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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2227

Senator MAGUIRE —My question is directed to the Minister for Resources and Energy. I refer to reports today that amounts of plutonium were discovered recently at the Taranaki site at Maralinga in South Australia. Why has it taken so long to find these pieces of plutonium? Have staff resources and the technology for monitoring been upgraded recently, thus enabling this new plutonium to be discovered? Who will be responsible for removing the plutonium? Will it be repatriated to the United Kingdom, as in the case of plutonium identified in the 1970s? Can the community be reassured that there is little or no likelihood of there being further plutonium at Maralinga?

Senator Jessop —An absolutely stupid question.

Senator WALSH —I certainly do not think it is a stupid question. In fact, I think that is a pretty stupid comment to make about an important question. I am sure that the people of South Australia will be pleased to know that Senator Jessop thinks that is a stupid question and they can make their views known to him as to whether they think it is a stupid question. There are a number of possible reasons for the long time it has taken to discover the substantial pellets of plutonium that have been discovered at Maralinga in recent days; it is not necessarily an exhaustive list. I understand that there has been some technical improvement in the equipment used to search for contaminated materials. In the past the main emphasis, I am informed, in the radiological surveys has been directed towards sites where the bomb tests were held in the 1950s rather than the sites where the minor trials were held in the 1950s and the 1960s. The plutonium residues are almost certainly the result of the minor trials rather than the bomb tests. Moreover, in the past surveys were concentrated on area levels of radiation rather than very specific pinpointed levels.

As those who went to Maralinga last week would know, prior to the trip by Mr Bannon, myself and others, the people conducting the survey had searched and found a couple of pinpointed areas where the readings were quite high. Journalists and others in the party were shown those specific points. No decision has yet been made as to what should be done with whatever plutonium is recovered or for the final treatment of the site. It would be premature at this stage to make such a decision, at least until the radiological survey has been completed and the results analysed. I believe that will most likely take some three to four months. However, it should be noted that the previous Government in 1979, when a small quantity of plutonium embedded in salt was returned to the United Kingdom, signed an agreement or exchanged letters with the United Kingdom absolving the United Kingdom of any further responsibility for the repatriation from Australia of plutonium which had been deposited here during the weapons tests and other trials.

Senator Cook —You mean the Libs sold us out?

Senator WALSH —Yes. The original permission for these trials to be conducted in Australia was given by irresponsible State and Federal Liberal Party governments and the most recent Liberal Party government absolved the British from any further responsibility for the plutonium residues from those trials.

Senator Maguire's last question was about whether the Government can reassure the community that no more specks or granules of plutonium of that size will be discovered. The answer has to be no, we cannot be certain that further granules of that size will not be discovered. Indeed, the fact that some have already been discovered in an area of at least 50 acres, being the possible area where such granules could be found, makes it likely that there would be granules, if not of that size, which in total would equal that much plutonium. I am not certain at this stage whether the two-gram speck that was found was inside or outside the fenced area at Taranaki. The people I contacted last night could not assure me of that, but I will let Senator Maguire know as soon as the information becomes available.