Information about the flawed ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga (South Australia) nuclear test site in the 1990s.
Lots of articles posted at this link — scroll down to the ‘Maralinga clean-up’ section
Critical analysis of the Maralinga ‘clean up’ by nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson:
- 2015 submission to SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission
- Book: ‘Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up’, Alan Parkinson, ABC Books, 2007, 233 pages, $32.95 (pb). Review posted here. To purchase the book, try ABC book sellers or order online at http://shop.abc.net.au (enter Maralinga or Parkinson in the search engine). Now available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon for $15.99.
- Numerous articles by Alan Parkinson – online web archive, see the Maralinga ‘clean-up’ section.
- Maralinga – Australia’s nuclear waste cover-up, Ockham’s Razor – ABC Radio National, September 2, 2007
- “The Maralinga Rehabilitation Project: Final Report”, Medicine and Global Survival, Volume 7, Number 2, February 2002.
- Maralinga Rehabilitation Project, 2000, text of conference presentation + photos
- Comments in ABC Radio National, Background Briefing program, “Maralinga: The Fall Out Continues”, April 16, 2000
- Maralinga and Lucas Heights, ABC Ockham’s Razor, 22 Sept 2002.
- Second-round submission to ARPANSA 2003-04 inquiry into Proposed National Radioactive Waste Repository
- “Maralinga: Clean-Up or Cover-Up?” Australasian Science, July, 21 (6), 2000, p.16. (not available online)
- ‘The Maralinga Rehabilitation Project: Final Report’, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Vol.20, 2004, pp.70-80, London: Frank Cass. (not available online)
Plutonium at Maralinga – Alan Parkinson
Dust at Maralinga ‒ Alan Parkinson
Maralinga Mystery – Alan Parkinson
Maralinga MARTAC Muddle – Alan Parkinson
Critical analysis of the Maralinga ‘clean up’ by nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston:
- See the notes below in this webpage.
- P.N. Johnston, A.C. Collett, T.J. Gara, “Aboriginal participation and concerns throughout the rehabilitation of Maralinga”, presented at the Third International Symposium on the Protection of the Environment from Ionising Radiation, Darwin. See pp.349-56 in this PDF: http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/CSP-17_web.pdf
- Written submission #256 and second-round submission to ARPANSA 2003-04 inquiry into Proposed National Radioactive Waste Repository, both available from firstname.lastname@example.org and see notes below in this webpage.
Critical analysis of the Maralinga ‘clean up’ by scientific whistleblower Dale Timmons:
Australian government propaganda:
Propaganda from the Australian nuclear regulator ARPANSA:
- http://arpansa.gov.au/pubs/basics/maralinga.pdf (this PDF file ends with a list of references to literature on Maralinga and the ‘clean up’)
Cabinet papers reveal British Government denied compensation to people affected Maralinga, Emu Fields nuclear tests
Tory Shepherd, The Advertiser, 1 Jan 2014
THE British Government did not want to pay to clean up the South Australian Outback after its nuclear testing program and was reluctant to pay compensation to the Australians it exposed to radiation.
Cabinet documents from 1986 and 1987, released by the National Archives of Australia, detail how the Australian Government told the British that people who had to take samples from the toxic cloud were “undoubtedly inadequately protected and monitored for radiation exposure and that was a direct result of British assurances that they faced negligible risks of radiation exposure”.
The Hawke/Keating Government was also keen to “constrain” how much money it gave to the victims of the radioactive material released at Maralinga and Emu Fields.
Fallout from nuclear tests at Maralinga worse than previously thought
ABC 2021 article, here’s the link and here’s a summary:
- Radioactive particles in Maralinga remain reactive for longer than previously thought
- These particles can leach into groundwater, affecting plants, wildlife and humans
- Native foods from around nuclear sites are still too risky to consume
Why cabinet sought only a partial clean-up of British nuclear test site
1 January 2014, Paul Chadwick
The complete rehabilitation of areas of Australia used to test British nuclear weapons may not be possible, the Hawke cabinet was advised in 1986. Cabinet was warned that a full clean-up may have been more expensive than the British government would be willing to contemplate, according to documents released this week by the National Archives. They provide new insights into the Hawke government’s response to the recommendations of the McClelland royal commission into British nuclear tests in Australia.
The documents cover technical aspects of the clean-up, collection of data about persons who may have been exposed to radiation and compensation issues affecting veterans of the testing and Indigenous people whose lands had been damaged. The material shows how ministers perceived these seemingly distinct issues as being connected.
In addressing the royal commission’s recommendation that the sites be cleaned up “so that they are fit for unrestricted habitation by the traditional Aboriginal owners as soon as possible”, cabinet heard from the minister for resources and energy, Gareth Evans, that such a clean-up of all affected areas would be extraordinarily expensive. At least as expensive as plutonium clean-up operations at Palomares in Spain and in the Marshall Islands – in 1970s dollar values, more than $US200m.
“But even expenditure on this scale cannot on present indications be expected to achieve a fully effective rehabilitation of the area given the experience that residual contamination, albeit at significantly lower levels, would continue to be present,” Evans reported.
This, and the remoteness of Maralinga, the area in South Australia where the tests took place, meant it “may be reasonable to set aside, even at this early stage, the option of absolutely unrestricted habitation”.
A clean-up costing in the order of $20m to $25m was “much more within the ballpark that the UK government is likely, on present indications, to be prepared to contemplate”. Cabinet was looking for a contribution from Britain of 50% of the clean-up cost.
In an overview report to cabinet in May 1986, Evans noted that “a non-confrontational approach had been adopted in all dealings with the UK government and an amicable and productive working relationship has so far been maintained”.
The Thatcher government’s view was interpreted for the Hawke cabinet as follows:
“While the British government will continue to minimise its obligation to clean up the sites, its final willingness to pay in whole or in part will depend on both a mix of legal and moral argument, and on the extent of the clean-up insisted upon. The British have also stated their concern that if personal compensation awards are opened up, precedents will be set for compensation of their own nuclear veterans.
“There is a connection between the compensation and clean-up issues only in so far as restraint by the Australian government on this compensation issue may assist the negotiating climate when it comes to seeking recovery of clean-up costs,” Evans advised his colleagues.
There were indications that Maralinga Aboriginal representatives may accept that, once the main hazards were dealt with cost effectively, the “very large additional sums that may need to be spent to secure the ‘unrestricted habitation’ criterion might be much better spent elsewhere”.
Compensation in the form of services such as water and roads “could be very helpful in securing Aboriginal acceptance of a reasonable ultimate clean-up program”, Evans reported.
Studies necessary for a reduced scale of clean-up were approved by cabinet. An aerial survey of radioactivity around the test sites would be followed by a more detailed ground survey. Five studies would “define the areas – hopefully quite small – which must remain surrounded by fences, and further outer areas in which activities such as food gathering and excavation should not occur”.
A report by technical experts attached to the cabinet submission states: “Aboriginals living and gathering food on the Maralinga lands may be exposed [to contaminants] … in three major ways – by inhalation, by ingestion and by entry of contaminated material through open flesh wounds and abrasions.”
The experts considered options for burial of contaminated soil. They noted that since one of the contaminants had a half life of 24,000 years it was a prerequisite to make a prediction about the sort of changes in the earth expected to occur in the Maralinga area in the timeframe.
