Maralinga: govt covers-up nuclear contamination

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

BY JIM GREEN

"What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land." This comment was made by nuclear engineer and Maralinga whistle-blower Alan Parkinson on ABC radio on August 5.

Parkinson was intimately involved in the latest "clean-up" of the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site in South Australia. 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 the government for mismanagement and cost- cutting in relation to the "clean-up" project. For the next two years, Parkinson advised the traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, and for the past two years he has adopted the role of a public whistle- blower.

The corporate media has recently taken an interest in the Maralinga scandals. A polemic by Parkinson published in the August issue of Australasian Science led to articles in the Melbourne Age, the Canberra Times, and even Murdoch tabloids such as Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

How do you get a run in the Murdoch tabloids? With "exclusive" photos, of course specifically, Parkinson's photos of large clouds of plutonium-contaminated dust blowing away during the "clean-up".

The first phase of the "clean-up" involved collecting a large volume of contaminated soil and burying it. During this phase, 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 May 3, 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.

Because of the huge amount of soil which blew away, the amount collected for burial fell outside the quantity assumed by the contractor Thiess when they prepared their quote for the work. Thiess then claimed compensation for the shortfall and was paid $80- 90,000 in settlement.

"In other words", Parkinson says, Thiess was paid "to collect the soil and then paid for not collecting the soil which blew away because of inadequate attention to dust suppression". Nice work if you can get it.

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 being 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 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.

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 US-based company Geosafe. ISV began in May 1998.

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 provoke fierce responses.

During a May 3, 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 an August 19 letter to 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 a letter printed in the August 22 AFR 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:

l 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."

l A July 17, 1998, paper written by the MARTAC chairperson Des Davy gives the following criteria: 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.)

l 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.

The government came up with various spurious reasons to justify terminating ISV, including alleged safety concerns. On March 21, 1999, as the 13th of 40 planned ISV "melts" was nearing completion, there was an explosion. According to Parkinson, writing in the February 2002 edition of Medicine and Global Survival: "The [Department of Primary Industries and Energy] 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 one and five kilograms of plutonium. The government falsely claimed that the Maralinga Tjarutja agreed to the termination of ISV.

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 metres 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", and a 1997 paper from the energy department said: "The ISV technology was selected over exhumation and reburial at the Taranaki site because of advantages of improved occupational, public and environmental safety, and superior containment of radioactive materials in the glassy product."

In an Orwellian twist, the government revised history and now describes shallow burial as "world's best practice". In reality, 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 metres 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.

The federal government persists with the mantra that the "clean-up" was "world's best practice". To do otherwise would necessitate admission that it has been nothing of the sort. Such a back-down would jeopardise the government's next nuclear assault on South Australia — its plan to place a national radioactive waste dump there. Further delays with the dump project could in turn jeopardise one of the government's pet projects — a new nuclear "research" reactor in Sydney.

The federal Labor Party has criticised the Maralinga "clean-up" and voted in support of a Senate motion on August 21 which "urges the government to exhume the debris at Maralinga, sort it and use a safer, more long-lasting method of storing this material". Whether a future Labor government acts on that statement remains to be seen.

[More information on Maralinga, including a collection of articles by Alan Parkinson, is on the internet at <http://www.geocities.com/jimgreen3>.] n

From Green Left Weekly, October 2, 2002.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.