• Sun. Jul 25th, 2021

Millions of dollars have been spent cleaning up radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs detonated in outback South Australia


May 22, 2021
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Read Time:3 Minute, 49 Second

Millions of dollars have been spent cleaning up radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs detonated in outback South Australia, but recent tests show the contamination is worse than previously thought.

Key points:

  • Radioactive particles in Maralinga remain reactive for longer than previously thought
  • These particles can leach into groundwater, affecting plants, wildlife and humans
  • Native foods from around nuclear sites are still too risky to consume

Australian researchers have found that radioactive particles released during nuclear tests more than 60 years ago at sites, including Maralinga, remain highly reactive.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names of people who have died.

Scientists initially thought that these particles in the soil were stable and inert.

However, research by Dr Megan Cook has revealed that the particles’ outer shell can break down in harsh, arid environments and release highly reactive, radioactive compounds into the environment.

Highly reactive radioactive particles can leach into the soil and groundwater and be absorbed by plants, wildlife and humans.

Dr Cook, who is based at Monash University in Melbourne,  said these reactive nano-particles  — which normally are shielded from the environment — can interact with clay and organic matter in the soil over time and leach into groundwater, especially after heavy rainfall.

“There are some spots on the Maralinga site [where] we’re already seeing that,” she said.

Fallout still very real today

Karina Lester says the research supports what Anungu people have long believed about the nuclear contamination on their lands.

A mushroom cloud rises from desert after a nuclear weapons test at Maralinga.

Karina Lester is a second-generation survivor of the British nuclear tests. Her late father, Yami Lester, was blinded during a test at Emu Field.

Ms Lester said that the Anungu people always knew the ground was contaminated but the one missing link was the data needed to prove it.

“Part of the concern that Anungu have had is that, without that data, we weren’t able to get the support and understanding of [the impacts] these tests were having on people and on country.”

Ms Lester said the research meant supports could now be put in place to protect the environment and wildlife, as well as address the health issues of Aboriginal people.

Responsibilities to country

Ms Lester said that many Anungu hunt, gather and cook native foods from the lands as part of their cultural responsibilities to country.

Ms Lester said the spiritual connection for Anungu people extended beyond walking, gathering and eating food on country.

She said many Anungu see the country healing physically and can be torn between wanting to fulfil cultural responsibilities and the risk of environmental contamination.

The harsh, arid environment breaks down the protective shell of particles, releasing highly reactive compounds into the soil.

“Anungu science is very different to western science and I think one of our hugest challenges is trying to work through how country is healing, what it really looks like, and how people are suffering if they continue to practise those traditional ways,” she said.

Ms Lester said there were many difficult conversations to be had.

“We really need government sitting around the table to have a good serious think about how they can support our beautiful part of the country, and how we take good care of our people who have suffered for decades,” she said.

The EPA monitors the affected land to minimise the radiation hazard.

‘You can never pick up every bit’

South Australia’s Environmental Protection Authority (SA EPA) is the main safety regulator of the site.

SA EPA’s director, Keith Baldry, said the authority worked with the Maralinga Tjarutja, the federal government and other South Australian agencies to ensure the rehabilitated lands continued to be managed and monitored.

He said measures to protect people from radiation hazards at Maralinga included access controls, supervision during site visits, and monitoring by radiation experts.

Soil particles from Maralinga Tjarutja, a former nuclear test site, are more reactive than previously thought.

Lead researcher Dr Cook said the Maralinga site had been one of the best managed of its kind and was continually being studied and monitored by experts.

“But what you can do is find that balance between the risk and the environment, which is what we’ve done at Maralinga and it’s been in full consultation with the Maralinga people.”

Dr Cook said more work needed to be done to understand how the particles broke down and how weather events contributed to leaching.

She said she would like more international guidance on how to protect the environment that has been contaminated.

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