Cabinet rejected the royal commission’s recommendation for the creation of a new register of persons who may have been exposed to “black mist” or radiation at the tests. It reasoned that two substantial lists of persons involved in the tests and potentially exposed to radiation already existed and that obtainable information would add nothing of significance.
The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding, presented cabinet with a submission in response to the royal commission’s recommendation that Aboriginal people be compensated for dispossession of the lands used for testing.
Holding was blunt and evocative: “… we have no option but to accept the principle of compensation for dispossession. The actions of previous Australian government [sic] in shepherding Aboriginal people from their traditional lands for the purpose of conducting atomic tests were both immoral and appallingly executed. The resultant disruption to Aboriginal life has been catastrophic; Yalata, where many were resettled, is testimony to that. If we deny compensation we shall stand condemned as surely as those who committed the outrage of dispossession in the first place.”
Cabinet accepted Holding’s recommendation that $500,000 be provided in 1986-87 for services, such as roads and water, for Indigenous communities with a traditional interest in sites at Maralinga affected by the atomic test program, with future amounts to be subject to further consideration.
Holding advised: “This would in effect be a down payment on an unspecified overall sum, which would need to be calculated at a later stage when more information is available on needs and on the extent of continuing restrictions on use and enjoyment of areas of the Maralinga lands. It will be seen as a low figure and will be criticised for that; we can counter such criticism by pointing out that it is the first instalment, and that there needs first to be consultation with the traditional owners on what is to be done.”
Maralinga sites need more repair work, files show
November 12 2011
MORE than a decade after the Howard government declared the clean-up of Maralinga to be finished, the Australian government is continuing to support remediation work at the former British nuclear weapons test site.
Confidential federal government files released under freedom of information also show Canberra bureaucrats have at times been primarily 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 toxic uranium contamination.
Files released by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism show that erosion of the massive Taranaki burial trench north of Maralinga, described by federal bureaucrats as ”a large radioactive waste repository”, has required significant remediation work. Other burial pits scattered across the former nuclear test range have also been subject to subsidence and erosion, exposing asbestos-contaminated debris.
While the released documents indicate ”no radiological contamination of groundwater” has been detected, the federal government has been obliged under its 2009 agreement with Maralinga Tjarutja for the hand-back of the Maralinga test site to initiate a range of further remediation work.
The Taranaki trench was excavated in the mid-1990s and used to bury radioactive-contaminated debris and soil, principally from numerous ”minor trials”, British nuclear weapons safety and development experiments conducted between 1956 and 1963 that caused the heaviest radioactive contamination at Maralinga.
Records of a Maralinga Lands and Environmental Management Committee meeting in October last year show that ”erosion of the Taranaki trench was noted” and that repair work funded by the Commonwealth would be carried out by the Maralinga Tjarutja. An annual survey of 85 debris pits revealed that 19 pits had been subject to erosion or subsidence, with eight requiring ”major work” and at least four containing exposed asbestos.
A brief prepared for Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson in April this year questioned the capacity of the Maralinga Tjarutja to manage the former nuclear test site.
”We understand that [the Maralinga Tjarutja’s] site manager is to be replaced with a community member at the end of June 2011. While it is not for the department to dictate who fills this position, it is necessary that Maralinga Tjarutja appreciates the need for competent management of the site.”
The released files also show that the Australian government declined requests by Maralinga Tjarutja to clean up the trials site closest to the Maralinga Village.
Situated east of the Maralinga airstrip, the Kuli site was used by British nuclear weapons scientists to conduct 262 trials that explosively dispersed 7.4 tonnes of uranium into the environment.
Maralinga’s nuclear nightmare continues
2 November 2007
By Phil Shannon
Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up
By Alan Parkinson
ABC Books, 2007, 233 pages, $32.95 (pb)
Federal science minister Peter McGauran was almost incontinent with joy in 2003 — the clean-up of the plutonium-contaminated British atomic bomb testing site at Maralinga in South Australia’s remote north had “achieved its goals”, exceeded “world’s best practice” and was “something Australia can be proud of”. Not so happy, however, was nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson, whose book Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up shows that the “clean-up” was more a “cover-up” of a cost-cutting dumping of hazardous radioactive waste in shallow holes in the ground.
Seven of the 12 British atomic bombs exploded on Australian territory 50 years ago were at Maralinga in 1956 and 1957. Even more so than the bomb tests, it was the hundreds of related trials, which continued until the mid-1960s, that contaminated 100 square kilometres of land with plutonium and other radioactive elements. Twenty-four kilograms of highly dangerous plutonium was used but only 0.9kgs was repatriated to Britain. The remainder was spread over a wide area, while thousands of tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris (concrete, steel, cable, etc) lay in poorly covered bare earth pits following inadequate British clean-ups, the last in 1967.
By 1993, Parkinson had become the key person on the project, representing the then federal Labor government (through the Department of Primary Industry and Energy) and as a member of the minister’s advisory committee, MARTAC (the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee). What followed was a mounting catalogue of problems that became a fully-fledged disaster after Parkinson was sacked in 1997 by the new Coalition government.
The main problem concerned the clean-up of the contaminated debris in the pits. In-situ vitrification (ISV), which used electricity to melt the pit contents and soil, cooling to form a hard glass-like rock that immobilises the radioactive contaminants, had been adopted as the best available solution. The project team, however, were badly misled by inaccurate, 20-year old British recollections of the pits and their contents. Parkinson’s team found that the total volume of contaminated debris was three times greater than they had been led to believe. The ISV treatment would therefore cost much more and the government department went into zealous cost-cutting mode.
The situation had been exacerbated from mid-1997 with a changing of the management guard in the department, which put a person in charge who knew nothing of radiation and had no program management experience. Parkinson, the specialist scientist who wanted to do a proper job, clashed with the bureaucrat out to wind up the job and save money.
In secret meetings, the department arranged an extension to the existing clean-up project management contract with Gutteridge, Haskins & Davey (GHD) to take over the management part of the ISV project from the ISV engineering experts Geosafe. GHD, which had originally tendered for the job but not made the shortlist, had bought the successful tenderer, the government’s Australian Construction Services, during a post-election festival of privatisation.
So, a failed tenderer was now in charge of a process for which they had no expertise. GHD, in turn, reported to a similarly ignorant department, while MARTAC was partially blinded by the failure of cooperation and information flow between the direct market competitors, GHD (managing the ISV project) and Geosafe (conducting it). This, says Parkinson, “doomed” the project.
As Parkinson feared, cost-cutting undid the project. An unexplained explosion of something flammable in vitrification Pit No. 17 in March 1999 — a legacy of the undocumented British pit stocktake two decades ago — gave the department and MARTAC the excuse to scrap the costly but effective ISV, blaming the process not the pit contents. With ISV red-lined, the next best option, which was to encase the debris in a concrete-lined facility (the minimum requirement for such disposal in the US and Britain), was also scratched and shallow trench burial under just one to two metres of soil was adopted.
The clean-up, by simply burying long-lived radioactive debris in a hole in the ground with no treatment or lining, had thus been “botched”, says Parkinson, but the Coalition’s then science minister, Nick Minchin, declared the site safe in March 2000. Parkinson exposed the disgraceful outcome through the ABC, provoking the government into a furious rebuttal composed of scientific distortion and personal abuse.
