THE political geiger counters are crackling once again as senior Australian officials make another demand that Britain clean up the radioactive mess it left behind in the 1950s.
The British conducted seven atomic explosions between 1952-1963 at Maralinga in the South Australia desert and several others in Australia. Britain claims it did clean up the sites satisfactorily and that in a 1968 agreement Australia signed away its right to make further claims.
But Australia says that information has come out since then that indicates the contamination is much worse that Britain has admitted. And, they claim, Britain knew it as early as 1963, yet said nothing.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans and Minister of Primary Industries and Energy Simon Crean will be meeting with senior officials in London on June 17.
They want Britain to pay a "substantial contribution" to the estimated $100 million (Australian; $68 million US) to clean up the land, plus another $45 million Australian to compensate the Maralinga Tjarutja, the Aboriginal clan that has been deprived of access to 1,200 square miles of land because of the tests.
The British had several cleanup projects in the 1960s. During the cleanup, 21 pits were filled with contaminated equipment and topped with 650 tons of concrete. In 1968, a report by Britain's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, which mounted the cleanup, declared the operation had been effective.
In 1984, when 3,000 kilometers of land were due to be returned to the Aborigines, a team of scientists from the Australian Radiation Laboratory (ARL) in Melbourne found the contamination extended further from the firing site and was more highly concentrated on the ground than was previously thought.
Support for the findings has come from US documents, released over the last three years, about US and British tests in Nevada similar to those at Maralinga.
From these tests, ARL scientists conclude that most of the 22 kilograms of plutonium at Maralinga was dispersed as an aerosol in plumes that reached out 150 kilometers (95 miles) or more from the site. What Australians find even more disturbing is a 1961 British report that suggests the same thing; that report was not revealed here until 1985.
While the British are expected to again deny Australia's claim, Australians are heartened that this time they are being received by senior ministers: Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind will meet with the Australian ministers this time.