Nuclear expert and former advisor on the Maralinga clean-up, Alan Parkinson, has provided an inside account of all that has gone wrong in the problem-plagued Maralinga site.

We’ve reproduced in full an incredibly detailed and insightful article by Alan Parkinson, a former advisor on the Maralinga cleanup undertaken during the 1990s, which chronicles a litany of short cuts, compromises, and inept balls-ups. Parkinson was removed from the government’s advisory board for questioning the management of the project.

While that background might immediately raise suspicions as to Parkinson’s motives or credentials in putting together this paper, the paper undeniably raises plenty of questions that the government should address.

It’s a worrying prospect given the gravity of the issue that so many things have been allowed to go wrong and yet the government and its advisors continue to insist that the Maralinga cleanup has been a success and is in line with “world’s best practice”.

While we recommend that you invest the time to read the article in full, here are some of the key points for the benefit of our readers:

* The British government declared Maralinga safe following a 1967 cleanup. The Australian government largely accepted this and absolved Britain of further responsibility but surveys in the 1980s showed that the site was far from clean and safe, leading to the latest cleanup project.

* The public servants responsible for the last years of the project had no background in radiation or project management, with several statements made on the public record showing a distinct lack of knowledge of the basics in radiation.

* Recommendations by the regulatory authority (e.g. encasing debris in concrete) were dropped when the contractor objected on the grounds that they would be difficult to implement.

* The latest cleanup was only ever intended to be a partial cleanup.

* Nineteen of 21 pits, which were supposedly covered by concrete caps, had huge amounts of plutonium-contaminated debris outside the pits. Much of the debris was covered by only a few centimeters of soil. One cap was about one fifth of the required size and another was several meters away from the pit.

* A company, which had not made the final shortlist of six contenders to manage the project, took over one of the project management companies. Amazingly, the government later agreed to letting this failed tenderer take over management of the entire cleanup project!

* The most expensive and most complex part of the whole project was decided by four people who were totally ignorant of what was involved.

* The government was seeking ways to reduce the cost of the project and adopted a hybrid scheme in which eight pits would be exhumed and the contents sorted. Strangely, sorting was done by size, not level of radioactivity.

* Not a single requirement of the code of practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia was satisfied in the burial process.

* In May 2000, Senator Minchin claimed that cost played no part in the decision to opt for burial of the debris, a claim contradicted by a statement of the Maralinga rehabilitation committee some 18 months earlier.

* The budget for the cleanup was $104.4 million, of which about half was an ex gratia payment by Britain, a mere fraction of the cost to detonate the bombs in current dollars. Had the plutonium debris been returned to Britain, the contaminated material would have been placed in a concrete-lined vault, not simply buried and covered in soil.

* Claims that the Maralinga cleanup project represented “world’s best practice” are ludicrous. Recently, the government decided that low-level waste was to be packaged in drums and placed in a disposal facility with a solid base and then covered by several impervious layers. If such precautions are necessary for short-lived wastes, the disposal of long-lived wastes in a bare hole in the ground in totally unsuitable geology at Maralinga cannot possibly be “world’s best practice”.

This is the stuff of a “Yes Minister” script, so you must pinch yourself to remember that we’re dealing with nuclear waste here. Now, read on for the complete tale of government and departmental incompetence.

By Alan Parkinson, BScTech, MscSoc

Abstract: Plutonium and uranium fallout from 15 nuclear tests conducted by the British government between 1961 and 1963 contaminated Aboriginal lands. Although the British government declared the Maralinga site safe following a 1967 cleanup, surveys in the 1980s proved otherwise, prompting a new cleanup project. Conflicts of interest, cost-cutting measures, shallow burials of radioactive waste, and other management “compromises” have left hundreds of square kilometers of Aboriginal lands contaminated and unfit for rehabilitation.

“Claims that the clean-up of Maralinga is not to world’s best practice are not well founded.” So said Dr. John Loy, CEO of the Australian nuclear regulatory organization, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) (1). This is a bold claim worth comparing with the outcome of the project.

The Cause of the Contamination

Maralinga is a tract of Aboriginal land in South Australia that was commandeered by the Australian government to be used by Britain for the development of atomic bombs. The Australian government had its own aspirations to possess nuclear weapons and perhaps hoped that this would be an avenue for their acquisition. (2, 3)

Seven atomic bombs were exploded at Maralinga; perhaps 25% to 30% of the plutonium in those devices would have been fissioned (i.e. split, with the release of energy). The remainder would have been spread around the ground zeroes (the point exactly above or below the exploding bombs), or carried into the air to be deposited later as fallout. Many development trials were also conducted at three sites within Maralinga (Taranaki, TM, and Wewak). Those at the two latter sites resulted in plutonium spread over relatively small areas but a series of trials at Taranaki, code named Vixen B, were much more damaging.

