Radioactive clean-up needed at Australia’s Woomera site

16 March 2017

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is facing an AUD30m ($22.7m) bill to clean up radioactive waste in South Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 13 March. An inspection had found "significant rusting" on many of the 9725 drums, which are understood to contain radioactive waste and other toxic chemicals. Fairfax Media said the work will take place at a CSIRO facility located on Department of Defence land near Woomera, which is currently one of Australia's largest storage sites for low and intermediate-level radioactive waste. A report on the Woomera facility was issued by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (Arpansa) after an inspection in April 2016.

The Woomera Prohibited Area is a weapons testing range operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Air Warfare Centre. It includes the Maralinga site, where seven UK nuclear tests took place between 1956 and 1963. An initial attempt to clean up the radioactive contamination took place in 1967. However, the McClelland Royal Commission in 1985 found continuing significant radiation hazards and another clean up was completed in 2000 at a cost of AUD108m. In 1994, the Australian Government paid AUD13.5m in compensation to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people over concerns about the safety of the site and long-term health effects.

Following the Arpansa inspection, tests confirmed the presence of radioactive isotopes at one location and inspectors said there was a possibility the drums were leaking. The mixture of water and concentrated radioactive material inside some of the drums also had the potential to produce explosive hydrogen gas, inspectors found. They also noted CSIRO had little knowledge of what was inside many of the barrels, some of which are believed to date back more than 50 years.

Many of the drums are understood to contain contaminated soil generated by government research into radioactive ores at Melbourne's Fishermans Bend throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The toxic soil was discovered by the Department of Defence in 1989, who sent it to Sydney's Lucas Heights facility before it was removed to Woomera in 1994. An Arpansa spokeswoman said an estimated AUD29.7m would cover characterisation, handling, re-packaging and storage of the toxic material. She said additional work was required “to scientifically characterise some of the contents of the legacy materials more accurately” and that “significant” work was needed.

A spokesman for CSIRO said it had developed a three-year project jointly with Arpansa to conduct an assessment, separation and treatment of the waste. "The first phase of this project, which is to undertake a detailed assessment and pilot-scale separation and treatment trial of up to 600 drums of material, will begin in April this year. The first phase at Woomera is expected to take four to five months," he said.



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