site in South Australia. Its the way I relate to the situation in Japan. What went wrong in the Australian cleanup will go wrong in Japan. I believe. And for the same reasons. Nuke gang want to minimise the perception of the damage they have done. Government wants to save money.
First, the British said it was perfectly safe. Then in 1963, they launched Operation Brumby. This was an attempt at cleanup which involved ploughing the desert. (It made things worse.) Then they said it was perfectly safe.
In the 1980s, the then Premier of SA, John Bannon, dressed in nothing but normal clothes, went to Maralinga, trailing guys from ARPANSA with him. They found the place hot. They were surprised. (Not withstanding the fact that the test sites (Monte Bello (navy), Emu and Maralinga (Army) had been constantly monitored by the Armed Forces radiac teams since the 1950s until the 1970s. Somewhere there are the field monitoring documents.) The McClelland Royal Commission found that the test sites were hot. Australia negotiated cleanup money from Britain. New Scientist magazine reported in depth on the British deception.
All the bombs and all the plutonium explosions and burings that happened in Australia pale in comparison to the radionuclide release in Japan. The Japanese government have effectively stated this when J-Gov acknowledged the release as being equivalent to the detonation of hundreds of nuclear bombs.
A supposedly world best practice cleanup was contracted and undertaken at Maralinga. Here’s part of the story:
(see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maralinga_Tjarutja and www.aiatsis.gov.au/koorimail/issues/pdf/054.pdf)
Maralinga: The Fall Out Continues
Sunday 16 April 2000
Produced by Gregg Borschmann
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GEIGER COUNTER NOISES
Gregg Borschmann: Moving the goal posts, milking the cow, short-cuts, cover-ups and the shit really hitting the fan. It doesn’t sound like world’s best practice, but it all happened during the clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site.
These vivid descriptions are not our words; rather, they come straight from the experts who took on the toughest job in the world: making plutonium safe, forever.
Hello, I’m Gregg Borschmann and today Background Briefing raises serious questions about the $108-million clean-up of the former British A-bomb test site in outback South Australia.
It’s claimed that this has been a world first, the biggest and most successful clean-up ever, of an old nuclear weapons testing range. Sixteen years since planning for the clean-up began, contractors are due to leave the site this month.
But leaked documents show that behind the scenes, the project has been increasingly troubled. Some key insiders, including the government’s own advisers, say that the job has not been finished properly.
Alan Parkinson: I don’t believe it is international best practice. I don’t believe that the code that they quote selectively was written considering burial of plutonium 239. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, which means that there’s something like quarter-of-a-million years before it can be considered safe.
Gregg Borschmann: Engineer, Alan Parkinson has worked in the nuclear industry for over 40 years. For much of the past decade, he has been an official adviser on the project to either the government or the Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal people. He compares the Maralinga clean-up unfavourably with what the Americans did at their Nevada nuclear testing site.
Alan Parkinson: At the site that I visited, it was a project called “Double-tracks”, the Americans removed 53 grams of plutonium from about, I think it was 1500 cubic metres of soil. They bagged that soil, that contaminated soil, and they ten transported it 80 miles on public highways to be placed in a nuclear waste repository on a site that is guarded by the US Army. I compared that with burial of 2-1/2 kilograms of plutonium in 250,000 cubic metres of soil, and 2-1/2 kilograms of plutonium mixed in the debris in what is nothing more than a hole in the ground, on a site which is not guarded and which at some date in the future, might be returned to the Maralinga Tjarutja to live their semi-traditional lifestyle. I think there is a huge discrepancy in the way that Maralinga has been treated and overseas treatment of similar sites.
Gregg Borschmann: In other words, the Americans bagged around 50 grams of plutonium contaminated soil and put it into a military repository under lock, key and guard. Australia, by comparison, has put 100 times that amount of plutonium into several large unlined, unguarded holes in the ground.
Alan Parkinson is talking publicly about Maralinga for the first time today on Background Briefing. It’s two years since his contract with the government was terminated in tense and unusual circumstances.
He says what has been done at Maralinga since would not be acceptable anywhere else in Australia, or indeed anywhere else in the world.
Alan Parkinson: Whatever is done at Maralinga should be made public, and the Department and ARPANSA should be able to defend the actions. Some of the stuff that’s gone on and some of the stuff that I’ve heard about does not make good reading, and I don’t think they can defend some of the things that they have done, like this burial of debris. They’ve no idea what’s buried there so they can’t defend it, can they?
Gregg Borschmann: Background Briefing has also confirmed that the official code being used to sign off on the clean-up was never intended by the majority of its authors to apply to Maralinga.