When the new minister, McGauran, then waved the subsequent MARTAC report as a true and proper record sanctifying the clean-up, Parkinson unpicked this alleged seal of approval at its shonky seams. Written by a part-time advisory committee that did not have day-to-day contact with, or full information on, the project, the report was riddled with mistakes and errors. That six “eminent” scientists signed it, is, to Parkinson, evidence that MARTAC had become “a puppet advisory committee”. Also failing the scientific test was ARPANSA (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority), the government’s “independent” nuclear regulator, which also gave the “clean-up” the all-clear.The government claims that the “clean-up” has exceeded world’s best practice. Parkinson argues that the higher standards proposed for the national low-level nuclear waste depository (containment drums stored in a deep-engineered facility, with a concrete base and covered by impervious layers), make the government’s statements about Maralinga’s hole-in-the-ground approach being world’s best practice utterly “frivolous”.
Equally disturbing for Parkinson is the fact that the nuclear waste depository project itself has the same client (the renamed Department of Employment, Science and Training), the same contractor (GHD) and the same regulator (ARPANSA) that so dismally mismanaged the Maralinga clean-up to save a dollar.
If the government’s claims of a safe site at Maralinga are true then why, asks Parkinson, is not the government agreeing to total indemnity? Perhaps because it doesn’t want the financial liability for people (traditional owners, souvenir hunters, site maintainers) contaminated from the hundreds of square kilometres of soil known still to be contaminated (often well-above the clean-up criteria) but which were not involved in the partial clean-up; from the “hundreds and possibly thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil” that blew away as radioactive dust during the scraping and dumping process by the earthworks machinery; from the radioactive material and pits that have not yet been found; from the 20kgs (84% of the original amount) of plutonium still out there.
It is no disrespect to say that, as a writer, Parkinson makes a very good nuclear engineer, or that the big picture sometimes goes a little out of focus because of his intense gaze at the personal level of his intimate involvement with the project and its personalities. What Parkinson has delivered, however, is an invaluable service in blowing the lid on the “cheap and nasty scheme” of an incompetent and lying government, and its tame and leashed scientists and senior bureaucrats. Parkinson has more integrity than the lot of them. Maralinga has not been cleaned up. The government’s assurances on anything nuclear should be taken with a grain of contaminated Maralinga soil.
Maralinga – Australia’s nuclear waste cover-up
Ockham’s Razor – ABC Radio National
September 2, 2007
Robyn Williams: Isn’t it fascinating to contemplate how the world changes. Twenty-five years ago we saw the first CDs replace those large vinyl discs we used to call LPs. Fifty years ago the space age really began with the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, followed by Laika the dog. And at about the same time, out in the desert in South Australia, the British were exploding bombs, atomic bombs, something that may come as a surprise to younger listeners.
Alan Parkinson has written a book about all this and about what happened next. It’s called ‘Maralinga, Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up’.
Most people living in Australia today probably do not know that twelve atomic bombs have been exploded on Australian territory.
Seven of those bombs were exploded at Maralinga, in South Australia, in the 1950s. Following those explosions, Britain conducted a series of experiments in which they exploded another 15 bombs in a manner which precluded an atomic explosion. Those experiments spread plutonium and uranium over hundreds of square kilometres of the South Australian landscape.
Before they abandoned the site, the British conducted a final clean-up in 1967, and the Australian government accepted their assurance that Maralinga was clean. In the mid 1980s, scientists from the Australian Radiation Laboratory surveyed the site and found it was far from satisfactory.
In 1989, I prepared estimates for some 30 options for cleaning the site, ranging from simply fencing the contaminated area to scraping over 100 square kilometres of land and burying the contaminated soil. The Federal government agreed with the South Australian government and the Maralinga Tjarutja to implement a partial clean-up.
This partial clean-up was to be in two parts: the first was to scrape up and buy the most contaminated soil. The second part was to treat 21 pits containing thousands of tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris by a process of vitrification, which would immobilise the plutonium for perhaps a million years.
In 1993, I was appointed a member of the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee whose purpose was to advise the Minister on progress of the project, and a few months later, I was appointed the government’s representative to oversee the whole project.
By the end of 1997, the collection and burial of contaminated soil was nearing an end. However, as that soil was scraped up, we found the state of the 21 debris pits was not at all what we had been led to believe from the British reports.
The pits were very much larger than the British reports told us, with about three times as much debris as we had expected, and therefore treatment by vitrification would clearly cost a lot more.
By then we had completed a three-year program to match the vitrification technology to the Maralinga geology, and a company called Geosafe had built the equipment ready to use it to treat the pits. Unfortunately, when the department signed the contract with Geosafe, they failed to include that most basic feature of any contract: a statement of what had to be achieved.
The equipment was tested in Adelaide before being taken to site, and those tests, which I witnessed, showed that the technology was going to be just as successful as we had hoped.
It was at this time that the department held three meetings with a company that had no knowledge at all of the vitrification technology; they had not been involved in the three-year development program, and nobody from that company had even seen the full-size equipment. Similarly, the two attendees from the department had no knowledge of the technology, or any project management experience. Add to that, nobody in those meetings had any nuclear expertise or experience in the disposal of nuclear waste.
Even though I was the government’s representative overseeing the whole project, I was excluded, as was Geosafe.
The department then proposed to appoint this company as project manager and project authority over the vitrification part of the project. I resisted this and advised them not to proceed along this path. Geosafe also objected, telling the department several times in writing and face-to-face that the company was not qualified to take over the project, having no knowledge at all of what was involved. The department persisted and against all advice, appointed the company. For my pains I was removed from the project and the advisory committee. I was sacked.
So the world’s experts in the vitrification technology found themselves contracted to the department but reporting to a company that knew nothing about the technology. In turn, that company reported to people in the department who were similarly ignorant of the technology, had no nuclear expertise and no project management experience. From that point on, the project was almost certainly likely to fail.
Within a few weeks of being appointed, the new project managers put forward a proposal that some of the pits should be exhumed and their contents buried, claiming this would be cheaper. The department accepted the suggestion and introduced what they called the hybrid system, a mixture of dubious practice and the best available technology. And I maintain they did this merely to save money, in fact later when Mr Peter McGauran inherited the project, he tried to defend the saving of over $5-million.
Vitrification of some pits continued until, as treatment was nearing completion on one pit, there was a huge explosion within the pit. The steel hood over the pit was extensively damaged, and molten glass was spewed some 50 metres from the pit. Fortunately, nobody was injured in the incident, but it gave the government an excuse to cancel vitrification altogether.
They then exhumed all the pits, including those that had been vitrified, and placed the whole lot in a shallow grave and covered it.
In March 2000, Senator Minchin visited Maralinga and declared the site was safe, and could be returned to the Aborigines. He was accompanied on that visit by Dr John Loy, the Head of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, ARPANSA.
Dr Loy went on to claim that the shallow burial of plutonium contaminated debris was world’s best practice. Three years later, on 25th March, 2003, Mr McGauran tabled the government’s final report of the project in parliament. In his speech, he said, ‘The project achieved its goals and a world best practice result’, oblivious to the fact that a partial clean-up cannot, by definition, be world’s best practice.
It would be a pity if the only record of the project was that published by the government. That final report contains so many incorrect statements that it cannot be said to describe what really happened on the project.
And now, seven years after the government claimed the project a success and four years after Mr McGauran’s declaration, it is time to put a few things into perspective and look back on how the project was managed and what it bodes for the future.
