“Ten years after the all-clear, Maralinga is still toxic
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
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
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
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''.”
It should be noted that the tests
resulted in contamination not just due to uranium but also plutonium and beryllium
Maralinga - Background Information
British nuclear tests at Maralingaoccurred between 1955 and 1963 at theMaralingasite, part of theWoomera
Prohibited Area, inSouth Australia. A total of seven majornuclear testswere
performed, withapproximate yieldsranging from 1 to 27 kilotons of TNT
equivalent. The site was also used for hundreds of minor trials, many of which
were intended to investigate the effects of fire or non-nuclear explosions on
site was contaminated withradioactive
materialsand an initial cleanup
was attempted in 1967. TheMcClelland Royal
Commission, an examination of the effects of the tests, delivered
its report in 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed
at many of the Maralinga test areas. It recommended another cleanup, which was
completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million. Debate continued over the safety
of the site and the long-term health effects on the traditionalAboriginal owners of the land and
former personnel. In 1994, the Australian Government paid compensation
amounting to $13.5 million to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.