There were 15 Vixen B trials, all conducted in the period from 1961 to 1963. In twelve of the tests, both plutonium and uranium were in the radioactive mix; the other three contained only uranium. In each trial, a nuclear device was placed on a large steel structure known as a featherbed, erected on a concrete firing pad. The device was detonated in a manner that prevented a nuclear explosion. The heat of the explosion melted the plutonium and uranium and shot radioactive debris up to 1,000 meters into the air, where it was caught by the wind and spread far and wide. The featherbeds were severely damaged and contaminated and were buried along with the firing pads.

Following these tests, hundreds of tons of contaminated steel, concrete, and other items were reported to have been buried in 21 shallow pits at Taranaki, and hundreds of square kilometers of land were contaminated with plutonium and uranium.

In 1967, the British conducted Operation Brumby, a “final” cleanup of the site. The Australian government accepted that, except for some small fenced “islands”, the site was clean and absolved Britain of any further responsibility. Surveys in the 1980s by the Australian Radiation Laboratory showed that the site was far from clean and safe and their findings led eventually to the latest cleanup project. (4)

The Planned Cleanup

From its inception, the nuclear industry has had problems with worker and public safety and with environmental degradation. Too often these problems have been caused by ineffective management, cost-cutting measures, or ineffective regulation. The Maralinga project reflects all three of these factors. The public servants responsible for the last years of the project had no background in radiation or project management, as is illustrated by several statements they made on the public record, asking, for example, what was meant by “alpha radiation”, or how to convert a milliSievert (a unit of radiation dose) to a picoCurie (a unit of radioactivity), or claiming that soda ash is neutralized by limestone. (5-7)

Project records also reveal suggestions by ARPANSA (e.g. encasing the debris in concrete) to which the contractor objected on the grounds that they would be difficult to implement. The recommendations were then dropped (5-7) ignoring the principal that the regulator should stipulate requirements, not make suggestions. Responsibility for the cleanup was vested in the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industries & Energy (later Industry, Science & Resources). ARPANSA was contracted to the Department, so it was not independent, another failing.

The plan was generally along the lines of a scheme that had been developed some years earlier (8) and from the beginning was intended to be a partial cleanup, which was a compromise. The more contaminated soil was to be scraped up and buried and some pits were to be exhumed and the contents buried more securely. The pits at Taranaki were to be treated by a process of in situ vitrification (ISV).

ISV uses electricity to turn the soil and pit contents into a hard, glass-like rock, which contains and immobilizes the plutonium for thousands of years. The process has to be tailored for each site, and the Australian government signed a contract with Geosafe, Inc. in the US to match the technology to the Maralinga geology.

Setting Cleanup Standards

The criteria to be met after the contaminated soil was removed were set at a meeting of half of the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC), which was established to advise the Minister on the project. Each member of the Committee was contracted to the Department. At Taranaki, the criteria were to remove soil until the surface reading was less than 3kBq (Am-241) per m2. Variations in the ratio of plutonium to americium led to slightly different criteria for the other sites. There were also criteria for the removal of contaminated fragments and particles of plutonium, thereafter referred to by ARPANSA as MARTAC criteria.

MARTAC also prepared some draft criteria for the ISV product, but these were not incorporated into the contract with Geosafe.

Removal and Burial of Contaminated Soil

The removal and burial of soil was a simple civil engineering exercise with an overlay of health physics to protect the workers. Contaminated soil was collected by large scrapers and placed in trenches up to 16 meters deep. The top of the contaminated soil was no higher than three metres below the ground surface and was then covered by at least five meters of clean soil. Dust was a major problem and its suppression at Taranaki was not satisfactory, with the result that thousands of tons of contaminated soil simply blew away. With a change of approach, dust suppression during soil removal at the other two sites was excellent.

Nineteen of the 21 pits at Taranaki were reported to have been covered by concrete caps. As the soil was removed, however, a huge amount of plutonium-contaminated debris was uncovered outside the pits. Much of the debris was covered by only a few centimeters of soil. One cap was about one fifth of the required size and another was several meters away from the pit. The impact of this discovery was that the ISV project would have to be expanded so that all the debris could be treated, at increased cost.

Change of Management Structure

The project management structure was changed in mid 1997. The company that had been awarded the contract to manage the earlier parts of the project was purchased by another company (GHD) that had not made the final six considered for the project management contract. Before the end of 1997, GHD persuaded the Department that it should manage the whole of the project, not just the part that it had purchased. Three meetings were held in secret between GHD and the Department to discuss this takeover. The participants at these meetings were two people from the Department whose only knowledge of ISV was one half-hour visit to see some of the equipment, and two people from GHD who did not have even that meager knowledge. The Commonwealth’s Representative overseeing the whole project was excluded. The most expensive and most complex part of the whole project was decided by four people who were totally ignorant of what was involved. There are no notes of these meetings on record.