In this I am mindful of the Prime Minister’s push towards nuclear power. Dr Switkowski’s inquiry drew attention to three things that are relevant to the Maralinga project.
The first is for there to be an independent nuclear regulator. The Maralinga project was half way through its final phase when ARPANSA was born.
The second is the need to recruit scientists and engineers with experience in the nuclear industry. The last phase of the Maralinga project was managed by a company with no nuclear expertise, reporting to a client similarly devoid of nuclear experiences, and in some cases, no technical knowledge.
And the third is the problem of nuclear waste disposal. The Minister and the Chief Nuclear Regulator claim the shallow burial of plutonium to be world’s best practice. So why does the rest of the world not follow suit? Why do they insist that long-lived nuclear waste, such as that at Maralinga, should be disposed of in a deep geological facility?
In August 2003, I visited Sellafield in Northern England; that is where the plutonium now spread over a huge area of South Australia originated. There, people with far more experience in dealing with plutonium place plutonium-contaminated material in stainless steel drums and store those drums in an airconditioned building on a guarded site, awaiting permanent deep geological disposal.
It is the same story in America where trials similar to those at Maralinga were conducted, except on a much smaller scale. In their clean-up, the Americans bagged the contaminated soil and debris and transported the whole lot over 300 kilometres to a nuclear waste storage facility on a guarded site.
Those countries clearly do not agree that burial of plutonium in a shallow grave with no packaging and in totally unsuitable geology is world’s best practice.
In July 2001, the government published a document called ‘Safe Storage of Radioactive Waste’ which says that long-lived low and intermediate level waste is not suitable for shallow burial. And yet that is what has been done at Maralinga and claimed to be world’s best practice.
And the government puts similar spin on other features of the project.
In his speech to Parliament Mr McGauran said the clean-up would ‘permit unrestricted access to about 90% of the 3,200 square kilometre Maralinga site’. But there was unrestricted access to 90% of the site before the project started. The only additional area in which there is unrestricted access is half a square kilometre. Admittedly another 1.6 square kilometres have been cleaned, but that is within the area to which access is restricted. And one part of that restricted area is 300 times more contaminated than the clean-up criteria.
In truth, after spending $108-million, less than 2% of the land contaminated above the clean-up criteria has been cleaned. I am not criticising that, it was what was planned, but let us keep it in perspective.
Anybody listening to the government’s statements might be under the impression that the whole site is now clean and all the plutonium used in those British trials has been buried. In fact, almost 85% of the original 24,000 grams of plutonium remains on the surface.
In 24,000 years time, half of that plutonium will still be there, but in about 400 years from now, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to detect it.
On my last visit to Maralinga in September 1999, I was farewelled with, ‘Well, see you in February for the handover’. I have heard many times that the site will be returned ‘later in the year’, or ‘in the next few months’, and seven years later I am still waiting for that event.
Will the Aborigines accept return of their land?
If they do, then for thousands of years, they will have to rely on the Federal government to honour any agreements they might enter, in full knowledge that only a few years ago, the government unilaterally broke their agreement to clean the site using the best available technology and then failed to do so.
Double Standards with Radioactive Waste
Australasian Science, September 2002
Alan Parkinson says the government is cutting corners.
Australia’s disposal of its radioactive waste is ill-considered and irresponsible. Whether it is short-lived waste from Commonwealth facilities, long-lived plutonium waste from an atomic bomb test site on Aboriginal land, or reactor waste from Lucas Heights, the government applies double standards to suit its own agenda. There is no consistency, and little evidence of logic.
Most of Australia’s current inventory of stored radioactive waste is at Woomera. This includes 2000 m3 of lightly contaminated soil from a CSIRO site at Fishermens Bend in Melbourne – said to be naturally occurring uranium from research into processing radioactive ores. It also includes 60 m3 of waste from Defence facilities such as St Mary’s on Sydney’s outskirts, being old radium-painted dial gauges, watches and compasses.
The removal of radioactive waste from both sites was an “intervention”, which is defined by National Health and Medical Research Council Health Series No 39 as: “Action taken to decrease exposures to radiation which arise from existing situations”; taken to mean improving an already-contaminated site.
The government will dispose of low-level waste from Fishermens Bend and government laboratories in its national waste repository, which is in the early stages of construction in South Australia. It will be packaged in drums, placed on a solid foundation in a trench up to 20 metres deep, and covered by several layers of impervious materials.
An undefined “appropriate authority” will impose an “institutional control period” of 200-300 years, after which the waste will have decayed to safe levels and no further control will be necessary.
The controversial clean-up of the atomic bomb test site at Maralinga was also an “intervention”, but there are significant differences between the treatment of Maralinga debris and that from other sites.
The radioactive contaminant at Maralinga is plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. It will not decay to “safe” levels in 200-300 years. Since the government intends to return the land to the Maralinga Tjarutja people, there will be no institutional control.
Surprisingly, there was no study to find a proper site for disposal of the Maralinga debris, and no call for a site with suitable geology. The disposal trenches at Maralinga are only 15 metres deep in limestone and dolomite strata exhibiting many cracks and fissures. This geology is totally unsuitable.
The plutonium-contaminated debris at Maralinga was not packaged; it was simply dropped into a bare hole in the ground and covered. It is not on a compacted base, and is not covered by several impervious layers.
On 20 June Trish Worth, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health, admitted in a letter to me: “While both uranium and plutonium are radiotoxic, gram for gram plutonium is far more hazardous”. But she maintains it is correct to package the uranium from the CSIRO site, while burial in a bare hole in the ground is appropriate for plutonium debris.
In a statement issued in April 2000, Dr John Loy, head of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency within the Department of Health, supported the shallow disposal of long-lived plutonium debris at Maralinga as “world’s best practice”. This is inconsistent with a government paper of July 2001 stating that low or intermediate level long-lived waste is not suitable for near-surface disposal.
Surely if short-lived waste needs to be packaged for disposal at a carefully selected site, so too does the long-lived Maralinga debris.
The government’s actions don’t lend confidence to how they will dispose of waste from the replacement reactor being constructed Lucas Heights. This is the same reactor that Dr Loy said in July 2000 should not go ahead until the method of handling the spent fuel is “written in blood”. Yet Loy has licensed its construction while the process for handling spent fuel is not resolved.
The government’s double standards between pushing its agenda for the reactor or cleaning up Commonwealth sites, and the treatment of far greater contamination on Aboriginal land are all too apparent.
It is high time that clear and firm guidelines for the disposal of radioactive waste are published, and adherence to these guidelines made mandatory. The government also must accept long-term responsibility for sites that were contaminated with their approval.
Alan Parkinson is a nuclear engineer with more than 40 years’ experience. He was previously the Commonwealth’s representative overseeing the Maralinga rehabilitation project.
ConScientious Fallout on Radioactive Waste
Peter Pockley, Australasian Science, September 2002
The reaction to nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson’s criticisms of the Federal government’s handling of radioactive waste (conScience, AS, August 2002, p.14) showed that the issue has not been swept under the dry soil of South Australia.
Like July’s conScience column on CSIRO by Dr Max Whitten, Parkinson’s forthright views attracted considerable attention in the media, with ABC TV and Radio National carrying items prominently, as did The Canberra Times, The Age, The Daily Telegraph and The Adelaide Advertiser.
