Three decades after the
last nuclear device was detonated on Australian soil, the mop-up of our
contaminated test sites
is finally under way. But
many scientists fear that the operation will be
In the post-Cold War world, Australia is trying to make amends for the legacy
of its own involvement in the nuclear arms race. At a time when the nation is
moving towards ending its constitutional links with Britain, we are also facing
up to the contamination in our own backyard from an era when we were an
enthusiastic accessory to Britain's bid to become a nuclear power.
Clumps of spinifex dot the sandhills around Maralinga and high winds and
extreme temperatures ravage the dusty red plains where kangaroos, dingoes and
bush turkeys roam. Thirty-five years ago, the stillness was shattered by a
series of nuclear explosions. Now, it is broken by the sounds of resurrection.
Once again, Maralinga village is inhabited, but this time by workers who have
come to clean up contamination that the first occupants left behind during the
British nuclear testing program. A swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts
and a medical centre will cater to as many as 60 workers at a time while they
take part in a five-year clean-up. A gigantic earthmoving operation has begun.
Contaminated soil will be scraped from the Taranaki, Wewak, TM 100 and TM 101
test sites and buried in three trenches. After the soil has been moved, a top
layer of clean revegetated soil will hide any signs of disturbance.
Yet despite the scale of this operation, it is not going to be a full
clean-up and what is done may be of only limited effectiveness. It seems that
the McClelland Royal Commission's key recommendation - that the Government clean
up the contaminated test-site land for unrestricted habitation by the
traditional owners - has been effectively ignored. Both the clean-up and the
habitation of the land will be restricted as the cost of the job remains
uppermost in the minds of those who will implement it.
Geoff Williams, head of environmental radioactivity at the Australian
Radiation Laboratory (ARL) in Melbourne, admits that cost has played a large
part in determining the method of clean-up, which will concentrate on the pits
where the nuclear devices were detonated while leaving the surrounding
contaminated area untouched. "We're spending $104 million," says Williams. "For
that sort of money, that's the best clean-up you can get."
An unknown area remains peppered with minute, invisible particles of one of
the most feared and toxic substances known: plutonium. This radioactive fallout
is the legacy of a series of experiments conducted by the British between 1960
and 1963 to test the safety of nuclear weapons in storage.
Twenty-two kilograms of plutonium were detonated by conventional explosive at
Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia during the 12 Vixen B trials. These
so-called "minor trials" were conducted on the ground in an atmosphere of
secrecy after the nine "major trials" - atmospheric nuclear explosions - had
taken place above the South Australian desert. By using conventional explosive
instead of fission as the means of detonation, the British effectively by-passed
the then recently enforced atmospheric test ban treaty on nuclear weapons.
Most of the plutonium is concentrated in a few narrow, finger-shaped areas
(known as "plumes") on the ground emanating from the Taranaki test site, 30 km
north of Maralinga village at the southern edge of the Great Victoria Desert.
However, an unknown amount of plutonium is still said to be underground in the
Taranaki "burial pits", so called because this is where the British buried
highly contaminated bomb fragments and other debris during a clean-up in 1967
known as Operation Brumby.
Nearly 20 years later, the McClelland Royal Commission into British Nuclear
Tests in Australia concluded that the treatment of the plutonium-contaminated
areas during Operation Brumby had been inadequate and based on wrong
assumptions, rendering any further clean-up difficult. First, the surface soil
was merely ploughed over in an attempt to reduce the contamination, which
scientists now believe aggravated the problem. Second, although a British report
(known as the Pearce report) released after Operation Brumby suggested that 20
kg out of the 22 kg of plutonium originally detonated remained underground,
Australian scientists now say this report was misleading.
Geoff Williams says that although the British clean-up record was
questionable, Australian scientists accepted the Pearce report for almost 20
years. Then, in the mid-1980s, a highly classified report was uncovered. It
contained the results of the Rollercoaster joint UK-US trials held in Nevada in
1963 - results that opened the scientists' eyes to what had really happened at
Maralinga around the same time.
"The very first shot in Rollercoaster was almost a repeat, as we understand,
of the 12 Vixen B firings that the British undertook at Taranaki," says
Williams. "At that first Rollercoaster firing, basically 75 to 85 per cent of
the plutonium was dispersed far and wide at very low levels of concentration."
Williams says that, as a result of field measurements in 1987, the ARL could
account for only 2 kg of plutonium on the ground around Taranaki, suggesting
that most of it had been dispersed through a wide area. He admits that
scientists may never know how much plutonium is buried as a result of the tests:
"It may be one of those fascinating little mysteries that we never resolve."
More disturbing is that the measurements also showed that about 10 million
plutonium-contaminated fragments were likely to be scattered around the test
site - 100 times more than previously thought. The contamination extends outside
temporary fences erected to stop souvenir hunters from removing lumps of
plutonium-coated metal. Over the years, many of the burial pits have been
invaded by rabbits.
