There are serious gaps in how Australia deals with the problem of radiation contamination of suburban homes, a leading lawyer told the CleanUp 09 conference in Adelaide on 30 September.
The long running saga of how government sold a radioactive property situated on prime waterfront land in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill to private owners has highlighted serious deficiencies in how Australia manages the issue of sites contaminated with radioactive waste, says Dr Nicholas Brunton, a partner in the law firm of Henry Davis York.
The main issues he raised at the conference were:
- There is a loss of expertise within the regulatory agencies
- There are no national criteria for cleaning up sites contaminated with radioactive waste
- Not enough is known about how to appropriately measure and monitor radioactive contamination, the pathways by which it can reach people and the resulting risk to human life, especially over time.
“The nightmare for our clients began when they received a brochure in the mail advising them that neighbouring blocks were contaminated with radioactive waste and were going to be cleaned up,” says Dr Brunton, who represented the owners through a Parliamentary Inquiry, two media campaigns and Supreme Court proceedings before the case was settled.
“They were naturally very concerned. Further investigations found their home was the site of an old uranium processing plant from 1910-1916 and that waste ore had been dumped on the site. Then we found that the government had long been aware of this.”
Tests carried out for the NSW Department of Health by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) confirmed the block was radioactive – but ANSTO were not asked to assess the potential dose from inhalation of radon, radioactive dusts or particles, or assess levels of contamination in the soil. Despite this, the Health Department claimed the site posed no health risk. After the owners hired their own expert, Australian Radiation Services, they were alarmed to discover that soil contamination was up to 400 times above background radiation levels and the external gamma radiation dose received by an individual living on the property was up to two and a half times the recommended maximum. This meant they couldn't live in the $3.4m house, rent it out, or attempt to sell it.
“Gamma radiation is just one way a resident can be exposed. There is also radon gas, dust inhalation and physical contact with the soil or the eating of vegetables grown in it,” he says
One former resident who lived at the property during her childhood has indeed developed Hashimoto’s disease, a radiation induced syndrome, while many others believe that the radiation has caused cancer in those who lived in the area.
The situation came about when the NSW Government bought three blocks in the early 1980s when further studies showed the site to be seriously contaminated. The land was transferred to the Health Department who allegedly carried out some minor clean-up in 1989 and then re-sold one of the homes to a private owner. They later issued a certificate stating it was "clear of contamination". When the subsequent owners bought the house, the usual property searches did not indicate any risk of contamination.
Dr Brunton says the situation of industrial plant processing uranium on the banks of the Parramatta River almost a century ago is unique, but there may be other sites in Australian cities where high levels of radiation exist from former sand mining operations or from situations where radioactive waste was stored or dumped.
“Many experts in this field today say that even one millisievert above background levels is too much radiation if you are exposed to it for long enough – and that is the current national guideline. In the case of Hunters Hill, our expert found far higher levels.
“This case clearly demonstrated that in some areas there is a lack of understanding in measuring radiation, no national criteria for clean up of radioactive contaminated sites, and limited expertise within government agencies to deal with the complexity of radioactive sites."