The Australian Conservation Foundation and the SA Labor government supported Parkinson’s contention that the Federal government’s handling of the clean-up of plutonium contamination at Maralinga and its unrealised plans for disposal of low and medium level radioactive waste from the existing and future reactors at Lucas Heights are “irresponsible”, apply “double standards” and are far removed from assertions of “world’s best practice”.
But Dr John Loy, CEO of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), maintains that Parkinson’s views are “sheer rubbish” (see pp.18-19).
Meanwhile, all states and territories have rejected the search by Science Minister, Peter McGauran, for a site for a national repository. South Australian Environment Minister, John Hill, confirmed on Radio National that his government was opposed to a site anywhere in SA.
Parkinson says that Loy’s response is “deliberately misleading” and “sheer government propaganda”. He disputes government claims that ARPANSA is “the independent regulator”, saying ARPANSA is an integral arm of government that is responsible to the Minister of Health. Yet Loy – who exercises the legal power of ARPANSA, which has no governing Board – approves or licenses the actions of another ministry (Science). “He provides answers that suit the government’s prior decisions,” Parkinson claims.
Parkinson agrees that packaging of contaminated soil at Maralinga was never an option, but he has never claimed that it should have been. He says Loy has confirmed double standards since none of the soil from Fishermens Bend is as hazardous as highly radioactive debris – such as steel plates, concrete slabs and lead bricks – left from trials at Maralinga that the government merely shovelled into a trench.
Regarding approval for the new reactor, Parkinson asserts: “Loy wanted firm plans for reprocessing and waste disposal before he would grant a construction licence for the new reactor, but after he granted that licence without firm plans, he switched to wanting that evidence before granting an operating licence. And he says he is independent.”
Flawed ‘clean-up’ of Maralinga
What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.” — Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson, ABC Radio National, ‘Breakfast’, August 5, 2002.
In the 1990s the Australian Government carried out what was supposed to be a final clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site in South Australia. The clean-up stemmed from recommendations in the 1985 report of the Royal Commission.
A large majority of the contamination resulted not from the nuclear tests per se but from so-called minor trials which were discontinued in 1963. The stated purpose of the trials was to physically test the safety and security of British nuclear weapons in case of accident, and some experiments were designed to improve the trigger mechanisms. The trigger mechanisms of the weapons were subjected to chemical explosions, heat and other tests. The resultant destruction produced plumes of radioactive material in the form of fine particles. These particles fell to earth over a wide area of the test range and in some cases, beyond it. The ‘minor trials’ contaminated Maralinga with approximately 8,000 kg of uranium, 24 kg of plutonium, and 100 kg of beryllium.
In March 2000 the then Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, Senator Nick Minchin, declared Maralinga safe after $108 million had been spent on the clean-up. However, the clean-up generated a great deal of controversy, much of it generated by criticisms expressed by scientists who worked on the project, namely:
* Mr. Alan Parkinson. In 1989, Mr. Parkinson, a nuclear engineer, developed some 30 options for rehabilitation of the Maralinga atomic bomb test site. In August 1994, he was appointed the Government’s Representative to oversee the whole of the clean-up project and was also a member of the government’s advisory committee (MARTAC). In December 1997, he was removed from both appointments for questioning the management of the project.
* Mr. Dale Timmons, a geochemist involved in the in-situ vitrification (ISV) of contaminated debris at Maralinga.
* Professor Peter Johnston, adviser to the traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, and Professor of Applied Nuclear Physics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
Mr. Parkinson’s view is that the clean-up was significantly flawed, especially the shallow burial of plutonium-contaminated debris. Prof. Johnston’s view is that the clean-up was successful overall despite poor project management by the Australian Government. Mr. Timmons has not commented on the overall status of the clean-up, restricting his comments to the ISV component in which he was heavily involved.
DEST clearly failed to properly manage the Maralinga clean-up. Professor Johnston wrote in his submission to ARPANSA:
“In the Maralinga Rehabilitation Project, DEST had no in-house capacity for engineering or scientific assessment of its contractors for a substantial part of the project. It had internal engineering support for the early part of the project but that individual was removed. As a consequence, DEST contracted for services in extremely deficient ways, e.g. the Geosafe contract contained no performance criteria.” (The Geosafe contract was for vitrification of contaminated debris.)
“In the case of Maralinga, there were mitigating circumstances that kept the project going forward but in a sub-optimal way. These were the MARTAC [Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee] advisory group, the Maralinga Consultative Group as well as ad-hoc advice sought from ARPANSA at various times. While these groups greatly aided in the successful completion of the project, there were still very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project by DEST.”
Inevitably the poor project management had adverse consequences for the clean-up. Professor Johnston’s presentation for an ARPANSA forum listed some examples:
“DEST concluded a contract with Geosafe Australia for technical services that contained no performance criteria. Draft documents prepared by DEST have often been technically wrong due to a lack of technical input. Non-technical public servants made decisions where technical expertise was needed. Technical advice often not sought except from a contractor.”
Mr. Parkinson illustrates DEST’s inadequate project management capabilities in his submission to ARPANSA (cited above):
“A glaring example of the lack of expertise in project management is provided by the appointment by the department of GHD to manage the ISV phase of the Maralinga project. In spite of the fact that several aspects of GHD’s performance on the earlier phases of the project were less than satisfactory, and the fact that they had absolutely no knowledge or experience of the complex process and equipment of ISV, the department appointed them Project Manager and Project Authority. And those responsible cannot claim they were not aware of GHD’s ignorance in the ISV technology; it was spelled out in writing to them. It is almost a fundamental requirement for the project manager to have a good knowledge and some experience of the project – in this case GHD had none. To emphasise the department’s lack of project management skills, they also appointed GHD Project Authority, in which position they should have had a detailed knowledge of the process and equipment. No wonder the Maralinga project became such a failure.”
Consultation with the Maralinga Tjarutja was inadequate. Prof. Johnston et al note in the conference paper (cited above):
“The Australian Government responded to these [Royal Commission] recommendations by forming in February 1986, a Technical Assessment Group (TAG) to address the technical conclusions stemming from the Royal Commission and a Consultative Group was formed as a forum for discussion of the program. TAG’s task was to provide the Australian Government with options for rehabilitation rather than a recommendation. Membership of the Consultative Group was as envisaged by the Royal Commission for the Maralinga Commission but with additional representatives of the West Australian Government. Notably this structure which formed the basis for the entire rehabilitation project left the traditional owners and the South Australian Government out of direct decision making. It ensured that real authority remained with bureaucrats within the Department of Primary Industries and Energy which obtained advice from TAG and later the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC).”
The roles of these groups is explained in the same paper:
“The Maralinga Consultative Group met on an ad hoc basis during the TAG investigations in order to provide information on the progress of scientific studies, planning the rehabilitation work, during the rehabilitation work and in the preparation of the final reports. The consultative group was established to discuss and monitor the TAG studies was re-established in 1993 involving South Australian Government and Maralinga Tjarutja to discuss the MRP. It first met in March 1994. During 1997 and 1998, while a great deal of the rehabilitation work was done, there were few meetings of either MARTAC or the consultative group.”