In addition, Alan Parkinson lifts the lid on how a key Maralinga job was won by the large Australian engineering firm Gutteridge Haskins and Davey, or GHD. The deal was done without competitive tender, and before the government knew how much it was going to cost.
Alan Parkinson: That was a meeting I had with the Department on the 18th November, ’97, and it was at that meeting that I was told by a senior officer, Rob Rawson, that the decision had already been made to a point GHD as Project Manager. I found out later that this was the day before the Department sent out a short letter inviting GHD to submit a proposal, and before they’d even been told how much this new arrangement would cost. I told Rawson that he might as well tear up another letter that he’d just signed, because he’d just changed the ground rules.
But really, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because for some time, GHD had been acting as though they already had the job.
Gregg Borschmann: This arrangement and the story of GHD’s subsequent project management was to become critical as the Maralinga clean-up ended in acrimony and uncertainty.
Gregg Borschmann: Maralinga is now a ghost town. Most of the buildings have been removed or looted. You can’t see the debris from the nuclear test days. If it wasn’t taken back or sold by the British, it was buried. There were holes in the ground everywhere, for everything, from empty fuel drums and household garbage to plutonium contaminated firing pads.
Despite this, a major part of the problem remained literally on the surface: plutonium contamination scattered over thousands of hectares at three main test sites called Taranaki, TM and Wewak.
What was agreed at the beginning of this project was already a compromise. A perfect job would have been too expensive and the health risks didn’t warrant it.
Instead, it was agreed that there were two jobs to be done. The first would remove and bury only the worst of the plutonium contaminated topsoil, spread over more than several hundred hectares. The second job had to do with several kilograms of plutonium contaminated debris buried in pits at Taranaki. This was the most heavily contaminated of the three clean-up sites.
Alan Parkinson: There were 21 of these pits. What happened during the set of trials known as Vixen B trials, was that the Brits detonated an atomic bomb in a manner which would not allow it to explode as an atomic bomb. It was what we call one-point trial. These trials would melt the plutonium, shoot it up into the air and be spread all over the place, but it also damaged the structure on which these devices were placed. So at the end of each one of these trials, (and there were 15 of them) the equipment had to be thrown out and the best way to do that was to dig a pit alongside where the firing pad had been and bury the stuff.
So although we had a report from the British to tell us what was in these pits, it was in very general terms, like steel joists, cables, lead bricks, concrete and soil, and that was about the sum total of our knowledge of those pits.
Gregg Borschmann: Engineer, Alan Parkinson.
SFX – ISV PROCESS
That’s the sound of leading-edge waste clean-up technology. It’s called in situ vitrification, or ISV, and it’s cost Australia more than $30-million. In 1996, the scientists, government and the dispossessed Maralinga Aboriginal community agreed it was the best, final solution for the Taranaki pits.
But last year, it was dumped in favour of simply burying the remaining plutonium in yet another big hole in the ground.
This switch troubled some of the government’s own experts. The project was guided by a scientific committee called MARTAC, the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee.
Background Briefing has a copy of leaked official notes from a MARTAC meeting in August last year. The meeting was with the South Australian Government and the Maralinga Tjarutja.
The notes quote a member of the committee, Dr Mike Costello, who is an international authority on plutonium. Here is an edited reading from the official notes of Dr Costello’s comments.
Reader: I don’t believe that shallow burial is 1) Within the spirit of the UK National Radiation Protection Board Code. I accept it is within the letter; or 2) That it’s accepted practice. However I’m out-voted by my colleagues. I have experienced with plutonium at Sellafield in the UK, there are much smaller quantities of plutonium there. The amounts varied, yet whilst minuscule, it had to be enclosed in concrete. I don’t believe this shallow burial is the best that we can do, as it could be encapsulated in concrete.
Gregg Borschmann: Dr Costello would not be interviewed for Background Briefing.
Gregg Borschmann: In 1954, the British Government asked Australian Prime Minister, Bob Menzies, for a permanent site to test nuclear weapons. The arid lands between the Great Victoria Desert and the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia seemed to be ideal. Isolated in the outback, the Maralinga Range became home to a secret city of more than 2,000 people. As well as it’s bomb factories and test sites, it boasted its own Post Office, Bank, tennis courts, swimming pool, cinema, international airport, two churches, sewer system and a gymnasium.
SFX – EXPLOSION
Voice-over: The mighty power of the atom is unleashed. The Maralinga blast is caused by a low yield bomb. This scientifically, is a small explosion.
Gregg Borschmann: The British detonated seven A-bombs at Maralinga in the late 1950s and then over the next six years, conducted several hundred smaller, sometimes clandestine experiments, using plutonium, uranium and other radioactive materials.
Ironically, it was mainly these so-called minor trials, and not the A-bombs, which left the legacy of plutonium contamination at Maralinga.
The Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal people were prevented from entering their lands once the tests started in the 1950s. Barrister Andrew Collett has been working to help get that country restored and returned to the Tjarutja since the 1985 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia. Andrew Collett.
Andrew Collett: You have to bear in mind and keep firmly in mind, that what the community has is the legacy of probably the most environmentally irresponsible act ever committed in Australia, when British scientists exploded plutonium and got it up in the air just for the sake of seeing where it went. It went all over Aboriginal land, and the government is now trying to stabilise and clean that up. But the clean-up, which is coming to a close now, is at least the fourth clean-up since 1962. The community would be mad to assume that this clean-up got all of that plutonium and took away all of the risk. We’re dealing with contamination irresponsibly put there by a foreign power who then has not told the Australian government precisely what was there, or where it was. The community has to assume that there’ll be problems in the future, particularly when plutonium will be a contaminant and a danger for the next quarter-of-a-million years, a time scale that is impossible for us to contemplate, longer ago than an Ice Age.
Gregg Borschmann: As much as the Tjarutja want their land back, uncertainty over the long-term safety of the clean-up remains a stumbling block which will be discussed this week in talks between the Tjarutja and the South Australian Premier, John Olsen.
Andrew Collett again.
Andrew Collett: There’s a very, very heavy burden on the community to weigh up how effective this clean-up will be, so the issues include how good is the clean-up, what does that mean in the future, will there be problems in the future, will the proposed burial of plutonium in a deep burial trench last quarter-of-a-million years, what happens if it doesn’t, who’s going to meet the cost if it doesn’t.
Gregg Borschmann: Lawyer for the Tjarutja, Andrew Collett.
Early last month, there was a carefully controlled set-piece of modern day media management at Maralinga that was meant to set the stage for the eventual hand-back of the Maralinga lands to the Tjarutja.
The specially invited TV networks and a handful of newspaper and radio reporters flew to the site to witness the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, Senator Nick Minchin, declare that the clean-up had been successful, coming in on time and within budget.
Nick Minchin: We can shut the book on it, but in a way that is very positive for the future in the way that we have worked together with the Aboriginal people to clean up this area and rehabilitate it, not just to say sorry, but you know, sorry it happened but we’ll walk away. We’ve actually as a people, and this is Labor and Liberal together, have worked with the Aboriginal people to rehabilitate this area.
Gregg Borschmann: Part of the theatre on that day was the handing over, to the Minister, of a letter from ARPANSA. That’s the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, Australia’s independent nuclear regulator. The letter, signed by the Head of ARPANSA, Dr John Loy, refers in part to a radioactive waste safety code published in 1992. Here is an edited reading of the key paragraph.
Reader: ARPANSA certifies that the burial trenches at Taranaki have been constructed consistent with the National Code of Practice for the near surface disposal of radioactive waste.
Gregg Borschmann: But that code was never intended to be used for large amounts of long lived radioactive waste like that found at Maralinga.
Background Briefing has spoken to all of the scientists who wrote the Code. One refused to comment, and another didn’t return our calls. But the remaining three all confirmed that the Code was for low level, short lived wastes only.
One of the scientists who wrote it is from Canada’s Radiation Protection Bureau. Here he is on the phone from Ottowa. Bliss Tracy.
Bliss Tracy: The understanding that I had of the task at that time was that we were to look at various industrial ways, perhaps incidental wastes, that might be generated by hospitals or research laboratories, that kind of problem, that was what we had to deal with.
Gregg Borschmann: So it was never your understanding that that 1992 Code of Practice would apply in Maralinga-type situations?
Bliss Tracy: No. Our discussions at that time, we never mentioned Maralinga as part of this, and since I have worked on both problems I think I would have been aware of that if they had intended to apply it to Maralinga. It never came up for the discussion when I attended the meetings, anyway.
Gregg Borschmann: Does it surprise you to hear now that the Australian Government is using this code as its benchmark for the disposal of plutonium at Maralinga in a burial pit?
Bliss Tracy: Yes, it’s surprising, although probably not appropriate for me as a Canadian to comment on policies of another government.
Gregg Borschmann: Scientist, Bliss Tracy in Ottowa.
This week, the Chair of the committee that drafted the Code, Neville Hargreave, confirmed that it was written for low level industrial and medical wastes. It was not meant for the radioactive waste that would come from nuclear power or weapons testing programs such as at Maralinga.
This was confirmed again for Background Briefing by another scientist who helped write the code, Dr Loel Munslow-Davies, from Western Australia.
Despite this overwhelmingly important question about the validity of the Code in these circumstances, the Department in charge of Maralinga was still using it last week to claim the clean-up had been a success.
