Every great new forward step in warfare or industrialization creates some toxic byproducts, stuff that the boss tells you to call around and find someone who will come and take it away with no questions asked. And all the atomic powers had lots of left-over plutonium. Plutonium in gaseous or powder form is enormously poisonous and almost impossible to get rid of. In 1957, the U.S. started these weapons development tests in Nevada and the Marshall Islands. And between 1956 and 1963 the British government conducted a series of atomic tests in the deserts of southern Australia. Nine were full-scale tests, and there were 43 so-called safety tests, many of which left extremely dangerous plutonium contamination in the Marlinga area.
When the government of Australia realized that the plutonium and uranium and other poisonous leftovers in the deserts of South Australia posed a threat to the health of their aborigine peoples, they closed off the area and started patrolling the zones of contamination. In 1991 the Australian government confronted the British with evidence that their clean up effort (Operation Brumby) had failed. A meeting was called of the three so-called stake holders, the aboriginal representatives (The Maralinga Tjarutja), the British government and the Southern Australian Government. What ensued was a plan for cleanup financed with 20 million pounds from British government, and the creation of a governing body for the cleanup, the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC). The full scale detonations had left little residual contamination on the ground. Left behind were elements with a short half-life. By the time they got around to cleaning up, they were inert. It was the so-called “minor” trials, the so-called one-point safety trials where they blew up weapon primaries with TNT that created real problems. The worst contamination came from the 12 blasts of the Vixen B series at Taranaki , which dispersed 22 kilograms of plutonium as fine dust and alloys of plutonium and metal off steel testing structures, the so-called “featherbeds.” Left behind were thousands of pieces of metal that attracted attention and were sold as A-testing souvenirs. The explosions of the big weapon implosion spheres created clouds that dispersed the plutonium widely.
“Chemical explosions of this magnitude released sufficient energy to lift plutonium contaminated debris high enough to be carried many kilometers downwind. Fallout from the firings formed long narrow plumes to the northwest, north and north-east.”_
The Maralinga report and the quality and the safety of the cleanup process were controversial, especially as pertains to the dust control, the employment of aboriginal people, and some of its science. Critical comments are found here.
Dome storing radioactive waste on Runit
Take another trip on Google Earth and you'll see another strange shrine, the Dome on Runit. You can get there by clicking “Dome, Runit, Marshall Islands.” Great 360 degree pictures. A 380 feet wide concrete dome that seals in an old crater and holds 110 thousand cubic yards of radioactive waste. Another island stripped bare of buildings. A few palm trees and native vegetation. By 1971 two military test programs were still going on at Enewetak. There was a U.S. Air Force space research program, and the Defense Nuclear Agency's proposed Pacific Cratering Experiment (PACE). Barred from doing any more nuclear testing in the atmosphere, but still having some residual rights to raise hell with their island, they decided to simulate an atomic bomb using 500 tons of normal high explosives. Six tons of TNT were actually detonated; 190 holes drilled into reefs and the island for explosives; and 86 trenches dug in different parts of the atoll. The island had been badly damaged by all the previous atomic detonations, and all the natives had been evacuated. There had been eleven detonations on Runit alone. In June 1971, a decision was made to terminate use of Enewetak as a test range and return the island to the islanders. Not a great gift.
What triggered this change in policy was finding residue from the Quince test, which was considered a fizzle. It was not listed as a safety test, but it might have been a deliberate test of the one-point safety system in the W-54 (Davey Crockett) missile. Whatever the cause, just the HE detonated, scattering plutonium over a large portion of the island. It might also have been from the very-low-order Fig shot of the W-54. The fragments found were similar to residue that they had found on Johnston Atoll after all the low-order detonations and duds they had there.
The natives of the island, wanting to come back one day, and upset by the prospect of our exploding large quantities of dynamite on their island, filed a protest. The senior AEC representative on the committee investigating, Roger Ray, recommended immediate quarantine of Runit; i.e., “to cease all operations thereon and to not remove any vehicles, equipment, or materials until adequate decontamination procedures could be established.”
What they found on Eniwetok was a real mess. When they evacuated the island in 1958, DASA may have thought they would be back some day for more testing, because they never cleaned up behind themselves. On Hedren, unfinished memos lay on the desks in some buildings. Landing craft sat rusting where they had been pulled from the water. “Everywhere, nature in the form of impenetrable brush, termite burrows, rot, and rust was reclaiming the atoll from the ruins of an advanced technology.”
“Nuclear testing had left its unmistakable mark. The preliminary
radiological survey found potentially significant radiation
hazards on the islands of Bokombako (Belle), Enjebi (Janet), Aomon
(Sally), and Runit (Yvonne) . Robert Ray's recommendation was intended primarily to prevent “further aggravation through dispersion, of something they termed an already difficult contamination problem."
This was strong language from an AEC scientist. As it was, the bulk of the plutonium was now on the ground where the harm it could do people was limited. Digging up the ground, drilling holes in the reefs, and detonating TNT there would have resulted in throwing tons of this contaminated earth up into the air to drift with the prevailing winds. The planning of PACE was done at Livermore Labs, and showed their indifference to environmental concerns. In response to the AEC's recommendation, the landlord, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Test Center (SM1TEC) put the quarantine into effect on 22 May 1972. The quarantine irked the DNA.
“Since the quarantine stopped PACE operations on Runit, DNA asked the AEC Nevada Operations Office (AEC-NV) for additional data on the nature of the hazard which might then allow completion of PACE.” On 30 June 1972, DNA and AEC representatives met and agreed that an additional survey should be made to determine whether the hazard was really serious enough to enforce a quarantine.
It turned out that the natives of Eniwetok, unlike the natives of Johnston Island, had some rights. They had a council, there was some United Nations oversight, they had a lawyer. On 22 May 1972, the District Court in Honolulu ruled that the plaintiffs were entitled to an injunction because of the violation of environmental regulations and, therefore, PACE activities, including core drilling and seismic surveys at Enewetak, were prohibited. The Pentagon in June 1973 called off the PACE tests.
The Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Nuclear Agency argued the case for disposal of the plutonium and other contaminated debris by ocean dumping. It was what they had always done.
“The basic argument was one commonly heard: compared to the amount of long-lived alpha contamination already dumped in the ocean, the amount from Enewetak would be insignificant. The AEC estimated there were only a few hundred grams of actual plutonium in all of the contaminated soil of Enewetak, and that at least a hundred kilograms of plutonium had already been dumped in the ocean from 1947 through 1974. In other words, the additional damage that might be done was negligible compared to the possible damage that had already been done. The counterargument was also familiar: past damage probably cannot be undone, but any additional abuse to the system should be stopped completely."
The committee vetoed ocean dumping. DNA planned on containment of the debris in an unlined crater on Runit Island, and capping it with a cement dome.