NSW: Buried radioactive materials highlight Ontario risk

“…a truck carrying radioactive elements including caesium and americium crashed in 1980… workers fell ill after unearthing a strange clay-like material from a cutting where material from the crash is believed to have been buried.”

It is astonishing that New South Wales authorities ‘disposed’ of radioactive material so casually, let alone that such records as were kept are obviously inadequate.

This incident reminds me of the dangers we may face in Ontario as the result of possible deliberate ‘burials’ of radioactive materials as recently as the 1960’s.  I wrote about this in one of my first posts in May 2010, see link at the foot of this post.

Jeff Goodall.

Workers sick amid highway radiation scare

ABC Illawara
April 18th, 2012

Road workers were sent for medical treatment after vomiting when suspected nuclear material was unearthed during work on an upgrade to the Pacific Highway in New South Wales.

The materials were buried near Laurieton, south of Port Macquarie, after a truck carrying radioactive elements including caesium and americium crashed in 1980.

The isotopes were being taken from Sydney’s Lucas Heights nuclear reactor to Brisbane from where it was to be shipped to the United States.

Road upgrade project manager Bob Higgins says the workers fell ill after unearthing a strange clay-like material from a cutting where material from the crash is believed to have been buried.

“As we’ve taken down the cutting, there we exposed the face of the existing material [and] came across a clay material that, when it’s exposed to air, gets an orange streak through it,” he said.

“There were a number of workers that felt a little bit of nausea and there was a bit of vomiting when they were in close proximity.

“[They went] off to the doctor. Those workers are OK, but obviously we need to be extremely careful here.”

The environmental impact statement for the highway upgrade had noted some uncertainty about where the material was buried.

Specialists are in the area assessing what to do with the materials and if they pose any risk.

Triple checking
A federal parliamentary report into hazardous materials in 1982 included details of the crash.

“A truck carrying containers of radioactive material, americium-241, caesium-137, and toxic chemicals overturned near Port Macquarie,” the report said.

“Fortunately an Australian Atomic Energy Commission officer holidaying at Port Macquarie at the time of the accident was able to make an examination and declare the containers carrying the radioactive material undamaged.”

Mr Higgins says that information is being checked in light of the sick workers.

“The bottles hadn’t broken, that’s the information that we had, and it was able to be transferred to Brisbane. But we double check and we’re triple checking just to make sure that nothing’s there,” he said.

“It’s a process of elimination that’s going on at the moment. You test for this type of chemical. You test for that type of chemical.”

Exclusion zone

Roads and Maritime Services has set up an exclusion zone around the site, while the WorkCover Authority of NSW and the state’s Environmental Protection Authority have also been called in.

“It’s only in the immediate vicinity of where we found it. The rest of the [highway upgrade] work can continue,” Mr Higgins said.

Brian Parker from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) says the exposure should not have happened.

“We’re certainly angry and annoyed about the lack of procedure or process in terms of not exposing anybody, knowing full well that we’ve had an incident that took place and high toxic substances and exposure to all sort of materials,” he said.

John Mackay, a doctor who treated police who became ill at the crash site in 1980, says he is convinced they suffered radiation poisoning.

Dr Mackay says the officers handled radioactive mater that was onboard the truck.

“The police were instructed by Lucas Heights to approach the radioactive containers, of which there were several, but in particular the caesium-137 containers and put their arms inside of it to check if the inside radioisotope had been broken,” he said.

“Within seconds or minutes the men felt intensely sick.”

See original here.

See “Radiocative waste hazard in Ontario?” (May 30th, 2010) here.

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