Ten years after the all-clear, Maralinga is still toxic
November 12, 2011
Maralinga … was hailed clean more than a decade ago. Photo: Bryan Charlton
MORE than a decade after the Howard government hailed the clean-up of Maralinga as completed, the government is continuing to support remediation at the former British nuclear weapons test site.
Confidential files released under freedom-of-information laws show Canberra officials have at times been mainly concerned with ”perceptions” of radioactive contamination while rejecting a request by the Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal community for a site near the Maralinga village to be cleared of high levels of contamination. Files released by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism show erosion of the massive Taranaki burial trench north of Maralinga, described by officials as ”a large radioactive waste repository”, has required significant remediation. Other burial pits have been subject to subsidence and erosion, exposing asbestos-contaminated debris.
While the documents indicate ”no radiological contamination of groundwater” has been detected, the government has been obliged, under its 2009 agreement with Maralinga Tjarutja for the handback of the test site, to initiate further work.
The Taranaki trench was used to bury radioactive debris and soil, mainly from numerous ”minor trials” – British nuclear weapons safety and development experiments – that between 1956 and 1963 caused the heaviest radioactive contamination.
A brief prepared in April for the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, questioned the capacity of the Maralinga Tjarutja to manage the site.
The files show the government declined requests by the Maralinga Tjarutja to clean up the trials site closest to the village.
The ”Kuli” site, east of the airstrip, was used to conduct 262 trials, which dispersed 7.4 tonnes of uranium into the environment.
While a partial clean-up in 1998 removed some larger uranium fragments, reports released under freedom of information show surveys in late 2001 and early 2002 found the spread of fragments was much greater than assessed.
The contamination was not assessed as a radiological hazard but the uranium toxicity prompted consultations on a clean-up of the site, and the Maralinga Tjarutja expressed concern about a risk to children playing on the ground.
Federal officials were more concerned that adults could wrongly interpret the yellow uranium fragments as meaning the site was radioactively contaminated, ”which could create an image issue”.
Alan Parkinson, a retired nuclear engineer and whistleblower who questioned the management of the clean-up, yesterday said the remediation had only been partial and ”the remarkable thing really, is how little [radioactive material] we buried”.
Alan Parkinson (engineer)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Alan Parkinson is a mechanical and nuclear engineer who lives in Canberra, Australia. He is also a whistleblower who has written the 2007 book, Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up, about the clean-up of the British atomic bomb test site at Maralinga in South Australia.
In 1993, Parkinson became the key person on the Maralinga clean-up project, representing the then federal Labor government (through the Department of Primary Industry and Energy). By 1997, however, there was much cost-cutting involved in the project, and differences of opinion about how the project should proceed, which led to the sacking of Parkinson by the new Howard government.
The clean-up, which involved simply burying untreated long-lived radioactive debris in holes in the ground, was totally unsatisfactory according to Parkinson. He exposed the situation through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, provoking a strong rebuttal from the government, composed of scientific distortion and personal abuse.
The plan was to collect some of the contaminated soil and bury that soil in a specially prepared trench 15 metres deep. Several thousand tonnes of debris contaminated with plutonium was to be treated by a process of in situ vitrification. After collection and burial of the soil, the project moved to the second phase – the treatment of 21 pits by vitrification. Against the advice of Parkinson, the government department extended the contract of the project manager, even though that company had no knowledge of the complex process of vitrification. At that stage Parkinson was removed from the project. The government and the project manager then embarked on a hybrid scheme in which some pits would be exhumed and others treated by vitrification. After successfully treating 12 pits, there was an unlucky thirteenth during which something in the pit exploded and severely damaged the equipment. The government then cancelled the vitrification and simply exhumed the remaining pits, placed the debris in a shallow pit and covered it with clean soil.