The most problematic aspect of the project was the decision to abandon ISV in favour of shallow burial of plutonium contaminated debris in totally unsuitable geology. The Australian Government claims that ISV was abandoned because of safety concerns following an explosion on March 21, 1999. However, the use of ISV was curtailed even before the explosion and the decisions to curtail and then abandon ISV were clearly motivated by cost-cutting objectives. This is revealed by numerous statements in the project documentation. To give some examples:
* an October 1998 paper by MARTAC said: “The recent consideration of alternative treatments for ISV for these outer pits has arisen as a result of the revised estimate for ISV being considerably above the project budget.”
* a July 17, 1998 paper written by the chair of MARTAC gives the following criteria for considering options for the Taranaki pits: time savings; cost savings; nature of waste form; potential for exposure of waste; and efficiency of operation.
* at an April 13, 1999 meeting, Garth Chamberlain from GHD, the construction company which was appointed as project manager (despite having little knowledge about ISV and no experience with the technology), said it was a much easier, quicker and cheaper option to exhume and bury debris rather than using ISV.
As Prof. Johnston et al. note in their conference paper (cited above), the decision to abandon ISV: “… was announced to the Maralinga Consultative Group in the middle of a meeting in July 1999 without the consent of the other members of the Consultative Group, particularly Maralinga Tjarutja and South Australia. … The Consultative Group has continued to meet through 2000 and 2001, but there was diminished confidence in the consultative process as a result of the Commonwealth unilateral decision to abandon ISV.”
The unilateral decision to abandon ISV was taken despite previous agreement that no changes to the clean-up methodology would be taken without discussing the proposed changes with the Maralinga Tjarutja.
Senator Minchin said in a May 1, 2000 media release that: “As the primary risk from plutonium is inhalation, all these groups have agreed that deep burial of plutonium is a safe way of handling this waste.” By “these groups” the Minister meant ARPANSA, the Maralinga Tjarutja and South Australian Government. The Minister’s statement is false on two counts. Firstly, the burial of plutonium-contaminated debris is not ‘deep’ no matter how loose the definition – the soil cover is just 5 metres. Secondly, the Maralinga Tjarutja certainly did not agree to the decision to abandon ISV in favour of burial – in fact they wrote to the Minister disassociating themselves from the decision (Senate Estimates, May 3, 2000).
The Australian Senate passed a resolution on August 21, 2002, which reads as follows:
That the Senate-
(i) that the clean up of the Maralinga atomic test site resulted in highly plutonium-contaminated debris being buried in shallow earth trenches and covered with just one to two metres of soil,
(ii) that large quantities of radioactive soil were blown away during the removal and relocation of that soil into the Taranaki burial trenches, so much so that the contaminated airborne dust caused the work to be stopped on many occasions and forward area facilities to be evacuated on at least one occasion, and
(iii) that americium and uranium waste products are proposed to be stored in an intermediate waste repository and that both these contaminants are buried in the Maralinga trenches;
(b) rejects the assertion by the Minister for Science (Mr McGauran) on 14 August 2002 that this solution to dealing with radioactive material exceeds world’s best practice;
(c) contrasts the Maralinga method of disposal of long-lived, highly radioactive material with the Government’s proposals to store low-level waste in purpose-built lined trenches 20 metres deep and to store intermediate waste in a deep geological facility;
(d) calls on the Government to acknowledge that long-lived radioactive material is not suitable for near surface disposal; and
(e) urges the Government to exhume the debris at Maralinga, sort it and use a safer, more long-lasting method of storing this material.
The Australian Senate passed another resolution on October 15, 2003, which inter alia condemned the Maralinga clean-up. The resolution was as follows:
That the Senate:
(i) that 15 October 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the first atomic test conducted by the British government in northern South Australia;
(ii) that on this day “Totem 1”, a 10 kilotonne atomic bomb, was detonated at Emu Junction, some 240 kilometres west of Coober Pedy;
(iii) that the Anangu community received no forewarning of the test;
(iv) that the 1984 Royal Commission report concluded that Totem 1 was detonated in wind conditions that would produce unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the decision to detonate failed to take into account the existence of people at Wallatinna and Welbourn Hill;
(b) expresses its concern for those indigenous peoples whose lands and health over generations have been detrimentally affected by this and subsequent atomic tests conducted in northern South Australia;
(c) congratulates the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – the Senior Aboriginal Women of Coober Pedy – for their ongoing efforts to highlight the experience of their peoples affected by these tests;
(d) condemns the Government for its failure to properly dispose of radioactive waste from atomic tests conducted in the Maralinga precinct; and
(e) expresses its continued opposition to the siting of a low-level radioactive waste repository in South Australia.
The problems with the Maralinga clean-up raises an important issue with respect to the proposed national radioactive waste dump – many of the same organisations and individuals involved in the flawed Maralinga clean-up are now involved in the radioactive waste dump project, namely DEST, ARPANSA, and at least one private contractor.
Prof. Johnston argued in his written submission to ARPANSA that DEST had failed to demonstrate an ability to properly manage the dump project:
“The applicant for a licence [DEST] does not have the technical competence required to manage the contracts of a proposed operator. The operator who may have the necessary technical competence is not a co-applicant. I am not convinced the applicant will have effective control of the project. I believe the application has not demonstrated that the applicant has the capacity to ensure that it can abide by the licence conditions that could be imposed under Section 35 of the ARPANS Act because of a lack of technical competence in managing its contractors.”
Statements by nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston
Verbal submission to ARPANSA dump inquiry, Adelaide, 2004.
Prof. Johnston was unable to attend so what follows is from someone reading his PowerPoint presentation into the record.
Prof of Nuclear Physics at RMIT
DEST was an ineffective manager of the Maralinga Cleanup in a number of key ways. The pattern of contracting required services for the Repository project is similar to the Maralinga cleanup.
Effectiveness of DEST during the Maralinga Cleanup:
DEST follows the philosophy of contracting all requirements to a Repository Operator, who is a contractor. Safety is in the hands of the operator. The equivalent organisation to the Repository Operator at Maralinga could bid for other work that would be under its operational management. The primary source of advice came from this contractor. At times the project was not fully in DEST’s control.
DEST concluded a contract with Geosafe Australia for technical services that contained no performance criteria. Draft documents prepared by DEST have often been technically wrong due to a lack of technical input. Non-technical public servants made decisions where technical expertise
was needed. Technical advice often not sought except from a contractor.
The Project Director is non-technical. The Repository Manager is a contractor. The Radiation Safety Officer is a contractor employed by the Repository Operator.
So where does the effective control and the risk lie?
Effective Control and Risk:
Effective control lies with the contractor not DEST, because it lacks the technical skills to supervise its contractor. The risk associated with the release from the repository lies with the community and the Government of Australia.
Inability to manage:
The applicant has not demonstrated effective control. There is a note – see Regulatory Guidelines on Performance Standards for Licence Applicants & Licence Holders. Effective control is normally required by the licence conditions imposed under section 35 of the ARPANS Act.
Mitigating of Control Problems at Maralinga:
Oversight by the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee. Maralinga Consultative Group. ARPANSA was the supporting contractor, not a regulator until 2000 – when the work was essentially complete.
Some quotes from written submission #256 to ARPANSA dump inquiry.
Prof Peter Johnston, Acting Head and Professor of Applied Nuclear Physics, Dept of Applied Physics, RMIT University, 22-10-03.
(Writing in personal capacity but also works as adviser to Maralinga Tjarutja re ‘suboptimal’ clean-up of Maralinga nuclear test-site.)