Jeff Harris: Some of the key guidelines that we followed, included the International Atomic Energy Agency’s guidelines for disposal and rehabilitation of contaminated sites, and we’ve also followed our own National Code of Conduct for burial of radioactive materials. So indeed the procedures that have been followed here have been perfectly safe and have been well suited to the site.
Gregg Borschmann: Jeff Harris, a senior officer of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. Senator Minchin has also used the Code repeatedly recently to reassure Australians about the quality of the clean-up.
And yet according to leaked minutes of a meeting of the Maralinga scientific advisers last year, the Minister has already been given an out.
The official minutes record a senior officer from the nuclear regulator ARPANSA saying it was not necessary to meet the letter of the Code, since what was being done at Maralinga was an ‘intervention’. The minutes do not explain what this means.
The ARPANSA officer involved did not return our calls this week.
SFX – EARTH MOVING, TRUCKS
Gregg Borschmann: A lot of plutonium-contaminated soil was buried at Maralinga. Almost 400,000 tonnes of it. It was buried in three massive holes. The largest at Taranaki was bigger than four football fields, and as deep as a five-storey building.
It’s widely acknowledged that a good job was done with this first soil removal phase of the Maralinga clean-up. It won two National Case Earth Awards for environmental best practice.
As the soil removal operations wound down in late 1997, it was time to move to the final and most difficult part of the project: cleaning up the 21 highly contaminated pits at Taranaki. That was the job for ISV, signed off on by the experts as the best, final solution.
SFX – ISV PROCESS
Gregg Borschmann: So just what is this ISV, or in situ vitrification? Developed in America over the past decade, it is designed to safely immobilise all manner of nasty wastes, from toxic chemicals to long-lived plutonium.
While the process is complex, the concept is simple. After five years of research and testing in Australia specifically for the conditions at Maralinga, four large electrodes were inserted into each pit at Taranaki.
The electric current then effectively ‘cooked’ the contaminated debris soil at temperatures over 1500 degrees. This molten mass, looking not unlike the lava from a volcano, cooled and solidified into a large glass-like or vitreous block. It was designed to permanently encase the plutonium.
But after only five months on site, things didn’t seem to be going well.
There was dispute about just what ISV was meant to be doing.
Background Briefing has a copy of a leaked email written in October, 1998 by the head of the company contracted to do the ISV work. His name is Leo Thompson, from Geosafe Australia. He refused to be interviewed for this program but he did give us a written statement in which he stood behind the safety and effectiveness of ISV technology.
The leaked email we had received earlier, shows that in late 1998, he was under intense pressure to prove it on site. Here is a reading from that email.
Reader: The shit has really hit the fan in the past couple of weeks. GHD have been critical of everything they can to cast doubt on Geosafe and ISV. They’re saying the process is not living up to expectations and Geosafe is unable to manage the project. I must be losing my mind, because a lot of people, including MARTAC members, are remembering things I don’t recall.
Gregg Borschmann: The email goes on to refer to trouble over whether or not his contract stipulated any requirement to melt all the steel buried in the pit. Some members of the scientific committee MARTAC were worried about a piece of unmelted steel which had been found inside an ISV block.
Again, a reading from Leo Thompson’s same October email.
Reader: It really should not be a big deal. From a risk standpoint, the fact that unmelted plates are embedded in the central core of the block, should be considered an acceptable solution in my view. Seems like GHD and others are moving the goalposts so they can discredit me personally, Geosafe as a company, and the ISV process in general.
Gregg Borschmann: Five months later, a large explosion occurred at Taranaki in Pit 17, as it was being melted. To this day, there is no officially agreed explanation for what happened.
But Background Briefing has uncovered startling new evidence. That evidence comes first hand from Avon Hudson, a former leading aircraftsman in the Royal Australian Air Force, who worked at Taranaki during the Vixen B nuclear trials.
In late 1960, he saw a box of explosives which were dumped by a British Royal Army soldier into a pit at Taranaki. Several months later, he came across an equally dubious and dangerous burial: a 3,000 lb pressurised hydrogen gas cylinder.
Avon Hudson: This was a separate hole to where I seen the box of explosives put; it wasn’t too far away, it might have been less than 100 metres, it might have been about that distance. There was a hole there, probably 10 to 12 foot deep, a round hole, and it would have been probably maybe 10 or 12 feet in diameter, something of that order. And there was a cylinder dumped there, it was a hydrogen cylinder, a red hydrogen cylinder about 7-feet long. That was thrown there by the hole, with other debris. It wasn’t the debris from these actual explosions, these Vixen explosions, and when I went back there some time later, that cylinder was partly in the hole, it had been put into the hole but it was still not completely down, it was sticking out. So I assumed that that was buried there.
