Friday, 11 November 2011

Maralinga a lasting legacy of British nuclear weapons tests in Australia

“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 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''.”

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 Maralinga occurred between 1955 and 1963 at the Maralinga site, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, in South Australia. A total of seven major nuclear tests were performed, with approximate yields ranging 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 atomic weapons.
The site was contaminated with radioactive materials and an initial cleanup was attempted in 1967. The McClelland 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 traditional Aboriginal 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.

Dalgety Bay and COMARE

It is interesting to note that Dalgety Bay is included in the current work
programme of the Committee on Medical Effects of Radiation in the Environment;
but in response to a FOI request COMARE said :-

"I can confirm that COMARE has not provided any advice to SEPA or MOD on
Dalgety Bay."

This begs a question as to what is the work is COMARE doing in relation to
Dalgety Bay and for whom?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Parliamentary Question - Radium Contaminated Land on the Defence Estate

A Parliamentary Question to MOD Ministers provides a good example of how MPs are fobbed off with a standard line such as “the information is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost”.

Delving into the past it becomes clear that this might not in fact be the case and that in 2000 the Radioactive Waste Management Committee (RWMAC) mentioned in their report Advice to Ministers on “The Ministry of Defence's Arrangements for Dealing with Radioactively Contaminated Land” that the “Ministry indicated that it was in the process of developing such a database.”  

It would seem that such a database  provides a central repository of information requested by the MP.

From Hansard 

“26 Oct 2011 : Column 261W
Radioactive Waste
Mr Weir: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence at which locations his Department has records of the burial of radium fragments. [75757]

Mr Robathan: The Ministry of Defence (MOD) takes a proactive approach to the assessment of land quality across the estate and to the management of the risks to human health and the environment. This includes radium 226 associated predominantly with the historical maintenance and disposal of luminised instruments especially during and after the second world war and which are present to some degree at many current and former MOD sites.

Where radium-226 contamination has been identified the potential risks are managed at site level. Such contamination on MOD sites is present in a relatively non-mobile form, with there being little to no leaching to soils and limited solubility in groundwater. As such, it is believed that radium and for that matter radiological contamination on MOD sites poses a relatively low risk to human health and the wider environment.

While the MOD has information on those sites which have been subject to land quality assessment, the information is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.”

Extract from the recommendations  in RWMAC's Advice to Ministers on The Ministry of Defence's Arrangements for Dealing with Radioactively Contaminated Land

"MoD should ensure, possibly in conjunction with other Government departments, that existing records of characterisation and remediation of its past and present landholdings are not lost"

"MoD should be as clear as is reasonably possible about its contaminated land holdings, and should set up a database for this purpose (drawing on LQA findings and on previous site investigation records, including desk studies and other land quality data). At the time of finalising this report (June 2000), the Ministry indicated that it was in the process of developing such a database;"

More detailed information from the RWMAC report relating to record keeping