Army radiation leak kept secret
by: Dennis Shanahan and Mark Dodd
From: “The Australian” newspaper
April 27, 2007 12:00AM
SOLDIERS and civilian contractors were exposed to radioactive material in a dangerous leak that was kept secret from the public and forced the closure of an army workshop in inner Brisbane for six months.
The incident, at the Bulimba Barracks four years ago, involved a substance called tritium that can cause cancer, genetic mutations or developmental defects in unborn children.
The leak triggered a shake-up within the army’s radioactive substances division and scathing criticism from the nation’s nuclear safety watchdog, which continues to monitor activities at the barracks to this day.
According to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, the leak was detected when routine tests of civilian contractors in 2003 revealed a higher than normal radioactive level on their clothing.
That led to the Queensland health department being called in to check the workshops and workers.
Nuclear safety inspectors also tested the site and interviewed defence personnel who used the tritium.
Swabs and checks on workers’ clothing, as well as the tritium levels in the workshops and at workers’ homes, were found but deemed to be within international safety limits.
A nuclear safety inspector went to Bulimba after the detection of the radioactive contamination and found “a building, used for the repair of compasses and tritium sights, was undergoing work to remove contamination to the building”, ARPANSA said.
The Defence Department stressed yesterday the incident caused no ill effects.
The Bulimba Barracks Joint Logistics Unit on Brisbane’s south side is a multi-service facility.
The leak happened in an army workshop.
Tritium is used in gunsights and compasses.
Evidence tendered to a 1981 Canadian inquiry into tritium dumping in the Ottawa River heard there was no such thing as a “safe” dose of tritium.
In a statement yesterday, Defence said it was licensed to handle radioactive material.
But in its report, ARPANSA states: “A licence was issued by the CEO to Defence in April 2004” – one year later, and then only after another meeting to “address special conditions attached to the Department of Defence licences”. Defence admits that the incident led to anoverhaul of the rules governing the handling of radioactive material.
“As a result of the incident Defence conducted a full review of how it handles tritium contained within military devices and has implemented a number of procedures to ensure a repeat incident would not occur,” it said, in reply to questions from The Australian.
An ARPANSA inspector also interviewed defence personnel who had worked on the tritium sites in the contaminated building but did not report on any civilian contact with the contamination.
Several weeks ago Defence Force regional manager Paul Watson declared there were no adverse health problems as a result of the tritium contamination. He said the workshop had reopened and was now operating normally.
In the latest quarterly report on Bulimba, ARPANSA has recommended a series of further safety steps at the base.
The federal Opposition said secrecy around the event smacked of a cover-up.
“I find it extraordinary the ADF (Australian Defence Force) was apparently operating without a licence and I’m very surprised we’ve had an incident like this without any form of disclosure to the parliament or to those who are potential victims,” Labor defence spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said.
“The question arises now: what’s being done to improve the process (radioactive materials handling) and the transparency, if any, about this situation?”
Defence Minister Brendan Nelson was unavailable to comment yesterday.
Tritium — reader John’s comment & Press report
John commented: “Defence….one of the most useless organisations you could work for with no accountability whatsoever I worked at Bulimba Bks for 6 years as a civilian employee (APS), we handled the same radioactive material in weapon parts, no protection no safety equipment and no information on what we were actually handling. As far as I am concerned the clowns who were in charge at the time both military and civilian should be hung as no information was given into the effects of what Tritium can do over time i.e. cancer and birth defects, and these clowns in charge are sending our boys overseas to Afghanistan, god help them.”
and remembering back a little, I went googling for an example of the kind of thing John is pointing out.
Print-friendy versionPrint Email this storyEmail
Last Update: Friday, April 27, 2007. 7:32am (AEST)
Army admits to Brisbane radiation leak
The Department of Defence has confirmed there was a radiation leak at a Brisbane army workshop four years ago.
A spokesman says the leak was discovered when the substance tritium was detected on the clothes of civilian contractors who had worked at the Bulimba logistics unit in 2003.
Tritium is used in gun sights and compasses and is highly radioactive. It can cause cancer and genetic mutations.
An Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency inspector found radioactive contamination in two building on the site.
The Defence Department spokesman stressed that there was no threat to nearby residents or the staff who came into contact with the substance.
He says the site has been decontaminated.
Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Peter Lindsay denied there had been a cover-up and said residents did not need to be informed.
“Defence every day has 50,000 people out there, 90,000 people out there,” he said.
“There are always things happening but they are dealt with internally. Otherwise you’d spend your time doing other things that weren’t defence.”