On the ground around Maralinga, little radioactive fallout remains from the
atmospheric atomic tests. The plutonium from the "minor
trials" poses the greatest hazard. Plutonium, a man-made product of nuclear
fission, has a half-life - i.e., the time for one half of its radioactivity to
decay - of 24,000 years. It is especially dangerous if inhaled in particle form,
as it can cause lung cancer.
In 1952, Aborigines living at nearby Ooldea were taken away for the duration
of the nuclear tests and barred from re-entering a wide area of land including
the now-fenced test zone known as Section 400.
But the region was more populated than the authorities realised and
inevitably some people strayed through the test zone, which was the size of
Wales and Ireland combined and hopelessly beyond the capacity of two patrol
officers. About 100 Aborigines later settled at Oak Valley, 100 km north-west of
Maralinga in the land surrounding Section 400, which was returned to the
traditional owners in 1984. However, now many of them want to be able to return
to their original home.
In 1987, anthropologists Kingsley Palmer and Maggie Brady conducted a study
among the Oak Valley Aborigines. They wanted to assess how radioactivity in
contaminated soil at Maralinga would be passed on to Aborigines living there in
the future; to find what level of plutonium concentration in the soil would
produce an "acceptable risk".
Aborigines living traditionally in the desert at Oak Valley have to cope with
frequent storms and high winds, which create an extremely dusty environment,
thus increasing the potential hazard from eating or breathing in plutonium
particles, which remain suspended indefinitely in the dust.
Young children living in plutonium-contaminated areas at Maralinga would face
the greatest health hazard, particularly because large plutonium particles
could enter their bodies through any skin wound.
The Palmer/Brady study was part of a series by the Technical Assessment Group
(TAG), set up in 1986 to assess the degree of contamination and design a series
of options for decontaminating and rehabilitating the land.
The TAG studies were initiated after the McClelland Royal Commission
recommended in 1985 that the area containing the contaminated sites be cleaned
up and returned for unrestricted habitation by the Aboriginal traditional
owners, represented by the Maralinga Tjarutja people.
When the studies were completed in 1990, the Australian Government decided,
with approval from the traditional owners, on one clean-up option costing $104
million. Then, in 1993, the British Government agreed, after a protracted
diplomatic battle, to pay $44 million towards the clean-up cost.
The clean-up option chosen - 6(c) - was not the most thorough: removing
contamination from the plume areas was estimated to cost up to $648 million, and
neither the British nor Australian governments wanted to spend so much money. A
1995 parliamentary report "A Report Relating to the Proposed Maralinga
Rehabilitation Project, SA" stated that the proposed $104 million rehabilitation
option was a compromise based on cost, the environment and what was acceptable
to the local people.
The most expensive option, which would have removed the top layer of
contaminated soil, was rejected by the Federal Government on the grounds of cost
and uncertainties over whether the area could be revegetated. The report stated
that the preferred option was the lowest-cost option which would give
Aborigines access to all the test-site areas. All more expensive options were
rejected "on the grounds of cost and the environmental consequences of removal
of vegetation over such an extensive area".
The clean-up operation, under the control of the Department of Primary
Industries and Energy, will involve "stabilising" the pits at Taranaki and the
other test sites after the top layer of contaminated soil has been removed.
There are plans for 21 pits at Taranaki to be treated by in-situ vitrification
(ISV). In this process, the ground is literally melted by huge amounts of
electricity, solidifying into glass blocks and trapping the contamination. The
technology hasn't yet been applied commercially to encase radioactive material,
though small-scale trials near the Taranaki pits have been successful.
While much of the clean-up effort will tackle the highly concentrated
contamination hot spots at Maralinga, minimal effort will be expended on
reducing the contamination in the plumes north of Taranaki, and Aboriginal
people will be expected to pass through the area with no protection at all. This
land contains a lower - but nevertheless still hazardous - level of plutonium.
Instead of cleaning up the contamination, a set of concrete posts will warn
people not to set up camp inside an area of more than 100 sq km. Outside this
boundary, the yearly radiation dose drops to what is considered in this instance
to be an acceptable level for permanent occupation, 5 millisieverts. But
inside, the yearly dose would reach 10 times this level, much higher than the
dose allowed for radiation workers.
Scientists from ARL explain that while casual visits through the marked area
will be safe, occupation of more than a few months will not be advisable. They
reason that the Aboriginal inhabitants of this part of the desert would have no
reason to spend long periods of time in the relatively arid sandhill country,
containing little shade and no water supply.