“I believe the application has not demonstrated that the applicant will have effective control of the project or has the capacity to ensure that it can abide by the licence conditions that could be imposed under Section 35 of the ARPANSA Act because of a lack of technical competence in managing its contractors.”
“In the Maralinga Rehabilitation Project, DEST had no in-house capacity for engineering or scientific assessment of its contractors for a substantial part of the project. It had internal engineering support for the early part \ of the project but that individual was removed. As a consequence, DEST contracte3d for services in extremely deficient ways, e.g. the Geosafe contract contained no performance criteria.”
“The underlying philosophy of not having expertise relies on the concept that the risk can be contracted out. I reject this as the risk is to the Australian community not the contractor.”
“In the case of Maralinga, there were mitigating circumstances that kept the project going forward but in a sub-optimal way. These were the MARTAC advisory group, the Maralinga Consultative Group as well as ad-hoc advice sought from ARPANSA at various times. While these groups greatly aided in the successful completion of the project, there were still very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project by DEST.”
“The applicant for a licence does not have the technical competence required to manage the contracts of a proposed operator. The operator who may have the necessary technical competence is not a co-applicant. I am not convinced the applicant will have effective control of the project. I believe the application has not demonstrated that the applicant has the capacity to ensure that it can abide by the licence conditions that could be imposed under Section 35 of the ARPANS Act because of a lack of technical competence in managing its contractors.”
Quote from: Peter Johnston et al, “Aboriginal participation and concerns throughout the rehabilitation of Maralinga”, presented at the Third International Symposium on the Protection of the Environment from Ionising Radiation, Darwin, 22-26 July 2002, IAEA-CSP-17, IAEA, Vienna, 2003, p.349-356, http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/CSP-17_web.pdf
“A considerable problem throughout the MRP was a lack of technical skills within the Department managing the project. Until 1997, engineering skills were provided by Alan Parkinson, but there was no Radiation Protecion expertise. Technical advice had to come from contractors, MARTAC or ARL and on important occasions it was not sought.”
Cleanup and effects
From Wiikipedia, accessed 16 Jan 2012
The initial cleanup operation was codenamed Operation Brumby, and was conducted in 1967. Attempts were made to dilute the concentration of radioactive material by turning over and mixing the surface soil. Additionally, the remains of the firings, including plutonium-contaminated fragments, were buried in 22 concrete-capped pits.
By the 1980s some Australian servicemen and traditional Aboriginal owners of the land were suffering blindness, sores and illnesses such as cancer. They “started to piece things together, linking their afflictions with their exposure to nuclear testing”. Groups including the Atomic Veterans Association and the Pitjantjatjara Council pressured the government, until in 1985 it agreed to hold a royal commission to investigate the damage that had been caused.
The McClelland Royal Commission into the tests delivered its report in late 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test sites, particularly at Taranaki, where the Vixen B trials into the effects of burning plutonium had been carried out. A Technical Assessment Group was set up to advise on rehabilitation options, and a much more extensive cleanup program was initiated at the site.
The TAG Report plan was approved in 1991 and work commenced on site in 1996 and was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million dollars. In the worst-contaminated areas, 350,000 cubic metres of soil and debris were removed from an area of more than 2 square kilometers, and buried in trenches. Eleven debris pits were also treated with in-situ vitrification. Most of the site (approximately 3,200 square kilometres) is now safe for unrestricted access and approximately 120 square kilometres is considered safe for access but not permanent occupancy. Alan Parkinson has observed that “an Aboriginal living a semi-traditional lifestyle would receive an effective dose of 5 mSv/a (five times that allowed for a member of the public). Within the 120 km², the effective dose would be up to 13 times greater.”
A Department of Veterans’ Affairs study concluded that “Overall, the doses received by Australian participants were small. … Only 2% of participants received more than the current Australian annual dose limit for occupationally exposed persons (20 mSv).” However, such findings are contested. A 1999 study for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association found that 30 per cent of involved veterans had died, mostly in their fifties, from cancers.
Successive Australian governments failed to compensate servicemen who contracted cancers following exposure to radiation at Maralinga. However, after a British decision in 1988 to compensate its own servicemen, the Australian Government negotiated compensation for several Australian servicemen suffering from two specific conditions, leukemia (except lymphatic leukemia) and the rare blood disorder multiple myeloma.
One author suggests that the resettlement and denial of aboriginal access to their homelands “contributed significantly to the social disintegration which characterises the community to this day. Petrol sniffing, juvenile crime, alcoholism and chronic friction between residents and the South Australian police have become facts of life.” In 1994, the Australian Government reached a compensation settlement with Maralinga Tjarutja, which resulted in the payment of $13.5 million in settlement of all claims in relation to the nuclear testing.
Maralinga: The Fall Out Continues
Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Radio National’s Background Briefing
Produced by Gregg Borschmann
April 16, 2000
Maralinga. The fall out’s not over yet. Experts say the plutonium clean up isn’t good enough and they question the validity of the code of practice used by authorities. There’s evidence of shenanigans and expediency at Maralinga. Then there’s the man who wore a contaminated T-shirt all the way from Adelaide to Melbourne. Background Briefing spoke to some key insiders who went on the record for the first time.
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 appoint 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. 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. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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 the accident 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 elected 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.
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 Davy, 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 Davy.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Senator Nick Minchin, Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Resources (Australia) responds to this Background Briefing program
Background on the Maralinga clean-up courtesy of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (Australia)
Details of the Maralinga cleanup thus far from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (Australia)
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)
Exchange of letters in the Australian Financial Review
Australian Financial Review, letters, 16/8/02
I almost choked on my cereal hearing Federal Science Minister Peter McGauran describe the ‘clean-up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site as ‘world’s best practice’ on ABC radio recently.
Thanks to nuclear engineer and Maralinga whistle-blower Alan Parkinson, we have a wealth of internal project information which clearly contradicts the minister’s claim. For example, a senior official in the regulatory agency, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, complained about ‘a host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups’ at the Maralinga clean-up site.
Likewise, project documents clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that vitrification of plutonium-contaminated debris was abandoned in favour of shallow burial as a cost-cutting measure. Vitrification was described as world’s best practice, then when that was abandoned as a cost-cutting measure, shallow burial was described as world’s best practice. Both cannot be true.
Sadly, this sort of Orwellian double-speak is also in evidence in relation to the federal government’s plan for a national nuclear dump at Woomera, South Australia.
Australian Financial Review, letters, 19/8/02
Maralinga Clean-up Meets All Standards
The Maralinga project is one we can be proud of. This is the first time that a clean-up of a former test site on this scale has been completed anywhere in the world (“Double-speak on Maralinga clean-up”, AFR Letters, August 16). The program of remediation was developed and monitored by leading technical specialists and was consistent with guidelines produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency on the rehabilitation of contaminated sites. The clean-up of the main test sites at Maralinga was successfully completed in 2000 and the independent regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, has confirmed that the clean-up met the standards agreed to by the Commonwealth, South Australia and the traditional owners (Maralinga Tjarutja) at the start of the project.
Claims that the Government cut corners at Maralinga and abandoned the in situ vitrification process because of cost concerns are completely wrong. More than $108million was spent on site remediation and the Government at all times acted on expert scientific advice, achieving a world’s best-practice result.
The Government is adopting a similarly responsible approach to the establishment of a national repository for Australia’s low-level waste. The national repository represents the best long-term solution to the management of this material.
