Maralinga's nuclear nightmare continues

Issue 

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.