The outcome was that GHD was appointed both Project Manager and Project Authority even though the company was not qualified for either position. At the same time, the Commonwealth’s Representative was removed from the project. So the Department had no one in either its own ranks or on the project manager’s team with any knowledge of ISV. This was a recipe for disaster.

Treatment of Contaminated Debris

All of the Taranaki pits were to have been treated by ISV and a contract for this work was placed with Geosafe. Initially the 21 pits would have required 26 “melts” but, with the discovery of the large amount of debris outside the pits, the whole project would require 40 melts. The ISV equipment was built and tested and was transported to site at the beginning of 1998. Treatment of pits started in May of that year.

At that point, the absence of ISV expertise within both the Department and GHD became even more apparent. Into this vacuum stepped the Minister’s advisory committee MARTAC, which met only three or four times a year. This committee had expectations and requirements that were not contractual and were constantly changing. Moreover, the government at this time was seeking ways to reduce the cost of the project and adopted a hybrid scheme in which eight pits would be exhumed and the contents sorted. Some debris would be vitrified in a specially prepared “pod” and the remainder simply buried. The strange thing was that sorting was done by size, not level of radioactivity, so highly radioactive particles would be buried while slightly contaminated debris would be vitrified.

Another peculiar aspect of the ISV part of the project was that ten melts had been completed before agreement was reached on any acceptance criteria, and even then the criteria were rather impractical since some could not be confirmed.

It was quite clear in early 1998 that problems were looming for the project. This was relayed to the then Minister, Senator Parer, but no action was taken. (9) As treatment of Pit 17 (the eleventh melt of the series) was nearing completion, there was an explosion within the melt that severely damaged the equipment and spewed molten glass some 50 meters from the pit.

The Department used this incident as an excuse to cancel the ISV contract after having spent 40% of the project budget on the scheme. 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 (10), 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. (11)

Although the government claims that the project was conducted in full consultation with the South Australian Government and the Maralinga Tjarutja, this decision and other key decisions were made without any consultation. (12)

Once vitrification had been abandoned, all debris from the pits that had not been treated was placed in a shallow trench, covered with the solidified vitrified material and then covered with only two meters of soil to grade, with a further three meters of soil above grade. There is no reliable record of what has been buried. Nine firing pads reported by Carter (13) to be contaminated with up to 1 kg of plutonium are not mentioned in the report of burials. (14)

The Department has claimed that burial is a safe disposal method consistent with the Code of practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia. (15) This was the first time that the Code had been mentioned in relation to the project. When three of the five authors said that it was not applicable (the other two were Commonwealth public servants and would not comment), the Department claimed that it did not have to follow the Code but had chosen to do so. (16) It made this statement despite the fact that not a single requirement of that Code was satisfied.

The government claimed that cost played no part in the decision to opt for burial of the debris. Senator Minchin said in May 2000 “can I refute the scurrilous suggestion which I see floating around in the media that suggests that this decision was made on cost grounds.” (16) This is at odds with the statement of the Maralinga rehabilitation committee in October 1998 that “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.” (17)

The Department also claimed that ISV was abandoned because the amount of plutonium in the pits was less than expected. In fact it was very close to what was assessed at the MARTAC meeting of November 1995 (18), seven months before the contract for ISV was signed. (19,20) This and many other misleading or incorrect statements by the Minister and his Department were exposed. (21)

Since the explosion at Maralinga, the world license for the technology has been purchased by the very large engineering firm Amec, which has been awarded contracts by the US Department of Energy to treat pits containing plutonium debris. There is also keen interest in the technology in several European countries and in Australia.

Cost of the Cleanup

The budget for the cleanup was $104.4 million, of which about half was an ex gratia payment by Britain. The British contribution was a mere pittance compared with what it cost to spread the contamination in the first place. If an oil tanker runs aground and its contents are spilled, the owners face huge fines and are required to pay for the cleanup. In the case of the oil tanker, the contamination is accidental. In the case of Maralinga, the contamination was deliberate. Moreover, had the plutonium debris been returned to Britain, the authorities would not have allowed disposal to be undertaken in the same way as was done at Maralinga; the contaminated material would have been placed in a concrete-lined vault.

The Outcome

Dr. Loy was incorrect in saying that the Maralinga cleanup project represented the “world’s best practice”. The project was a compromise from the beginning and was never intended to be a total cleanup. There are still hundreds of square kilometers of land contaminated with plutonium. The government says that all but 120 km2 are now safe, but this is misleading. What they mean is that 120 km2 of land are still contaminated above 3 kBq Am-241/m2. At that level, an Aboriginal living a semi-traditional lifestyle would receive an effective dose of 5 mSv/a (five times that allowed for a member of the public). Within the 120 km2, the effective dose would be up to 13 times greater.

