14 Sep 2012

Recovering Australia's Nuclear History

By Jim Green
Did you know the Australian government stole the bones of dead children in the 1950s to test for contamination from nuclear bomb tests? Jim Green on a new online resource that tells our real nuclear history for the first time
Did you know that Prime Minister John Gorton's plan for a nuclear power plant at Jervis Bay in the late 1960s was driven by a secret nuclear weapons agenda? Or that whistleblowers (with the help of Friends of the Earth) uncovered a global uranium cartel in 1976 leading to an international controversy and fines totalling hundreds of millions of dollars?

Friends of the Earth have collated information, photos and videos about more than 50 of Australia's nuclear sites including uranium mines and processing plants, the Lucas Heights research reactor, proposed reactor and dump sites, and British nuclear weapons test sites. The material is stored online at australianmap.net, a free online resource.

Bringing this information together in one site allows for observations and comparisons that would otherwise be obscured. Two such issues are discussed here: children being exposed to radiation, usually because of slack management of contaminated sites, and radioactive contamination problems which have persisted for decades.

Due to the lack of fencing, the contaminated Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex site was used as a playground by children for a number of years. The situation was rectified only after a six-year community campaign led by Friends of the Earth.

Port Pirie Uranium Plant

After mining ceased at Rum Jungle in the NT, part of the area was converted to a lake. As a crocodile-free water body in the Darwin region, the site became popular despite the radioactivity.

In November 2010, the Rum Jungle South Recreation Reserve was closed due to low-level radiation in the area. The Department of Resources advised the local council to shut down the reserve as a precautionary measure.

In 2012, damage to a security gate allowed children to enter a contaminated site near Kalgoorlie. More than 5000 tonnes of tailings from the Yeelirrie uranium deposit, near Wiluna, were buried there in the 1980s. BHP Billiton said it would improve security.

In a 1997 report, Western Mining Corporation (WMC) admitted leaving the contaminated trial uranium mine at Yeelirrie, WA, exposed to the public with inadequate fencing and warning signs for more than 10 years. A spokesperson for WMC said a 1995 inspection revealed the problems and also admitted that the company could have known about the problems as early as 1992. WMC said there was inadequate signage warning against swimming in a dam at the site, which was found to be about 30 times above World Health Organisation radiation safety standards and admitted that people used the dam for "recreational" purposes including swimming.

Children and adults alike have been exposed to radiation from the contaminated uranium processing site at Hunters Hill in Sydney (and children are more susceptible to radiation-induced cancers due to their growing bodies).

Only in recent years has the contamination at Hunters Hill come to light after decades of deceit and obfuscation. The NSW Health Commission covered up the dangers. An internal memo in 1977 told staff to "stall and be non-committal" when responding to queries. Residents were told there was "no logical reason" to carry out radiation or health tests even though the NSW government knew that there were compelling reasons to do so.

A similar attitude has been displayed towards people living near the Lucas Heights research reactor. An internal 1998 federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources briefing document, obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, warns government officials: "Be careful in terms of health impacts — don't really want a detailed study done of the health of Sutherland residents."

Another incident with child safety concerns occurred in May 1997 when a radioactive source was stolen from an ANSTO promotional display at Menai High School. An ANSTO spokesperson said the source could be handled "quite safely but shouldn't be for long periods". The radioactive source was never recovered.

In the 1950s, the British-Australian nuclear complex suppressed research demonstrating the contamination of grazing sheep and cattle with strontium-90 from nuclear bomb tests in Australia. Whistleblower Hedley Marston warned that proof of widespread contamination would be found "in the bones of children". A testing program was conducted by the government in 1957, but it was done in secret using stolen body parts from dead babies, still-borns and infants.

The Advertiser conspicuously failed to inform residents of Adelaide of the plume of radioactivity which contaminated the city after the bungled nuclear bomb test of 11 October 1956. The Advertiser did however run a story in 1957 titled "Radioactive Children Are Brilliant" — a baseless theory from a British psychiatrist linking strontium-90 to "brilliant" children.

Unresolved radioactive contamination issues have been another recurring feature of Australia's shameful nuclear history. There have been four "clean ups" of the Maralinga nuclear test site. The fourth was carried out in the late 1990s and it was done on the cheap. Most likely there will be a fifth clean up ... and a sixth.

