Poor clean-up of Maralinga atomic bomb test site

“By ploughing soil at Taranaki without first removing contaminated fragments the British failed to achieve a significant reduction in radiological hazard and made the situation more difficult to remedy,”

Under a 1956 agreement, the UK accepted responsibility for cleaning up the site.  In a subsequent agreement in 1968, Australia released the UK from that responsibility. 

Clean-up work finally started in 1996 and continued to 2000, with the worst-affected area now deemed safe to visit but not for permanent occupancy, including by traditional owners the Maralinga-Tjarutja people who officially got their land back only in 2009.


Aust demands UK pay up for nuclear mess
 http://www.9news.com.au/national/2016/01/01/00/09/aust-demands-uk-pay-up-for-nuclear-mess  I
n 1990, [Prime Minister] Bob Hawke faced one of his more challenging missions, demanding British PM Margaret Thatcher pay to clean up the God-awful mess left behind when her predecessors let off A-bombs in the outback.

The total clean-up bill was estimated at $93 million, and australia wanted the UK to pay about two-thirds of it.

Cabinet papers for 1990 and 1991, released by the National Archives of Australia, reveal Hawke’s government believed an approach to the UK for payment was best done at head-of-government level. “An approach to Mrs Thatcher will indicate the importance Australia attaches to the issue,” then energy and resources minister John Kerin said in a submission. It was decided this approach would be by letter, not prime ministerial shirt-fronting.

The Department of Foreign Affairs warned the British were not likely to accept lightly that they had any enduring responsibility for rehabilitation, and negotiations could be protracted and acrimonious.

As it turned out, the UK did agree to contribute, paying $45 million.

Britain let off three atomic bombs on the Monte Bello islands, off Western Australia, one in 1952 and two in 1956.

Subsequent tests were conducted in the South Australian outback, with seven bombs detonated in 1956-57.

The test program continued to 1963 with a large number of minor trials. These were by far the dirtiest of the tests and contributed the largest amount of uranium and plutonium contamination.

That included a series of experiments in 1960-63 to determine what might happen to a nuclear bomb in an intense fire, as might occur in an aircraft crash.

These trials sent jets of molten, burning plutonium hundreds of metres into the air. That left some 20 kilograms of plutonium and the same amount of uranium scattered over one area, Taranaki.

A royal commission conducted by former Labor cabinet minister Jim McClelland in 1984-85 concluded the site remained an appalling mess and the British should contribute to a proper clean-up.

Following the royal commission, the government had engaged its own technical assessment group to assess clean-up options.

They ranged from the “do nothing” option of fencing the site and providing perpetual surveillance, through to major engineering works costing $600 million.

Kerin said some of the remediation measures conducted by the UK in the 1960s were reasonable and competently executed by standards of the time. But others weren’t.

“By ploughing soil at Taranaki without first removing contaminated fragments the British failed to achieve a significant reduction in radiological hazard and made the situation more difficult to remedy,” he said.

However, Australia had a problem. Under a 1956 agreement, the UK accepted responsibility for cleaning up the site.

In a subsequent agreement in 1968, Australia released the UK from that responsibility. Kerin said there were grounds for believing that could be overturned on the basis that Australia didn’t know the full extent of contamination.

Clean-up work finally started in 1996 and continued to 2000, with the worst-affected area now deemed safe to visit but not for permanent occupancy, including by traditional owners the Maralinga-Tjarutja people who officially got their land back only in 2009.

 

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