Peter McGauran, Federal Minister for Science
Australian Financial Review, letters, 20/8/02
Maralinga claims a fiction
The Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, continues the fiction that the treatment of plutonium-contaminated debris at Maralinga was not a cost cutting exercise. (“Maralinga clean-up meets all standards”, AFR Letters, August 9).
As the Commonwealth’s Representative from 1993 until January 1998, I oversaw the whole project. When the contaminated soil was removed in 1997 from around 21 pits, we found huge quantities of plutonium-contaminated debris only a few centimetres beneath the surface. There was some three times more debris than Britain had reported, so it would cost more to treat the pits by in situ vitrification (ISV). Towards the end of 1997, the department started to seek ways to reduce this cost.
At this time I was removed from the project for voicing my opposition to the way that the department proposed to manage the final phase. On my removal from the project I became an adviser to the Maralinga Tjarutja until I collaborated in the ABC Radio program Background Briefing in April 2000 exposing the shortcomings of the project.
Long before the ISV treatment started at site in May 1998, the department had asked their recently appointed project manager, GHD, a company which had no knowledge at all of the ISV process or equipment, to look at various options, which all included some simple burial of the debris. The project documents of the time show a distinct relationship between the options and cost. For example, one document states: “The recent consideration of alternative treatments for ISV for these outer pits has arisen as a result of the revised estimate for ISV being considerably above the project budget.” And this is not an isolated statement.
The Minister also echoes the so-called independent chief nuclear regulator with the ridiculous claim that the shallow burial of this plutonium-contaminated debris is “world’s best practice.” A discussion paper issued by McGauran’s own department says that such long-lived waste is not suitable for near-surface disposal, but that is exactly what has been done.
Australian Financial Review, letters, 20/8/02
Time for government to come clean on Maralinga
Science minister Peter McGauran makes some odd claims about the Maralinga ‘clean-up’ (AFR letters, August 19). He says the government relied on the advice of the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC) – but that committee unanimously recommended vitrification of plutonium-contaminated debris, not shallow burial.
Worse still, the shallow burial took place in unlined trenches in totally unsuitable geology. MARTAC member Dr. Mike Costello said at a MARTAC meeting in August 1999: “I have experience 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.”
The minister denies that vitrification was abandoned as a cost-cutting measure, but a written statement from MARTAC openly acknowledged that alternative treatments were considered because the debris pits were larger than expected and the cost of vitrification would therefore increase.
Shallow burial was not a superior option, or even an acceptable one, but it was cheaper.
As nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said recently on ABC radio, “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
The minister should stop revising history and organise another clean-up of Maralinga instead. His dissembling is an insult to all South Australians.
Australian Financial Review, letters, 21/8/02
No doubt nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson’s critique of the ‘independent’ regulator’s role in the Maralinga debacle will draw a response from the ‘independent’ regulator himself, namely the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency’s John Loy (Marlainga claims a fiction, AFR Letters, August 20).
It is a matter of public record that Helen Garnett, head of the Lucas Heights nuclear agency, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), sat on the panel which interviewed applicants for the top job at ARPANSA. Moreover, six ex-ANSTO staff now work for the ‘independent’ regulator.
ARPANSA is also too close to government. For example, Loy said a new reactor would not be approved until “progress” was made on establishing a store for intermediate-level waste. The government’s one and only plan for this waste – co-location with a planned waste dump at Woomera – was abandoned in the face of public opposition, but Loy still approved a new reactor.
Australian Financial Review, letters, 22/8/02
Maralinga clean-up exceeded the standards required
Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson was the Commonwealth’s representative on the Maralinga project until January 1998 and has limited knowledge of the later stages of the project (“Maralinga claims a fiction”, AFR Letters, August 20).
His insistence that he oversaw the whole project and was thus privy to current views and opinions of the expert advisory committee is inaccurate.
It is outrageous to suggest that the in-situ vitrification (ISV) was dropped due to cost considerations, as Parkinson repeatedly insists. More than $108 million was spent on the remediation work and the technique was abandoned because of safety concerns.
The Government considered every option to ensure the safety of the Australian public and followed the advice of scientific experts who, unlike Parkinson, were monitoring the progress of the rehabilitation work and were involved with the project from start to finish.
The independent authority, ARPANSA, has confirmed that the clean-up met the standards agreed to at the start of the project by the Commonwealth, South Australia and the traditional owners.
Moreover, in 2000 they further advised the Government that the amount of plutonium buried at Maralinga was less than what was allowed for by the National Health and Medical Research Council’s “code of practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia (1992)”.
The facts are that not only has the Government achieved all the objectives of the remediation work but that the end result exceeded the standards required.”
Peter McGauran, Federal Minister for Science
Australian Financial Review, letters, 23/8/02
Personal attacks unfair, Mr McGauran.
Science minister Peter McGauran resorts to ad hominem attacks regarding the clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test site (“Maralinga clean-up exceeded the standards required”, AFR Letters, August 22). He falsely accuses nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson of misrepresenting his involvement in the project, but Parkinson accurately stated in his August 20 letter that: “As the Commonwealth’s Representative from 1993 until January 1998, I oversaw the whole project.”
A retraction and apology from the minister is in order.
The minister says it is “outrageous” to suggest that vitrification of plutonium-contaminated debris was abandoned in favour of shallow burial due to cost considerations. But project documentation repeatedly states otherwise, and both Parkinson and myself cited specific examples from the documentation in letters published in the Financial Review on August 20.
The minister’s claim that vitrification was abandoned because of safety concerns is a furphy – demonstrably so. See for example Parkinson’s article in the February edition of the journal Medicine and Global Survival.
The minister says the government followed expert advice. But who was following and who leading? ABC radio’s Background Briefing exposé (16/4/00) revealed that the head of the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee e-mailed a senior government official in late 1998 asking if the latter would “welcome” advice to abandon vitrification in favour of shallow burial. That is inconsistent with the role usually ascribed to independent expert committees – namely issuing advice on scientific criteria.
The minister refers to the 1992 NH&MRC Code of Practice, but this Code was of no relevance to Maralinga as its authors have indicated. Indeed McGauran’s predecessor Nick Minchin said in a 17/4/00 media release that: “The Government has always made clear that the Code of Practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia (1992) does not formally apply to this clean up.”
Australian Financial Review, letters, 26/8/02
The Science Minister, Peter McGauran is again quite wrong in his statements concerning the decisions to abandon in situ vitrification (ISV) of debris pits at Maralinga (Maralinga clean-up exceeded the standards required, AFR 22 August 2002). He asserts that I was not privy to views and opinions concerning the later stages of the project.
I was fully involved in the project until January 1998, and by then the government was seeking ways to minimise the cost of treating the debris pits. From then until April 2000 I was an adviser to the Maralinga Tjarutja and so received all of the information provided to the South Australian government and the traditional owners. When I severed my connection with the project, the decisions first of all to limit the application of the ISV technology and then to abandon it had already been made.
So if I did not have all of the information which led to these awful decisions, then neither did the South Australian government nor the Maralinga Tjarutja.
The latter part of the Minister’s letter is so ridiculous that it beggars belief. When will the government stop referring to the “independent” regulator? When will they stop hiding behind a code that even they admit was not applicable? And when will they stop claiming that the project exceeded the standards, when they know that the regulator granted concessions because some parts of the clean-up did not meet the criteria?