Gregg Borschmann: Nuclear veteran Avon Hudson. Last year, in the months after the explosion, he tried to go public with this key information and his concerns about the Taranaki pits. He range the media and a host of politicians, including Senator Minchin. He says the Minister’s office never phoned him back.
Avon Hudson: The way Maralinga operated, if you could picture back in that era, not too many people cared about very much at all, and if they had to get rid of anything, well it just was chucked into a pit. They didn’t distinguish between a nuclear debris and say a barrel or a cylinder or any other debris, it all was chucked in together. They didn’t really separate those into categories, because nobody really give two hoots. They had one interest, and that was getting out of Maralinga; most people hated the joint.
Gregg Borschmann: When the explosion occurred on site in March last year, you were obviously very concerned about the possibility of future explosions. Why were you so concerned about say, something like a hydrogen cylinder?
Avon Hudson: Well when I heard about the explosion, I was concerned that if they were to strike this cylinder by the melting process, the vitrification, and it exploded, somebody would possibly be killed. That was my immediate concern. And I tried to draw this to the attention of relevant people I thought; I thought they were relevant, but I’m not so sure now. But I couldn’t get anywhere.
Gregg Borschmann: It was a time of crisis for the project, when everyone was looking for the most credible reason for the explosion. Avon Hudson, and his potentially critical evidence, was ignored.
The precise contents of the pits at Taranaki had long been a mystery and the subject of considerable debate. Last year, following the explosion, the Australian Government wrote to Britain seeking clarification yet again of what was in the 21 pits.
The British doubted there would be anything explosive in them, but they weren’t prepared to give Australia any guarantees.
Another key piece of evidence also went missing last year. A drum was dug up by contractors excavating one of the other pits at Taranaki. Remarkably, instead of being set aside for examination, it was simply re-buried.
Alan Parkinson and the Tjarutja knew about the incident, but other people who should have, didn’t, at a meeting in May last year.
Alan Parkinson: The cause of the explosion had not yet been identified. We thought it could have been a closed acetylene bottle, a closed drum of bitumen, or some other closed vessel. So that was why we asked had a drum been uncovered; we knew that one had during exhumation of another pit. When the question was put forward, it was immediately denied, No, there’s not been any drum recovered, so the question was put again. And it was only after putting it a second time that it was acknowledged that a drum had been uncovered, and we said, Well, what happened to it? Oh, we buried it again.
What disturbed me about that was the Department and members of MARTAC who were at the meeting, didn’t know that a drum had been uncovered, neither did ARPANSA.
Gregg Borschmann: Engineer, Alan Parkinson.
After the explosion in Pit 17, the game changed. Work and planning on the site was thrown into chaos, combining with pressure to keep the project rolling to this year’s deadline.
But despite the gravity of the situation on such a high profile Commonwealth job on Commonwealth land, Jeff Harris from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources, says there was no need for any formal government inquiry.
Jeff Harris: The ISV contractor undertook an investigation and we received their final report in October. You might recall that the explosion took place in March, so that took a considerable length of time. The ISV contractor had a view of what the cause of the explosion was. We then commissioned an independent review of that by experts based in Britain and Australia, and they reviewed that, they didn’t comer to the same conclusion, and indeed it left the cause of th4e accid4ent up in the air. Once that had occurred of course, we were then in a very critical point of having to decide whether to proceed with the technology after the explosion when the cause was not known, and what risks would that entail for worker safety. We electe4d to go for worker safety and also for burial option that we knew worked, that the levels of contamination were much less than we’d anticipated, and that we had very good experience in a number of sites at Maralinga, including Taranaki.
Gregg Borschmann: The Geosafe report that Jeff Harris speaks about said that the most likely cause of the explosion was due to the detonation of buried explosive materials. This is a conclusion that would be strongly supported by nuclear veteran Avon Hudson’s first hand account.
So why was Mr Hudson ignored and the Geosafe report dismissed? Could it be that the explosion provided the final excuse to dump ISV, that there were other concerns not related to its technical performance?
Background Briefing has confirmed that there was constant pressure over the last two years of the project to modify or abandon the ISV process, as the job of melting the Taranaki pits became bigger and more complicated than originally anticipated.
But why dump leading-edge technology when already more than $30-million had been spent on it? It’s the Big Question for which no convincing answer has been provided.
Jeff Harris from the Department says the decision was based on safety considerations, not price.
Jeff Harris: Price didn’t come into the calculations at all. What came into the calculations was the safety to our workers on site. The explosion that occurred on 21 March caused very substantial damage to the ISV equipment and risked fatalities. In the end, there were no injuries and there was no radiation uptake by any workers, but that was cause for us to do a thorough risk assessment of whether we should proceed with that procedure or whether we should review the experience that we had in burying the material under a cover of 5 metres of soil at depths of up to 10-15 metres.
