It was a different day today for a couple of reasons. The sky was overcast, the winds had abated and the temperature had dropped 10 degrees from yesterday was the first. The second was we were headed out to stand on the Ground Zero’s of a number of atomic tests from the 1950’s and guaranteed that we would not glow in the dark at the end of the day.
Maralinga was the site of over 700 tests in the 1950’s and 1960’s by the British Government on Australian soil. Seven of these tests were big and even though they left physical damage, the radiation was only minor in comparison. It was the other 700+ tests where they made dirty bombs and blew up anything else they could think of that caused the environmental damage.
A number of cleanups over the years and a lot of money has now rendered the area “safe” which now allows tours to be made of the various sites. The tour guide, Robin, had a radiation meter which we hoped was calibrated right and the area is surveyed each year by ARPANSA to ensure that nothing is leaking from the burial sites.
First stop on the tour is the water retention dam. This dam is fed from the parking area at the airport with the water flowing through a number of drains and aqueducts. The water is then treated before it is deemed safe and drinkable. I still used my own water though.
Onto the Airport with the largest runway in the Southern Hemisphere which is still able to be used as an emergency runway for commercial jets and was an alternative landing site for the space shuttle. Interestingly the water runoff from the runway was never added to the water retention system due to the chance of radioactive material off planes that flew through the bomb clouds getting into the drinking water.
The landing area at each end of the runway is 4m thick concrete with the bitumen for the rest of the runway being 6 inches thick. The runway is still in very good condition for 60 years old and not been touched. It is surveyed every year to ensure that it is still able to be used as an emergency runway.
Off course there was an opportunity to run amok on the runway and we achieved 141kph in the Pajero (I am sure the Colorado could have done better if I had taken it) before running out of the 2.4km runway. There was some interesting bush tucker growing along side the runway in “bush bananas“. Apparently they taste similar to passion fruit.
Even through we are hundreds of miles from anywhere, there is 250 kms of bitumen roads in the Maralinga Zone, still here and in reasonable condition even after all these years. The tour took in 93 kms of these bitumen roads with 2 kms of dirt. The British apparently had a thing for bitumen and concrete. It would have been a good contract back in the day.
It was onto the “Taranaki” bomb site for lunch. This was the biggest of the tests carried out here with a 27 kiloton bomb suspended from a balloon. And here we are eating lunch within a couple of hundred metres of Ground Zero. The area has had $108 million spent on cleaning it up and making it safe or so we have been told. We overlooked 3 burial pits. The first is where they turned the ground into glass using a very expensive and time consuming process. The second pit is where the topsoil of 2.5 square kilometres was buried and the third one is where all the machinery used in the cleanup is buried.
The machinery was driven into the pit, oil drained and the engines run unti they seized. A D11 dozer was then run over them to crush them before covering them over. This will stop anyone thinking about digging them up in the future and using them.
The obligatory photo on the concrete plinth at Ground Zero before heading to the “Breakaway” bomb site. This bomb was let off on the top of a tower and it caused all the sandy top soil turn into glass. We passed a radiation meter over the glass and it was giving off less radiation than being in a modern office. That was good to know.
The final ground zero was the “Marcoo” site which was a bomb that was placed in a cellar which caused a 45 metre crater when it let loose. The crater has been filled in and a lot of machinery including double decker buses was placed in before covering it over. Prior to its remediation, an aboriginal family was found living in it. They were decontaminated and moved onto Yalata. There has been radiation related problems with this family but talking with Robin the tour guide, who is related, the problems were more related to the process of decontamination than the radiation.
There was one more location we visited which was going to be the “Tufi”bomb site but a Treaty was signed with the US and Russia before it was used so it had to be dismantled. It was going to be another tethered balloon and the anchors and concrete to hold the balloon was going to ensure that it would not blow away to Queensland.
The weather had been building through the day with the expectation of thunderstorms during the night. As we were enjoying some beverages over tea reflecting on the days tour, the skies to the south were getting darker and the lightning and thunder were getting more frequent but were still 20-30 kms to our south. This certainly lived up to the meaning of Maralinga being “fields of thunder”.
Those that were sleeping in swags decided to move into the shed as the radar showed another line of thunderstorms heading our way. It was probably a good thing as we would find out later in the night. It wasn’t going to worry me too much, being in the Taj.