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Australia: dirty deeds done dirt cheap at Maralinga

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 4, 2002) "What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land". So said nuclear engineer and Maralinga whistle-blower Alan Parkinson on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National on 5 August.

(574.5444) Jim Green - Parkinson was intimately involved in the latest "clean-up" of the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site in South Australia, contaminated by a series of British nuclear tests from 1956-63. He was the federal government's senior representative on the project from 1993 until January 1998, at which time he was removed from the project after criticising mismanagement and cost cutting. For the next two years, Parkinson advised the traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, and since then he has adopted the role of a public whistle-blower.

The media has recently taken an interest in the problematic "clean-up" of Maralinga, and a resolution was passed in the federal Senate on 21 August which "urges the Government to exhume the debris at Maralinga, sort it and use a safer, more long-lasting method of storing this material."

The first phase of the "clean-up" involved collecting a large volume of contaminated soil and burying it. During this phase of the project, dust suppression was inadequate, as is clearly evident in photographs and in the government's video record. Malcolm Farrow, a federal government bureaucrat, told a Senate hearing on 3 May 2000, that "some grams" of contaminated dust blew away. Billions of grams in fact - many thousands of tonnes. On several occasions, work had to be suspended because thick dust clouds inhibited visibility. On at least one occasion, the dust was so thick that the forward-area facilities - over a kilometre from the work site - were evacuated by health physicists.

Vitrification of contaminated debris
In the later stages of the soil collection and burial phase of the project, dust suppression was markedly improved. But far bigger problems were looming. The second phase of the "clean-up" involved plutonium-contaminated debris dumped in and around pits during previous "clean-ups".

Of particular concern was debris resulting from 15 Vixen B trials carried out from 1961-63 at a site at Maralinga called Taranaki. In these "minor" trials, bombs were detonated in a manner which would not allow them to explode as atomic bombs. Instead, the tests simply melted the plutonium and uranium, shooting it into the air and allowing it to spread far and wide. Ironically, these "minor" trials created greater local contamination than the seven atomic blasts in 1956-57, whose yield ranged from 1-27 kilotons.

One of the legacies of the Vixen B trials was many tonnes of contaminated debris such as steel joists, cables, lead bricks, and concrete firing pads. The government decided to treat the debris using a process called in-situ vitrification (ISV), a thermal treatment process which uses electricity to turn the soil and pit contents into a hard glass-like rock which contains and immobilises the plutonium for many thousands of years. All of the 21 debris pits at Taranaki were to be treated by ISV, and a contract for this work was signed with the U.S.-based company Geosafe. ISV began in May 1998.

Cost cutting
Before ISV began, it was discovered that a greater volume of debris was contained in and around the pits than was initially estimated and consequently ISV would cost more. In September 1998, the federal government announced its decision to continue with ISV for some of the Taranaki pits, but to exhume and sort the contents of other pits and to treat some of the contents by ISV and to simply bury the rest in another trench.

According to Parkinson: "Amazingly, the sorting was done on the basis of size, not by the level of radioactivity; the larger pieces were to be treated by vitrification and the smaller items and soil buried. The most radioactive thing I saw at Maralinga sent the monitors off scale from a couple of metres distance. It was a sphere about a millimetre in diameter."

In 1999, ISV was terminated altogether in favour of shallow burial of contaminated debris. Claims that this decision was motivated by cost-cutting continue to provoke fierce responses. During a 3 May 2000, Senate hearing, former science minister Nick Minchin refuted the "scurrilous suggestion which I see floating around in the media that suggests that this decision was made on cost grounds."

Current science minister Peter McGauran said in a 19 August letter in the Australian Financial Review that "claims that the Government cut corners at Maralinga and abandoned the in situ vitrification process because of cost concerns are completely wrong." But cost-cutting was clearly and demonstrably the motivation for the decision to terminate ISV - a point made in letters published in the AFR the following day (along with a cartoon depicting the science minister with an extended Pinocchio nose from telling lies about Maralinga). Undaunted, McGauran asserted in an AFR letter on August 22 that: "It is outrageous to suggest that the in-situ vitrification was dropped due to cost considerations ..."

That the decision to terminate ISV was made largely or solely on cost grounds is repeatedly spelt out in the Maralinga project documentation. To give a few examples:

  • an October 1998 paper by the government's advisory committee, the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (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 17 July 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. Cost savings rated highly, whereas worker safety and the long-term risks posed by the radioactivity do not rate a mention.
  • at a 13 April 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.

The government came up with various spurious reasons to justify terminating ISV, including alleged safety concerns. On March 21, 1999, as ISV treatment of one Taranaki pit was nearing completion, there was an explosion. According to Parkinson, writing in the February 2002 edition of the IPPNW's journal Medicine and Global Survival, "The Department used this incident as an excuse to cancel the ISV contract... This decision was taken long before the investigation of the incident was complete. The Department claimed that it could not be sure that the cause of the accident was not due to the process, but both the report of the investigation and the audit of that report agreed that the cause was something in the pit, not the process."

The government falsely claimed that Geosafe was not prepared to continue with ISV after the explosion. The government falsely claimed that vitrification was abandoned because the Taranaki pits were not as highly contaminated with plutonium as originally expected; all credible estimates were between 1-5 kilograms of plutonium. The government falsely claimed that the Maralinga Tjarutja agreed with the government's decision to terminate ISV.

Shallow burial
Once vitrification had been abandoned, debris from the pits that had not been treated was placed in a shallow trench and covered with just a few meters of soil. Worse still, the trench was unlined and the geology totally unsuitable - limestone and dolomite with many cracks and fissures.

ISV had been described as "world's best practice", but since 1999 history has been rewritten and the government now considers shallow burial of plutonium-contaminated debris to be world's best practice. But far from being world's best practice, shallow burial of long-lived radioactive waste is a clear breach of the government's own guidelines, which state that long-lived waste should be disposed of in a deep geological facility. Nor would shallow burial of plutonium-contaminated waste be acceptable in countries such as the UK or the USA.

Another ploy by the government has been to pretend that the debris has been subject to deep burial even though it is under only a few meters of soil. The burial is not "deep", no matter how loose the definition. Another ploy was to invent a mongrel category of "deep" near-surface burial.

The large volume of debris in shallow burial at Taranaki certainly needs to be remediated, either by ISV treatment or possibly by encasement in concrete. There may be scope for further remediation at Maralinga; for example, in areas where collection of contaminated soil was problematic. An inquiry needs to be instigated to determine an appropriate course of action.

However, the federal government persists with the mantra that the "clean-up" was world's best practice. To do otherwise would necessitate another clean-up. The back-down, and the clean-up, would jeopardize the government's next nuclear assault on South Australia - a national radioactive waste dump. Further delays with the dump project could in turn jeopardize one of the government's pet projects - a new nuclear 'research' reactor in the southern Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 571.5427, "Sydney's reactor rumbles").

[More information on Maralinga, including a collection of articles by Alan Parkinson, is at the web site]

Source and contact: Jim Green B.Med.Sci. (Hons.) PhD 18 Rose St., Chippendale, NSW, 2008 Australia.
Tel: +61 2 9211 0805