At the end of the day that was the process that we chose, and I think it was a very good decision.
Gregg Borschmann: The concern about worker safety is understandable, but the timing is curious. If you remember, Jeff Harris told Background Briefing that the Geosafe report on the explosion was delivered to the Department in October last year.
But the decision to abandon ISV was announced by the Commonwealth three months earlier to the South Australian Government and the Maralinga Tjarutja.
So why dump the process before you’ve even got your report?
The Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal people were so concerned about losing ISV that they wrote back to Senator Minchin disassociating themselves from the decision. They also asked for Mr Harris to be removed as Chair of the consultative group meetings.
SFX – ISV PROCESS
Gregg Borschmann: There was always going to be intense scientific scrutiny of ISV at Maralinga. This was its largest commercial application treating a plutonium contaminated site in the world, and everyone wanted to get it right.
Minister Minchin acknowledged this point last month on the Radio National Breakfast program.
Nick Minchin: At all times we were operating under the strict guidance and on the basis of the advice of an expert technical advisory group, and the Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, we didn’t make a move without that expert advice and the subsequent approval of the independent agency that regulates this matter, so at no stage have we done anything other than according to the best scientific advice.
Gregg Borschmann: But what is the best scientific advice?
The scientists were not in agreement. For example, the ISV process had some strong supporters on the MARTAC advisory committee. One committee member says in a leaked email that ISV had not been given ‘a fair go’.
Background Briefing has evidence that personal and political, as well as scientific judgements, were being made. For example, in late 1998, the Chair of MARTAC, Des Davey, sent out a rather strange email to his fellow committee members. He more or less said he had asked Jeff Harris if the Department wanted a negative finding about ISV.
Here is a reading of part of that email from Des Davey.
Reader: I asked Jeff Harris on Monday would he welcome advice to terminate Geosafe’s contract, and go for excavation trench disposal at some nominal depth, say 10 metres of cover.
Gregg Borschmann: The spokesman for the department, Jeff Harris, says the Department got the best possible advice and that disagreement among experts is not unusual.
Jeff Harris: They are a group of scientists and at times I’ve likened it to herding cats when you see them out on site, they want to go off and investigate where a particular bit of wire leads, or what a particular trench might contain. But they’re an excellent group that have worked together, they have differences of views, and generally speaking, they come to common decisions, which of course is what we need. It’s no good if you have a committee that it has 20 different opinions. They can have those different opinions, but they need to come together and say, Well what’s the best advice we can provide to the Minister and the Department on each of these technical issues as they arise.
SFX – GEIGER COUNTER
Gregg Borschmann: It’s significant that the Government’s independent nuclear umpire, ARPANSA, was also feeling uncomfortable with the way things were panning out at Maralinga.
Geoff Williams, a senior officer at ARPANSA, was responsible for ensuring that the site was cleaned to agreed standards. He became upset when he unofficially received a copy of an audit of the occupational health and safety at the site. He felt the Department of Industry, Science and Resources, ISR, or the project managers, should have let him know about the report and provided him with an official copy earlier.
Here is a reading of an email he sent in August last year.
Reader: To date, no-one from ISR or GHD has thought fit to provide us with a copy of the audit report, even though it mentions, and has implications, for ARPANSA operations and independence. As the regulator, this is unacceptable to us, to my way of thinking at least. Also I am very concerned, putting it mildly, at the host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups that have been whispered to me but which have never been officially advised. Nor have the inquiries been fruitful when I’ve asked direct questions.
Gregg Borschmann: A reading from an email sent by Geoff Williams, from nuclear regulator, ARPANSA.
This personal comment, while never officially recorded, does not paint a pretty picture of relations between Australia’s independent nuclear umpire and the company that was by then managing the entire project, GHD.
So if ARPANSA wasn’t always happy with this relationship, what about the department; how did it get on with GHD?
The answer to this question may help explain both the way in which Alan Parkinson was sacked and why ISV was dumped.
The appointment of GHD as project managers for the final ISV phase of the project was consummated on Christmas Eve, 1997. It had been a whirlwind, and often clandestine courtship.
From the Department, Jeff Harris says it was a simple affair.
Jeff Harris: The tender for project management was won by GHD prior to the commencement of this project. The contract was extended; it was not a case of a new contract, their contract was simply extended to cover another element of the project, and it’s been a very successful outcome.
Gregg Borschmann: The tender for project management that Jeff Harris refers to, was not won by GHD. It had been awarded to a Commonwealth Government owned company in 1994. GHD didn’t make the shortlist of six, and were not invited to tender.
