‘Radiation risk’: Nuclear threat discovered off the WA coast

Tourists visiting a popular destination in Western Australia have been warned there is still a “radiation risk” 70 years after it was used as a nuclear test site, a study has found.

The Montebello Islands, located 120km off the WA coast, were used by the British in 1952 for Operation Hurricane, which saw three nuclear tests performed.

“More than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists,” the four-year study by Edith Cowan University PhD student Madison Hoffman found.

More than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists.
Camera IconMontebello Islands attract nature lovers such as fishermen, divers and snorkellers. Credit: Supplied

With the islands attracting nature lovers such as fishers, divers and snorkellers to its coral reefs, the study has brought a fresh warning for tourists.

Due to the elevated radiation levels, visitors are currently encouraged to keep their trips to an hour a day.

The exact level of danger that the radiation levels pose to humans is yet to be determined, but Ms Hoffman hopes that is something she can determine soon.

More than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists.
Camera IconThe Montebello Islands Marine Park has more than 250 low-lying limestone islands and islets, covering almost 60,000 hectares of ocean. Credit: Supplied

“We don‘t quite have an answer for that yet, but we’re hoping over the next two years that we’ll be able to put a number to the potential risk,” she said.

Operation Hurricane was the first time an atomic bomb was tested by the British, with the site chosen due to its isolated location and Australia’s close ties with the UK.

The study saw more than 100 samples of marine sediment and marine life collected and tested.

More than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists.
Camera IconMore than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists. Credit: Supplied

“It is really important that we try and understand exactly what type of radionuclides and what levels of radiation remain in the marine ecosystem at the Montebello Islands,” Ms Hoffman said.

Radionuclides are substances that release radiation, with some being harmful to humans as they damage the body’s cells and cause cancer.

More than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists.
Camera IconMadison Hoffman has done four years of testing as a part of the first-of-its-kind study. Credit: Supplied

“We’re focusing now on mapping out areas where higher levels of radionuclides are found in marine sediment all around the Marine Park.”

The level of radiation also poses a threat to local wildlife, with more than 450 species of fish, 630 types of molluscs like octopi and cuttlefish, and 170 varieties of starfish and sea urchins found in the area.

More than half a century on, marine scientists have discovered there remains a radiation risk to marine life and tourists.
Camera IconThe Montebello Islands are ranked among the world’s most biodiverse marine environments, with more than 150 varieties of coral, 450 species of fish, 630 types of molluscs and 170 species of sea stars and urchins. Credit: Supplied

The exact impact of 70 years of radiation on the local ecosystem is not yet known to scientists, but Ms Hoffman says subsequent studies will look to determine what that will look like.

“We don’t know what positive or negative effects of the radiation will be, it’s a first-of-its-kind study so we need to walk before we can run,” she said.

“The final phase of the project will be to use these readings and some sophisticated models to see if there is any impact on the marine creatures that live, breathe and reproduce in the sediment.”

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