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ARPANSA supports analysis of historical nuclear test site

16 December 2019

During the 1950s the United Kingdom was granted permission to test nuclear explosives in sites in South Australia and Western Australia.

The testing of these weapons led to contamination of surrounding land and ARPANSA and our predecessors have been involved in supporting the analysis and clean-up of Australian test sites over many years.

Recently, we participated in a study to review the ongoing impacts of tests conducted in the Montebello islands off the north coast of Western Australia.

The study saw the collection of samples of soil, sediment, seawater and animal life including fish and crustaceans. These samples were then analysed to assess the levels of radiation present. ARPANSA’s work focused on assessment of fish and crustacean samples.

‘As expected we found that the samples we analysed had radionuclides that we would not expect in the normal marine environment’, said Dr Rick Tinker, Director of Assessment and Advice, ‘The level of most of these radionuclides had decreased since previous analysis but plutonium levels remained elevated.’

‘Importantly, levels in fish tissue were very low and do not pose a health impact if consumed.’

The Montebello Islands are very remote, located 130 kilometres off the north-west coast of Australia.

The region is not inhabited by humans and has not been developed, however the surrounding waters are visited by fishing boats, so collecting data on the levels of contamination in sea water and marine life is important.

 ‘The study as a whole provides a unique insight into the impacts of nuclear explosions on the environment and the longevity of isotopes many decades after an event’, said Dr Tinker.

As a health authority in radiation protection, ARPANSA will continue to participate in research to assess impacts of radiation on people and the environment.

Our work in assessing impacts on seawater and marine life was part of a collaborative study and a paper was recently published in the Science of the Total Environment journal.