The contaminated Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex was closed in 1962. Fifty years later, the SA government says the site is "actively monitored to provide additional information to assist with the ongoing development of management plans and potential remediation."

Hunters Hill in Sydney has been the subject of controversy in recent years due to the failure to decontaminate a former uranium processing site, and the use of the site as residential land. The site was last used for uranium processing in 1915. Nearly a century later and there is an ongoing debate over site contamination and an appropriate location to store radioactive waste arising from site remediation. The current plan is to dump the waste at Lidcombe in western Sydney.

Not one of Australia's former uranium mines has reached a stage were monitoring is unnecessary. Rehabilitation and remediation of uranium mine sites has proven to be more expensive and more problematic than anticipated, with extensive time periods where ongoing management and remediation are necessary. The long-term costs — financial and public health costs — are borne by the public not the mining companies.

Uranium exploration in the Wiluna region in the 1980s left a legacy of pollution and contamination. Even after a "clean up", the site was left with rusting drums containing uranium ore, and a sign reading "Danger — low level radiation ore exposed" was found lying face down in bushes.

At Mary Kathleen in Queensland, there is ongoing seepage of saline, metal and radionuclide-rich waters from tailings, as well as low-level uptake of heavy metals and radionuclides into vegetation.

At Radium Hill in SA, maintenance of the tailings is required due to ongoing erosion.

At Rum Jungle, despite extensive rehabilitation and remediation of the site, the Finniss River is still polluted with ongoing acid mine drainage.

At Nabarlek in the NT, despite rehabilitation this former mine still requires ongoing monitoring and there has been ongoing site contamination and lasting impacts on water quality.

There is much else of interest and importance at australianmap.net —material that the nuclear industry would rather you didn't know about.

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Posted Monday, September 17, 2012 - 08:14

Let's hope this information includes the details of an action in 2001 that prevented people dying of bone cancer from receiving pain reliving medication.

Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 11:35

See "Britain's dirty deeds at Maralinga: Fresh evidence suggests that Britain knew in the 1960s that radioactivity at its former nuclear test site in Australia was worse than first thought. But it did not tell the Australians" by the late Melbourne science writer Ian Anderson (see New Scientist, 12 June 1993: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13818772.700--britains-dirty-deeds... .

See also "Ian Anderson. Journalist who exposed Britain's dirty nuclear deeds in Australia", UK Guardian, 5 April 2000: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2000/apr/05/guardianobituaries3 ).

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 11:49

For the latest on UK-contaminated Maralinga in anti-science, look-the-other-way, UK and US lackey Australia , see Philip Dorling, "Ten years after the all-clear, Maralinga is still toxic". Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 2011 (see : http://www.smh.com.au/environment/ten-years-after-the-allclear-maralinga... ) .

Key quotes: "More than a decade after the Howard government hailed the clean-up of Maralinga as completed, the government is continuing to support remediation at the former British nuclear weapons test site. Confidential files released under freedom-of-information laws show Canberra officials have at times been mainly concerned with ''perceptions'' of radioactive contamination while rejecting a request by the Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal community for a site near the Maralinga village to be cleared of high levels of contamination.... Alan Parkinson, a retired nuclear engineer and whistleblower who questioned the management of the clean-up, yesterday said the remediation had only been partial and ''the remarkable thing really, is how little [radioactive material] we buried''.

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 14:19

Never in the field of human history has anyone concocted such an astonishing string of disasters from so few actual bodies. Consider places with widespread radioactive contamination: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. They have had about 14 million cancers since Chernobyl, with about 6,000 due to radiation from the accident. Almost all successfully treated. Over the same period about 20 million children under 5 have died because their mums cook with wood. No electricity. Never mind, those are carbon neutral non-radiation deaths and Greenpeace in India is trying to stop the construction of Jaitapur's 9 GW nuclear plant so that mums still cook with wood and their kids keep dying.

Had Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had Australian rates of cancer, then instead of 6,000 extra cancers, they would have had about 6 MILLION extra cancers. Why? because radioactive contamination of water, food and soil simply does bugger all compared to the big causes of cancer. It's simply not a player compared with the big things like BBQs, sausages and meat pies ... not to mention alcohol and tobacco.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. rparker
Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 15:12

This article is devoid of any measurable parameter which allows the reader to understand the scale of the issue. How do the alleged contamination rates stack up against safe allowable exposures in the workplace or society generally?
Where is the proof that very low level radiation causes harm?
How do the Hunters Hill exposures stack up against normal everyday background radiation?
The whole article is conspiratorial and lacks balance.
With this type of hysteria in society how are we ever going to address climate change with a meaningful and effective energy source.
Jim Green's line of debate is the greatest support the coal industry could ever have.

Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 23:00

Response to previous comments - we are still getting to know the facts about long term exposure at low levels in much the same way as asbestos sufferers were a decade ago. One difference between asbestos destroying your lungs and low level uranium exposure giving you cancer is that the particles that gave you the cancer don't go away after you are buried, they continue on for a thousand years. Sure there may be certain levels of tolerance and these levels are definitely being tested by people who work in the uranium mining industry. They are effectively our guinea pigs and we will be able to see what happens to their cells and I suspect the numbers will be very low but significant - One thing we don't know will be the legacy through the generations - although with the wide use of depleted uranium in Iraq we are going find out.

For solidarity and donations for the elders of Wiluna visit Walkingforcountry.com - they have been fighting the mine for a generation - its not your typical anti nuke stuff - they see some of the roos getting sick and take the long term view as you can imagine - also the use of ground water undermines the water hole system and is killing animals - in a nutshell - we have plenty of shit to dig up without bothering about uranium. Its basically a dumb unnecessary bet - and for those interested in Nuclear green credentials I would point them in the direction of Bill Gate's Terra power nuclear project in China which uses spent nuclear fuel in a highly efficient way - current spent nuclear fuel stockpiles are enough to power global energy use for 1000 years. Just to make my position clear I believe the future is in decentralised low energy renewable future with the use of agricultural byproducts as the basis of industry and manufacturing.

Posted Thursday, September 20, 2012 - 14:19

zeroxcliche: We know plenty about the long term exposure to low levels of radiation. It does sweet fa. There is no shortage of data ... I mentioned the countries contaminated by Chernobyl. All have substantially lower rates of cancer than Australia. Consider Turkey ... Caldicott came out warning people against turkish apricots and indeed all turkish food after Fukushima. Why? Turkey has even less cancer than Ukraine ... about half the age standardised rates of cancer we have in Australia. Look it up on GLOBOCAN.

The way normal epidemiology works is that you measure exposure and count the bodies or recorded illnesses. Judgements of risk are based on real disease. When the World Cancer Research Fund says don't eat ANY processed meat, they say this because in actual studies people eating this meat got more cancer. They don't say its risky because people might get cancer, but because in actual studies they DID get cancer. That's where the attribution of RISK comes from. But the anti-nuclear movement does epidemiology differently. They don't actually have much in the way of illness and death to base their attribution of RISK on. Here's another way to think about it. Suppose I see bicycle couriers doing what I think are insane things on their bikes in traffic. I might be incredibly certain that this must be risky. But without any actual data, I won't know. Suppose I surveyed the couriers and found NO fatalities and only minor injuries over a 10 year period. I would be forced to conclude that what I was absolutely convinced must be dangerous wasn't. So it is with radiation. Back 50 years ago when Caldicott graduated, people knew bugger all about cancer. Now experts know plenty. They now know that every day your body repairs about 10,000 pieces of DNA damage in every single cell. This damage comes from normal metabolism. Subject a person to 400 times the daily background radiation and the rate of damage goes up. How much? Caldicott and Jim Green wouldn't have a clue, but real experts have calculated this stuff and its about 10,012. I.e., 12 extra pieces of damage. It's this kind of data which EXPLAINS the actual facts ... namely that there hasn't been any surge in cancer in Ukraine or Turkey or Belarus, other than the thyroid cancers which have been not only explained, but well treated with fewer deaths than would have occurred on an average Easter weekend road toll during the 1970s in Australia.

Posted Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 22:36

Here are a few summaries of current science in relation to radiation and cancer - all of it in direct contradiction to Geoff Russell's anti-science:

• A 2010 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."

• The 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences states that "the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and ... the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans." The report also concludes that claims that low-level radiation exposure may be beneficial to human health are "unwarranted".

• A review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) in 2003 concluded that: "Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology."