Maralinga waste: Safe disposal method dumped
by Peter Mac The much-publicised method of disposal of waste at the former Maralinga atomic test site have been altered from the safest, and most expensive, to the cheapest and least effective. The contaminated waste from the British atomic tests of the early 1950s was to have been converted to a glass or vitrified state, the most ecologically stable form of the material known. However, during the vitrification process a mysterious explosion occurred on the site. It is by no means clear that this was a result of the vitrification itself, in fact it is entirely possible that it was the result of explosive material within the site, the presence of which was confirmed by British scientists). Nevertheless, rather than seeking clarification of this crucial question, the Australian Government simply halted the vitrification, claiming that it was impossible to determine the cause of the explosion, and (by implication) that it was possible that the vitrification process was to blame. They subsequently decided to discontinue the vitrification and to simply bury the contaminated waste in shallow earth pits. Although the local Aboriginal community, the Tjarutja people, had been consulted about the original vitrification process, they were told, not consulted, about this change in the method of treatment of the waste. The minimum method of disposal in the US and UK involves burial within concrete enclosures. However, the Government opted for the cheapest method, i.e. burial in shallow earth pits, without even bothering to cost the concrete encasement option. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency has now admitted that the disposal method adopted was not consistent with the wording of the Code of Practice for disposal of radioactive waste near the surface of the earth. The Minister for Industry, Science and Resources Senator Nick Minchin, said that the method of burial was changed not only because of the explosion but also because the site contained less plutonium than previously thought. However, the amount of plutonium found within the test site was very close to the level previously predicted by British scientists. Mr Minchin stated recently that "the completion of the project will mean that the site is now safe for use by the traditional owners." However, this is not true, as the site will only be relatively safe in the areas treated. For the traditional owners, the Tjarutja people, there is no way of knowing what level of contamination is truly safe. Indeed, some areas have not been treated at all, and given the half life of plutonium, they may remain hazardous for 100,000 years if left untreated. The Federal Government's original decision to clean up the site was prompted by the realisation that because of the atomic tests, the occupants of the site had been subjected to decades of health hazards from an appallingly contaminated site, and that this should be rectified as a matter of simple justice. It would appear that because of the recent change in treatment of the site wastes, the Tjarutja people have again been short-changed, and will be forced to continue to live with the long-term contamination of their land.