But GHD became involved in the Maralinga project by buying this Commonwealth company when it was privatised in mid-1997. At that stage, GHD had no involvement with, or authority over the ISV process. So how did this crucial change come about?
SFX – ISV PROCESS
Gregg Borschmann: There is no doubt that the high tech ISV melting process was a big job, with high stakes and potential risks.
Jeff Harris says this is precisely why the Commonwealth needed a strong, reputable project manager like GHD to look after the job. But this doesn’t explain how GHD came to get the job without even having to tender for it.
The three-page agreement that was signed between GHD and the Department on 24th December, 1997, describes the new arrangement to take over that project management of ISV as a ‘contract variation.’ This was a convenient piece of housekeeping for both the Department and GHD, sidestepping the Department’s tendering and purchase guidelines. These guidelines require any new contract over $100,000 to be subject to scrutiny and approval by a three-person assessment panel. This assessment never occurred, because the deal was a described as a ‘variation’ rather than a new contract.
GHD would not speak to Background Briefing. All matters were referred back to the Department.
Jeff Harris again.
Jeff Harris: When we commenced the ISV operations on site, we reviewed our project management arrangements, and we determined that it would make sense and be very sound management for us to extend the project management arrangements for Gutteridge, Haskins & Davey to include the ISV process.
Gregg Borschmann: On the 21st November, 1997, the company responded to an invitation by the Department to put a proposal for management of the ISV contract.
Background Briefing has a copy of this letter. In it, GHD estimated their additional services would cost in ‘the order of a quarter-of-a-million-dollars.’
Background Briefing also has copies of GHD monthly reports to the Department. These provide details of project expenditure.
Not all of the money that GHD has earned since is related to ISV. But the monthly reports indicate that over the past two years or so, the company has been paid, in staff costs alone, more than $2.5-million. This is ten times the cost of the original estimate.
I put these figures to Jeff Harris.
Jeff Harris: We have a fee structure with GHD, and within the overall budget, we’ve maintained those fees; we’ve got very good value for money for the public, for the taxpayer in terms of this is an excellent outcome in terms of the clean-up criteria that have been met, the safety of the site for handover back to the Maralinga Tjarutja, the consultations that we’ve had with the traditional owners and with other stakeholders, and overall this project has worked out very well indeed, and it’s been extremely good value for money for the taxpayer.
Gregg Borschmann: Background Briefing has documents which show that some people connected with the project disagreed, and thought there wasn’t enough supervision of GHD by the Department.
Alan Parkinson is one of them. He has important background detail on the origins of the ISV deal between GHD and the Department.
Between 7th November and the 2nd December, 1997, there were three secret meetings between GHD and the Department.
Background Briefing has a copy of the official ‘talking points’ for two of these meetings which confirm that the main topic of discussion was the project management of the ISV contract with Geosafe.
Neither Geosafe nor Alan Parkinson, as the Department’s representative with GHD and Geosafe, were told about or invited to these meetings.
Alan Parkinson: I found it astonishing that since I was the Department’s representative on both contracts, I should have been excluded from a meeting which was to discuss the future of both of those contracts. I found that quite astonishing. The people from the Department who attended the meeting had no project experience, little knowledge of the project, none at all of ISV. They had no experience in conducting these negotiations and no experience dealing with contractors.
I found out about the meeting quite by accident, and I did ask why was I excluded, and the response was, You’re only an adviser, we don’t need to seek your advice if we don’t wish to.
Gregg Borschmann: If Alan Parkinson was astonished, Leo Thompson from Geosafe was equally amazed and upset when he was officially informed of the proposal on 19th November. This was the day the Department’s letter of invitation went to GHD. Thompson faxed a reply to the Department the next day. Here is a reading from that letter.
Reader: It is very surprising and disturbing that you would consider taking such action without first consulting with me. If you have concerns about how the ISV project is progressing, or being managed, I expect you to bring these concerns to my attention so that I can work to resolve them. Your proposal raises for Geosafe some very serious legal and commercial issues.
Gregg Borschmann: Why didn’t the Department discuss such a major change to arrangements with Geosafe before inviting GHD, and only GHD, to submit the proposal to project manage the ISV contract?
From the time of that crucial meeting on 7th November, between GHD and the Department, it was clear that the deal was heading for conclusion. This was 12 days before GHD were officially invited to submit their proposal.
This is confirmed by a hand-written note penned by a senior departmental officer on the official ‘talking points’ for that meeting. The officer notes, ‘I am inclined to support GHD assuming project management of the Geosafe contract.’