The plutonium-contaminated debris is buried in a bare hole in the ground in limestone and dolomite which exhibits many cracks and fissures, with only two meters of cover to grade. Even burial at a greater depth would be an improvement. At least one member of MARTAC and the regulator at ARPANSA have admitted that encasement in concrete would be an improvement. And every member of MARTAC has agreed that vitrification is a far superior solution. (22)

What has been done at Maralinga in the burial of long-lived, plutonium-contaminated debris can be compared with the government’s plans for the disposal of other radioactive waste. After several years searching for a site with suitable geology, the government recently selected one for the disposal of short-lived, low-level waste and the storage of short-lived, medium-level waste. The low-level waste is to be packaged in drums and placed in a disposal facility with a solid base and then covered by several impervious layers. If such precautions are necessary for short-lived wastes, the disposal of long-lived wastes in a bare hole in the ground in totally unsuitable geology at Maralinga cannot possibly be “world’s best practice”.

In July 2001, the Department issued a discussion paper (23) addressing the safe storage of radioactive waste. In two places in that paper, the Department states that long-lived low- and intermediate-level waste is not suitable for near-surface disposal, and yet that is exactly what they have done at Maralinga.

Concluding Comment

The Aboriginals wish to return to the land, provided it is safe to do so. They have been advised that some of the land is not suitable for permanent occupation and 450 km2 is encircled by boundary markers to remind them that this is so. The boundary markers might have a life of 50 years, but half of the plutonium will still be there in 24,000 years.

Whoever accepts responsibility for the site should recognize that they will have to rely for several thousand years on assurances from a government that has not kept to agreements made only ten years ago.

References

1. Loy J. Maralinga cleaned up to acceptable standards (media release). Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). April 17, 2000.

2. Reynolds W. Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 2001.

3. Cawte A. Atomic Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press. 1992.

4. Lokan KH (ed). Residual radioactive contamination at Maralinga and Emu, 1985. Australian Radiation Laboratory, ARL/TR070. April 1985.

5. Hearings before the (Australian) Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. May 2, 2000.

6. Hearings before the (Australian) Senate Economics Legislation Committee. May 3, 2000.

7. Parkinson A. Submission to the Senate inquiry into the contract for a new reactor at Lucas Heights. September 2000.

8. Department of Primary Industries & Energy. Rehabilitation of former nuclear test sites in Australia. Report by the Technical Assessment Group. Canberra. 1990.

9. Letter to Senator Parer, Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (personal communication). May 31, 1998.

10. Minchin N. Minister confirms Maralinga is safe (media release). April 17, 2000.

11. Geosafe Australia. Investigation into the explosion during treatment of pit 17 at Maralinga. GSC-030101. Adelaide. June 2001.

12. Minutes of the Consultative Group Meeting. June 23, 1999.

13. Carter RF. Residual plutonium contamination at the former Maralinga range in South Australia, a preliminary note. AWRE, Aldermaston. June 1985.

14. Maralinga project pit exhumations, plutonium inventory in the burial trenches. Project Report by CHM Hill. August 1, 1999.

15. Code of practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia. Radiation Health Series No 35. Australian Government Publishing Service. 1992.

16. Minchin N. Response to certain issues raised by Radio National’s background briefing (media release). May 1, 2000.

17. Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee. Cost comparison for treatment of outer pits (paper prepared for the 12th meeting of MARTAC). October 1998.

18. Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee. Minutes of MARTAC meeting. November 1995.

19. Parkinson A. Maralinga: clean up or cover-up? Australasian Science 2000; 21:16.

20. Parkinson A. Maralinga rehabilitation project. Presentation at national conference, Medical Association for Prevention of War. Canberra. August 6, 2000.

21. Parkinson A. Maralinga rehabilitation project, dissection of statements made by the Minister or his department. September 2001. (Unpublished; available from author).

22. Notes of the Consultative Group Meeting, 8 May 1999.

23. Department of Industry, Science & Resources. Safe Storage of Radioactive Waste. The National Store Project: Methods for Choosing the Right Site. A Public Discussion Paper, July 2001.

Alan Parkinson is a mechanical and nuclear engineer who, in 1989, developed some 30 options for rehabilitation of the Maralinga atomic bomb test site. In August 1994, he was appointed the Government’s Representative to oversee the whole of the cleanup project and was also a member of the government’s advisory committee (MARTAC). In December 1997, he was removed from both appointments for questioning the management of the project. Address correspondence to:

Alan Parkinson, PO Box 415, Hawker, ACT 2614, Australia.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW