As Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay channel deepening project continues, concerns have been raised about the possible radioactive contamination of the material being dredged near the mouth of the Yarra.
From the early 1940s, the CSIRO processed uranium from the Rum Jungle and Radium Hill mines in South Australia at its Lorimer Street, Port Melbourne site. This site is near the Westgate Bridge and on the Yarra River in Melbourne just downstream from the CBD. Much of the contaminated waste was dumped onsite and covered with buildings, carparks and gardens.
A radiation survey conducted in 1989 by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) found:
During the period 1941 to 1965 pilot plant and laboratory scale projects, involving cerium, uranium and thorium extracted from ores, were carried out by the CSIRO (formerly CSIR) at the Fishermens Bend property. These projects involved crushing, grinding, sieving and complex chemical operations. An historical description of the activities during this period  indicates that tonnes of ore from mineral sand mines and uranium mines (e.g. Radium Hill) may have been delivered to the site. — Radiation Survey of the CSIRO Applied Organic Chemistry Division, Lorimer Street, Fishermens Bend, Melbourne. May 1989, P. Wright, J. Sykes, B O’Brien, G Collings
This facility was maintained for its work with radioactive materials until 1989. The Aeronautical Research Laboratory (ARL) was also established on the same site and both these facilities were subject to a radioactive survey and were later decontaminated in 1990. The clean up produced 9710 drums of radioactive waste weighing 2950 tonnes which was removed for safe storage.
In the Radiation Survey of the ARL site it states:
In the 1950’s, CSIRO carried out research projects which involved separation and concentration of radioactive ores containing uranium and thorium [l]. It was suspected that radioactive waste products from these research projects, and possibly those from subsequent projects, had been disposed of on the property which was, until recently, occupied by the CSIRO Division of Applied Organic Chemistry, at Lorimer Street, Fishermen’s Bend. — Radiation Survey of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories at Lorimer Street Fishermens Bend (CSIRO waste only) June 9, 1989, Owen J. Wilson.
Also on page one it was revealed that radioactive waste found its way into the sewerage system:
While surveying the ARL property it was noted that the sewerage vents on Building 71 were incorrectly identified as rain water down pipes. The implications of this are that:
(a) in view of the radioactivity found at the base of a rain water down pipe on Building 70 and radioactivity found in additional plumbing in Building 72, the suspicion of radioactivity in the drains remains unchanged and
(b) an additional suspicion arises that radioactivity may have been deposited in the sewerage system.
There was also an issue of workers and contractors coming into contact with radioactive waste (page 4):
This site is in the lawn and garden area between Buildings 15 and 21, as shown in Annex 2.2. This area had recently been disturbed by electrical contractors while laying high voltage cables. The material was dispersed and mixed with uncontaminated soil, making identification of the original areas of contamination very difficult.
And then there is the issue of discharges into the Yarra River. There is a drain on the site that contained contaminants which entered the Yarra River. An unknown amount of contaminated fill has likely been left on the property to be used on other projects or be disposed of elsewhere with no regard to its contamination over its four decade history. On page 12 of this same report it states:
A large quantity of waste soil had recently been removed from the property by a contractor and this was disposed of at three locations in Keilor and Airport West. The soil had been removed from a location very near to an active site. The soil was located and monitored for radioactivity, as a part of this survey. Although the measurements did not reveal the presence of radioactivity, this event raises the concern that radioactivity may have already left the property in a similar way. It is possible that this may have occurred during the construction of Buildings 21 and 21 Extension.
Another report (Radioactive Decontamination of the Former CSIRO Applied Organic Chemistry Division, Lorimer Street, Fishermens Bend, 29 March 1990, page 12) describes waste that was removed from a drain that leads directly to the Yarra River:
The large deposits of contaminated material found in the pipe leads to the following scenarios, which are not mutually exclusive
a) The pipe may have been used as a waste disposal facility to dump contaminated waste into the Yarra; and/or
b) the contamination may have entered the pipe during the construction of Building 21.
The area near the outfall of this pipe is currently being dredged, which raises some significant questions for Peter Garrett, the Federal Environment Minister, who green-lighted the Channel Deepening Project:
- How did the Federal Minister for the Environment miss this facility that is the source of almost 50% of Australia’s nuclear waste when he recently approved the Channel Deepening project?
- What efforts were made to contact workers and contractors who have handled radioactive contaminated materials on this site?
- What efforts have been made to identify where the contaminated waste from the site has been distributed to as “fill” or “disposed of” in the past?
- What efforts will now be made to determine the distribution of radioactive waste in the Lower Yarra River and its distribution into Port Phillip Bay by recent dredging?
These questions have been put to the Federal Minister for the Environment this morning. A spokesperson for the Department offered the following responses:
This issue has been comprehensively examined and there is no new information that would warrant reconsideration of the issue. In response to your questions:
- The issue of radionuclide’s was specifically examined during the 2007 public inquiry.
- The 1989 radiation survey of the CSIRO facility at Lorimer Street report abstract states that “the levels of potential hazards found are well below the limits for occupational exposure of radiation workers and are comparable to levels of radiation with some consumer products such as smoke detectors and gas mantles.”
- The report titled ‘Radioactive Decontamination of the Aeronautical Research Laboratory Lorimer Street Fishermens Bend’ from the Victorian Department of Community Services and Health (1990) states in the report abstract that “the active materials were sealed and transported to Lucas Heights for storage”.
- Surface sediments in the port area of the Yarra are periodically removed during maintenance dredging, which has been taking place over many years. There is no risk of contaminated material remaining in the Lower Yarra.