Aborigines' deadline for nuclear clean-up

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The Independent Online
ABORIGINES will raise the stakes this week in a campaign to force the British and Australian governments to clean up former British nuclear test sites contaminated with radioactive debris.

The Aborigines are demanding a commitment from Canberra before the next election, due within six months, to clean up the sites at Maralinga, in South Australia.

The renewed campaign has prompted Canberra to raise the pressure on Britain. Simon Crean, the Australian Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, last week called in Sir Brian Barder, the British High Commissioner, to convey Australia's 'serious concern' over London's lack of response on the issue.

The urgency of the meeting reflected Canberra's anxiety over the expected showdown with Aborigines. Their patience has worn thin because the two countries have failed to resolve their disagreement over who should bear the cost of rehabilitating the sites.

Britain conducted nine atmospheric nuclear weapons trials at Maralinga in 1956 and 1957. The contamination comes from several hundred smaller experiments, up to 1963.

Britain conducted a clean-up in 1967, which consisted of ploughing plutonium and other waste into the topsoil. Australia has argued the whole question should be reopened, ever since an Australian Royal Commission in 1985 found the surface contamination was more extensive than previously realised. A survey disclosed in 1990 that more than 40 square miles of land is still radioactive to levels five times higher than those considered safe under international regulations.

The Maralinga Tjarutja Aborigines received title to most of their traditional land around the test sites eight years ago. According to the 1990 scientific report, the cost of restoring the land could be as high as pounds 300m.

The Aborigines support an option costing about pounds 37m which would involve removing and burying waste and using massive electrical charges to convert contaminated soil into glass and crystal. They are asking for another 45m Australian dollars ( pounds 20m) compensation for the loss of the most highly contaminated parcels of land for 240,000 years, the time it takes for the radioactivity of plutonium to decay.

The Australian Royal Commission recommended that Britain should pay the clean-up cost and Australia should compensate the Aborigines. Australia's Labor government has taken a stronger stand by arguing Britain should compensate the Aborigines as well as make 'a substantial contribution' to the clean-up.

Aborigines and their lawyers have made two visits to London, the last in September when they met Viscount Cranborne, the minister responsible for the issue. Britain is unlikely to accept Australia's demand to compensate the Aborigines, arguing that Australia was responsible for the welfare of the Aborigines at the time of the tests.