Out at Maralinga a few weeks later, in November, 1997, Alan Parkinson was left in no doubt which way things were going to go. There had been another discreet meeting between the Department of Primary Industry and Energy, or DPIE as it was then known, and GHD.
Here is a reading from an email written by Alan Parkinson to the MARTAC advisory committee to explain his version of events.
Reader: A few days later, on the 26th November, there was another secret meeting held at site between DPIE and GHD, attended by Messrs Rawson and Perkins from DPIE, and Rosenbauer, Chamberlain and Ryan from GHD. Again I was excluded, even though I was on site and available to attend. As I drove Messrs Rawson, Perkins and Rosenbauer to the airport next morning, 27th November, I asked how the meeting went. There was a very strained silence. But when we were standing in the airport apron, (CENSORED) came over to me, stood very close and in a threatening voice said, ‘It will come about’, meaning that GHD would take over.
Gregg Borschmann: Perhaps none of this would matter if the Maralinga clean[up was not ending under such a cloud. How good was the clean-up? How safe is Maralinga now? There are many insiders who say we will never know because of the way the job was finished.
These are questions which weigh heavily on the Maralinga Tjarutja people.
Barrister, Andrew Collett.
Andrew Collett: The community want the land back, but not to the extent of compromising their safety in the future. Obviously the community will be negotiating with the Commonwealth the basis of the hand-back of the land, and the community no doubt will want to be satisfied that any future problems will be remediated, not at a cost to Aboriginal people, before they are likely to take the land back.
Gregg Borschmann: As much as they want their land back, they must now make a tough choice about whether or not to accept it with all the uncertainties.
It remains to be seen whether the Commonwealth and South Australian Governments will be prepared to give them the guarantees they will seek.
Administrator for the Maralinga Tjarutja, Dr Archie Barton, the community itself and especially its elders, want to make sure that future generations don’t suffer the way the old people did.
Archie Barton: And I think they want to be pretty sure of getting the land back and they depend on good instruction from their advisers and that puts us in a very difficult decision because we have to be pretty sure of ourselves of accepting something and pass it on to those people. So we’re becoming the meat in the sandwich as advisers.
Gregg Borschmann: Making the choice very more difficult for the Tjarutja, just before we went to air, we hard about another significant and unexpected find of plutonium at Maralinga.
There’s been no official announcement, but it begs the question, how many more hot spots are there?
Background Briefing has evidence of several incidents that have been hushed up.
We confirmed that in early 1998, a man who had worked on the project flew to Melbourne from Adelaide wearing a plutonium contaminated shirt.
This was only discovered accidentally when the man was given his final routine lung monitor test in Melbourne. The authorities at the time admitted the event was of concern because control of safety procedures at Maralinga was, in their phrase, ‘lost’. But was the airline which flew the man to Melbourne notified? Were radiation control procedures at Maralinga revised or changed? No.
One of the people we spoke to for this program said that is such an incident had occurred in America, there would have been a major investigation. That didn’t happen at Maralinga.
After working on the project off and on for more than a decade, nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson says there’s key elements of the clean-up story which are yet to be unravelled, and important lessons to be learned for the future.
Alan Parkinson: It’s not up to me to say should there be any inquiry. It is funny that the people in the Senate seem to press for inquiries into all sorts of things, but something such as this, a nuclear waste repository in what is nothing more than a hole in the ground, certainly should have some assessment by politicians. When you consider that people who are in charge of this project are the same people who are responsible for a national nuclear waste repository, which will be used to dispose of far less hazardous waste than this, that they’re the people who could easily just say, Well, just put a hole in the ground, throw it in. That’s what we’ve done with the plutonium at Maralinga. And if the politicians have accepted that without any demurring, then why should we bother?
Gregg Borschmann: He remembers a comment in the early days of the project from one of the tenderers.
Alan Parkinson: One company, they had an American in their team, and he just said out of the blue, Of course, this won’t be the final clean-up at Maralinga. Now I agree with him, I don’t think it will be. I went out to Nevada test site in 1995, and the person who replaced me on MARTAC, Terry Vaith, was then the head of the test site, and on my return to Australia, he sent me an aerial photograph of the Nevada test site, and at the bottom was a little caption which said Old Test Sites Never Die.
Gregg Borschmann: Coordinating Producer, Linda McGinness; Research, Julie Browning; Technical operator, Anne Marie de Bettencor; Additional reporting, research and Japanese green tea, provided by Chris Bullock. Background Briefing’s Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I’m Gregg Borschmann.
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA)
Relevant information and web links courtesy of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA)
Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Australia)
Australian Conservation Foundation
Gutteridge Haskins & Davey Pty Ltd (GHD) (the company contracted to design and manage site rehabilitation at Maralinga)
Press release from Senator Nick Minchin in response to the issues raised by this program