The Sydney Morning Herald has revealed that the accidental exposure that sickened crews working on the Pacific Highway near Port Macquarie, which was announced yesterday, took place nearly three weeks ago.
The workers have reportedly since recovered and the area has been cordoned off pending further investigations into what the men were exposed to.
Roads minister Duncan Gay says no radioactive material has been detected but the Greens issued a press release yesterday claiming that the unstable nuclear isotope Americium 241, an intense gamma-emitter with a half-life of 432 years, was the cause.
The state government says it is establishing an independent inquiry into the presence of the toxic material.
The clay-like substance was discovered while workers were exposing an old cutting on the highway to make way for the new one at Herons Creek on the mid-north coast. The area is within 100 metres of Australia’s worst nuclear accident. In December 1980, a truck carrying caesium, the banned poison DDT and other chemicals rolled on the highway, spilling toxic chemicals and canisters of nuclear material onto the roadway.
Pacific Highway upgrade GM Bob Higgins told Fairfax radio yesterday that ‘grey coloured clay’ was exposed that ‘when it was exposed to the air got orange streaks on it. And there are some fumes that came from that. So on exposure to the air there’s been some reaction.’
Mr Higgins said RMS had put in place a 50-metre exclusion zone around the site.
Mr Gay told ABC radio this morning ‘there are no concerns for the travelling public. Our prime concern is the worksite and the workers.’
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has sent experts to the area to help with identifying the mystery substance. But ANSTO has denied that its predecessor or Lucas Heights reactor were the source of the material.
The materials belonged to Century Geophysical Corporation and were bound for Brisbane, from where they were to be shipped to the US for disposal. The company was deregistered in 1999.
The Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, said ‘it is outrageous that road workers have been occupationally exposed to radiation’ and has called for an independent commission on the long-term safe storage, transport and management of Australia’s radioactive waste.
The state government has recently declared it will grant uranium exploration licences, including in the Northern Rivers region, potentially increasing the amount of nuclear material being transported on our roads.
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