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(AUSTRALIA) SA EPA REPORT: The main safety regulator of the Maralinga site say the ‘fallout from nuclear tests’ are worst than previously thought after millions of dollars have been spent in cleanup #AceNewsDesk report

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#AceNewsReport – May.26: Australian researchers have found that radioactive particles released during nuclear tests more than 60 years ago at sites, including Maralinga, remain highly reactive:

South Australia’s Environmental Protection Authority (SA EPA) Report: Who is the main safety regulator of the site after millions of dollars have been spent cleaning up radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs detonated in outback of SA but recent tests show the contamination is worse than previously thought’

Three scientists look at analysed data on four computer monitors against a wall of diagrams
Dr Megan Cook analyses radioactive particles that have been scanned with a synchrotron in Oxford, UK.(Supplied: Megan Cook)

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.

“We now have a sustained and prolonged release of plutonium into the ecosystem,” Dr Cook said.

A diagram of plutonium particles from nuclear tests leach into the groundwater, be ingested by wildlife and inhaled by humans
Highly reactive radioactive particles can leach into the soil and groundwater and be absorbed by plants, wildlife and humans.(Supplied: Megan Cook)

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.

“If it leaches into the groundwater, it can become part of the uptake by plants. It can become more easily inhaled or eaten by animals, and as it becomes part of their ecosystem, it will accumulate,” she said.

Fallout still very real today

A woman with dark curly hair holds up a document while sitting in a room with people behind her
Karina Lester says the research supports what Anungu people have long believed about the nuclear contamination on their lands.(Supplied)
A mushroom cloud rises from the desert after a nuclear blast
A mushroom cloud rises from desert after a nuclear weapons test at Maralinga.(Supplied)

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.

“This haunting has been from generation to generation,” she said.

“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.

“They still use the earth to cook our food and practise our traditional ways,” she said.

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.

An Indigenous person looks across the burnt desert landscape.
The harsh, arid environment breaks down the protective shell of particles, releasing highly reactive compounds into the soil.(Supplied: Oak Valley Ranger Group)

“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.

“We need to spend some really gentle, delicate time with Anungu and bring them into this western science world so there’s that little bit of understanding about how it has impacted [them].”

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.

A sign on the side of the road indicating the way to Maralinga.
The EPA monitors the affected land to minimise the radiation hazard. (ABC North and West SA: Samantha Jonscher)

‘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. 

A film crew huddle an umbrella near a concrete block marking the Maralinga nuclear test site.
Soil particles from Maralinga Tjarutja, a former nuclear test site, are more reactive than previously thought.(Supplied: Max Mackinnon)

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.

“You can never pick up every last bit of contamination, that is just not a possibility,” Dr Cook said.

“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.

#AceNewsDesk report ……Published: May.26: 2021:

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