"The 5 millisievert figure is a relatively conservative number in that it
assumes full-time occupancy," says the ARL's
Dr Peter Burns, health physics auditor for the clean-up. "Whereas, in
reality, no-one would expect any full-time occupancy of the small areas
contaminated to that level. And in reality, no-one would get a dose that high."
Despite ARL's position that there will be no health risk to anyone visiting
the contaminated area, concerns have been raised over whether the radiation dose
assumed to be safe is sufficiently low. There are many uncertainties in the
radiation dose it is estimated will be received. The models underlying the
calculations are based on healthy people, but this is not true of the Oak Valley
community, where respiratory infections are endemic.
Stame George is responsible for radiation protection at Sydney's Royal North
Shore Hospital. He points out that the internationally accepted yearly dose
limit for members of the public used to be 5 millisieverts, but was reduced in
1991 to 1 millisievert when calculations of radiation doses received at
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were revised. Doses allowed for radiation workers were
also reduced from 50 to 20 millisieverts.
The ALARA principle - that doses should be As Low As Reasonably Achievable -
is generally accepted in protecting people from radiation, George says. In his
opinion, a dose of 1 millisievert would be the appropriate figure to use at
Maralinga, in spite of the much greater area that is contaminated to this level.
Burns does not accept this approach. He says that the Maralinga clean-up is
an intervention situation, so that dose limits do not apply. Effectively, there
is a trade-off between the clean-up cost, the risk to the clean-up workers and
the risk to those who will return to the area around Maralinga.
"You try to maximise the averted dose for the cost of doing the
intervention," he says. "This is assessed in terms of the social and monetary
cost, and also the cost in terms of doses to people doing the intervention. That
is weighed against the projected averted dose to people who might be exposed if
the intervention wasn't performed."
Andrew Collet, an Adelaide legal adviser to the Maralinga Tjarutja people,
says they engaged a panel of international scientists to consider the $104
million option, after Canberra asked them to accept it. "The experts were quite
optimistic that the area could be reafforested, but also said that it would take
100 years for the process to be anywhere near back to the state of the
vegetation at the moment. That's a factor that weighed heavily with the
In 1991, the Tjarutja accepted the favoured clean-up option, with the proviso
that compensation be paid for their partial loss of the contaminated land. In
December 1994, the Federal Government paid $13.5 million in compensation to the
traditional owners, in the form of technology and services. They will probably
use the money in part to develop community resources at Oak Valley.
Despite the advice received by the Maralinga Tjarutja, the executive director
of Greening Australia, Malcolm Campbell, believes that revegetation would be
quite feasible at Maralinga within a moderate time-scale. "The main problem is
the cost of replacing the contaminated soil, not the revegetation," he says.
The administrator of the Maralinga Tjarutja, Archie Barton, has played a key
role in discussions about the proposed clean-up with Australian and British
governments since 1984. In that year, he led a delegation of traditional owners
to London, demanding that the British Government accept responsibility for the
damage caused by its nuclear testing program.
Barton is adamant that his people will not want to go back to live on the
contaminated land in the future. "I can't see the people returning to the area
which has been in simple terms 'poisoned by the British'," he says. "They have
no intention of going back there, and that's the reason why they went about 130
km north-west to set up Oak Valley."
Nor will his people wish to even visit or hunt in the area, says Barton.
"They wouldn't go around there, even hunting. I think it's a danger that's been
put into the people's minds, and they will keep well away from it ... Bear in
mind that the place will never be totally cleaned up."
He adds: "I think the community views that a total clean-up can't take place,
can never be done, so they went for a partial clean-up, but with compensation
at the end of it."
Given that (cost aside) alternative rehabilitation options were not accepted
by the Federal Government because of the expected disruption to a large area of
natural vegetation, Barton's view is particularly interesting. If the Aboriginal
people are afraid to go near the contaminated area around the test sites, why
is the speediness of revegetation so important compared with the benefits of
restoring the land? Perhaps they have compromised too far in accepting
compensation instead of the return of safe, habitable land.
David Sweeney from Friends of the Earth questions aspects of the clean-up
operation, including Canberra's apparent haste to commit to one option.
"We're saying the clean-up is long overdue, but we shouldn't rush in for
political expediency and adopt the first technique," he says. "We should really
consider this. The TAG report listed a range of options and it called for
further study, but the DPIE looked at the list of options and said 6(c) was the
only one that was really feasible without too much further study."
Until recently, the Radiation Health Standing Committee of the National
Health and Medical Research Council was responsible for setting Australia's
standards and codes of practice in radiation safety. A former member of the
committee (who does not wish to be named) believes that the priorities of the
clean-up are wrong. He says the main hazard is the surface contamination, not
the plutonium buried underground (though it is also important that this be
stabilised). While 1.6 sq km of contaminated soil will be removed at Maralinga,
an area hundreds of times this size will remain contaminated above international
radioactivity limits for the public.
"Plutonium dust is widely distributed at Maralinga," he says. "Inhaling the
dust causes cancer, and children are most at risk. The risk is from plutonium
particles in the air. Is the $100 million project going to reduce this
Shortly after the Royal Commission ended, the then Minister for Resources,
Gareth Evans, indicated that implementing its recommendations was impractical,
and criticised it for not clarifying the nature of the clean-up task. But he
also stressed the importance of making amends to the Aborigines, who he said had
been "very badly done by the Australian and British governments".
A spokesperson for the former minister responsible, Bob Collins, could not
comment on why option 6(c) was selected, apart from confirming that Aboriginal
concerns had been taken into consideration. However, in 1991, the then minister,
Simon Crean, made this statement: "The Australian Government would prefer local
Aboriginal people to have unrestricted access to the test-site lands but it
also recognises that such an option is extremely costly. If there were to be
less than full rehabilitation of the lands then the issue of how much less would
be very much in the minds of the Government and the Aboriginal people."
Should the cost of the clean-up be the primary consideration, or is not the
everlasting health hazard just as important? We may also ask: have those
responsible for cleaning up Maralinga today learnt from previous mistakes and
cover-ups, or is history about to repeat itself? Operation Brumby has been
exposed as pitifully inadequate, with official British reports covering up the
true extent of the radioactive contamination.
The appointment of the McClelland Royal Commission by Bob Hawke in 1984 was
itself a political act to give the appearance that the Government was concerned.
As well, it was meant to deflect media focus on the Maralinga veterans' claims
that they had been contaminated by the nuclear tests, and the parallel campaign
by the Maralinga Aborigines for the return of their land. Thirty years after the
tests took place, after much money has been spent inquiring into what can be
done, will this clean-up become another politically expedient solution?
The final words must belong to Archie Barton: "One of my uncles - he was an
old tribal fellow - when he discovered they were doing tests and things, he just
laughed and said, 'Scientists? They poisoned the land. How are they going to
clean it up?' "
"I was a kid then, about 10 or 11. We woke up early this day, about sunrise.
I heard this big bang and everybody in the campsite woke up talking and saying:
'What was that?' I don't remember seeing any mushroom cloud ... We seen this
smoke. Old feller from the camp reckoned it was the next day. It was black,
greasy, sort of shiny. The sun was shining on to it, black and shiny with grey,
like ash. It was rolling up to us through the mulga. We thought it was a devil
spirit. The old people got their woomeras to wave it away, but it was a very
strong mamu ... We tried to bury ourselves in the sand, but it was too late ...
I don't remember how much later we started being sick."
- Yankunyatjara tribe member Jim Lester, who lived near Emu Field, the site
of a British A-bomb test in October 1953.
From Maralinga: British Atomic Bomb, Australian Legacy, by Adrian Tame."
It was rather eerie ... just a big coiling cloud-like thing. We all stayed
inside. Not even the black girls went out. After it had gone we went outside and
the orange and lemon trees were coated in this dust. It was an oily dust. We
tried to hose the trees down, but they just withered and died."
- Mrs E. L. Giles, who was living at Welbourne Hill Station, north-east of
Wallatinna, in October 1953.
As told to journalist Robert Ball.
"England has the bomb and the know-how; we have the open spaces, much
technical skill and a great willingness to help the Motherland. Between us, we
shall help to build the defences of the free world and make historic advances in
harnessing the forces of nature."
- Howard Beale, Australian Supply Minister, May 1955, announcing the setting
up of the Maralinga range.
From No Conceivable Injury, by Robert Milliken.
"There is no safe level of radiation exposure. So the question is not, 'What
is a safe level?' The question is, 'How great is the risk?' "
- Dr Karl Morgan, who helped determine radiation limits for workers who made
the first atomic bombs.
From At Work in the Fields
of The Bomb, by Robert del Tredici.
"We would see large numbers of Aborigines all over the restricted areas, they
just went on walkabout ... where the main testing was done. It was a
never-ending problem where you had Aborigines walking on to the restricted areas
unescorted. There was nothing to stop them, the signs were useless."
- Patrick Connolly, an Irish corporal at Maralinga from 1959 to 1962.
From Maralinga by Adrian Tame.
"Most of the natives who were questioned by our party were under the
impression that some foreign country was going to drop a bomb somewhere in their
territory. It was apparently beyond their comprehension that the Government of
this country would drop a bomb on its own territory."
- William Grayden, head of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests,
writing in his book Adam and Atom, 1957.
"I remember we had very sore eyes, very red. And tears. I could not open my
eyes and I could not see again with one eye. Ever again. Now I am blind ... The
Government tries to keep it a secret; for a long time we thought it was just one
of those white fellers' magic. They didn't know what they were doing."
- Jim Lester