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Tuesday, 1 May 1984
Page: 1356


Senator ELSTOB —My question is directed to the Minister for Resources and Energy . In October 1978 my colleague Senator Gietzelt and I asked questions in this chamber about the burial of radioactive materials in South Australia, including those at Maralinga. In view of the recent allegations made by Mr Burke, an ex- Royal Air Force technician, was the Senate deceived by the answers given by the then Government? How comprehensive was the inquiry carried out by the Department of Defence into the buried material at Maralinga? Was the list of locations of buried radioactive materials ever sent to the South Australian Government, as claimed in a reply given by Senator Carrick? Will this Government institute a full inquiry into these matters and give a report in full to the South Australian Government? Does the Minister agree that the whole affair has been handled in an evasive and irresponsible manner by the previous Fraser Government ?


Senator WALSH —Senator Elstob has asked a number of questions, the first of which was whether the Senate was deceived by answers given by Senator Carrick, I think it was, in 1978. I have looked up those answers and I think it would be probably overstating the case to say that the Senate was deceived by Senator Carrick. The answers he gave, however, were at best limited in their scope and at worst somewhat evasive. I am not sure whether a report was sent to the South Australian Government, as Senator Carrick indicated in 1978-he did not assert it unequivocally at that time-had been done. Nor am I aware of the precise content of that report, if indeed such a report were sent. There would be a possible further problem even if such a report were sent.

Senator Elstob's question referred to locations of buried, radioactive materials. There may be some dispute at the margin as to what is radioactive material because a great deal of material which has never had anything to do with a nuclear explosion is radioactive to a limited degree. In my view, the facts surrounding this whole issue are still not entirely clear. The relevant documentation is widely dispersed, both within Australia and also in the United Kingdom. The records, even if they all could be retrieved and processed, may well be, for all we know, inadequate to establish with certainty all the details of what happened in those locations. But with that important caveat or reservation, the general situation with regard to the disposal of radioactive material in those areas is that the material, which is clearly radioactive, was buried. The more intensely radioactive of that material was also capped with concrete. Those sites were documented by United Kingdom authorities during 1964 and 1967. Almost certainly, other material is buried within the Maralinga area, material which apparently was not classified as being radioactive, but in my view the possibility exists that it could be contaminated to some degree.

Senator Elstob asked whether the Government would institute a full inquiry into these matters. I think it would be premature to make a decision to have such an inquiry, if by that Senator Elstob means an inquiry of the nature of a royal commission. It would be premature to do that, at least until such time as Dr Symonds, a former officer of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, who has been commissioned to write a report on this matter, presents that report, which should happen about mid-year.

Senator Maguire and, indeed, Senator Carrick also took up this question at Estimates Committee C yesterday. A good deal of additional information was supplied by officers of my Department at that hearing. I suggest that Senator Elstob, or anyone else who is interested, might like to look up that record. The attempts to discover the relevant facts pertaining to these incidents are continuing. While noting the difficulties in doing so, to cite just one example, I would have thought that some months ago it would have been a relatively simple matter to determine the precise location at any time of Australian military personnel on duty in the last 30 or 40 years. If it is possible to do so at all, it is possible to do it only with great difficulty, because the records are not available in any readily retrievable form, if they are available at all. Finally , I can give Senator Elstob an assurance that this Government will not be a party to covering up information pertaining to these tests, although there is one caveat which should be lodged to that assurance. Given that a significant amount of the relevant factual material is held by the United Kingdom Government and that some of that is supplied on the understanding that it is confidential between governments, that does impose some limitation on the degree to which we can subsequently make available all the facts, or as many of the facts as we know. To a lesser extent, some Australian security requirements could be involved. But I can give an assurance that, with those two reservations, the Government will certainly not be a party to any attempt to suppress information which the public is entitled to know.