2001 World Conference against A & H Bombs
Australian Peace Committee
Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia - Summary of Recent Developments
Between 1952 and 1957 the British and Australian Governments cooperated in a nuclear weapons test program at the Montebello Islands, off Western Australia, and at Emu and Maralinga in the south central desert area of Australia. According to The Advertiser newspaper (26 May 2001) 12 tests were conducted during this period. In 1985 a royal commission handed down a scathing report on the tests, which exposed Aborigines, military personnel and other civilians to radiation. After the royal commission a clean-up of the area was ordered, but it is claimed that the clean-up was a failure. Recently Maralinga and related issues have re-emerged in the media as more gruesome details have come to light. Below are the key points that have been covered in recent newspaper articles.
1. A Botched Clean-Up
It has been claimed that an agreement with the Maralinga Tjarutja indigenous people was breached through a failure to use in situ vitrification (immobilising the nuclear materials by turning the waste into glass) to store plutonium-contaminated debris from the nuclear tests. The decision to abandon in situ vitrification was made after a sub-surface explosion at Maralinga on March 21, 1999. An engineer involved in the clean-up says that they dug a hole in the ground in totally unsuitable geology to store the radioactive waste. The waste is now only 3m below the ground. He said a temporary storage pit should have been dug to a much greater depth and then lined with concrete for use until a permanent storage technique had been devised to immobilise the plutonium.
2. Nuclear Guinea Pigs
It has long been claimed that military service people and civilians were used as guinea pigs in the tests, in particular the Maralinga tests. Successive governments have refused to compensate these people. Only one nuclear test veteran has ever succesfully sued the government for compensation for radiation poisoning, although more than 8,000 service people and 8,000 civilians were assigned to the program. (Apparently some others have received confidential out of court settlements.) An estimated 6,000 servicemen have since died.
3. Indigenous People
It is claimed that:
* Australian, British and New Zealand servicemen based at Maralinga were ordered to assemble 7.2km from Ground Zero. They would listen, with their hands over their eyes, for five minutes while a countdown played through a loudspeaker. Officers would order them to wait for two seconds after the countdown finished before turning around and looking at the explosion.
* Within 24 hours of each test, people were ordered to drive towing vehicles into the radioactive site where they would retrieve vehicles parked to test the effects of the explosions. Sometimes they wore white radiation-protection suits, with breathing apparatus. On other occasions they were ordered just to wear khakis. They then washed the vehicles with high-pressure hoses, removing large quantities of contaminated soil. They gave blood samples each time they entered and left the hot zone, or finished washing and dismantling the vehicles. Their bodies and clothing were also swept with Geiger counters to measure their radiation count.
* British servicemen were used in clothing trials to test different materials against radiation.
* The Australian government planned to put 385 servicemen into trenches at Maralinga during an explosion to test the effects of radiation. The plan was aborted only when the British, US and Soviet governments agreed to a temporary moratorium on all nuclear testing in October, 1958.
* Servicemen were forced to roll around in radioactive bulldust.
Secret documents have been discovered which reveal that the British Navy knew that sailors sent into the fallout zone of nuclear weapons tests on the Montebello Islands could develop long-term illnesses from radiation exposure. The purpose of sending them there was to help determine permissible doses of radiation.
- Disabled People Used
It is claimed that severely disabled people were sent from Britain to be used as guinea pigs during British atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s. The physically and mentally disabled people are assumed to have died after exposure to radioactive fallout from nuclear explosions. Claims that disabled people were used in experiments to measure the effect of radiation exposure on the human body were examined in the 1985 royal commission into the tests. They were dismissed as unsubstantiated, but Britain's 'Independent' newspaper claims to have uncovered new evidence from a pilot who confirmed he flew disabled people to Australia from Britain.
- Stillborn Babies Used
It has been confirmed by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency that bones from Australian babies were used in scientific tests on nuclear fallout without their parents' consent. Chief Executive John Loy said that Australia sent bone specimens from babies and older people to the US and Britain for nuclear fallout tests, but he said that no evidence existed that stillborn babies had been sent. The agency claims that the samples were cremated in Australia and the ash was sent to Britain and the US for the strontium 90 to be measured. Later, Australia was able to carry out the measurement itself. These tests began in 1955 when Dr Willard Libby, of the University of Chicago, appealed for large numbers of bodies, preferably stillborn babies who died shortly after birth, for experiments on the effect of atom bomb test fallout. It is claimed that 6000 bodies were taken from hospitals in Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, the US and South America without parents' permission.
The tests were carried out despite the fact that Aboriginal people remained in the general area. Many suffered serious health consequences as a result of the 'Black Mist' that spread over the area and some parts of their land are permanently inaccessible due to the remaining radiation. These issues are only briefly touched upon in recent newspaper articles and I don't have access to the 1985 royal commission report. I am therefore unable to give an adequate account of the suffering of Aboriginal people, but it should be remembered that they have probably suffered more than anyone. One recent newspaper article recounts how Aborigines were found drinking alcohol in a concrete bunker in the area just before the explosion. They were found by a soldier. He reported this fact to his supervisor who told him to gForget about it, donft worry about it and say nothing.h
4. Responses and Admissions
- Maralinga Clean-up
Former federal government nuclear engineering adviser Alan Parkinson has called for a public inquiry into the disposal of radioactive materials at Maralinga.
- Servicemen guinea pigs
- The main priority now for the nuclear veterans is convincing the Veteran Affairs Minister to waive legislation prohibiting the men and their widows from receiving compensation because they did not see active service. The minimum they should receive are Veterans Affairs Department 'gold cards' entitling them to free medical treatment at public and private hospitals.
- The search continues for files that were not submitted to the royal commission.
- The Veterans Affairs Minister has announced that a roll of nuclear veterans will be released as a precursor to an extensive health survey.
- The British Government has been forced to admit more than it has previously: namely that, in order to test the protection offered by military clothing in a fallout area, consenting officers were 'transported' to or walked in various uniforms to an area of low-level fallout.
State governments have launched inquiries into claims Australian stillborn babies were used in nuclear experiments.
The British and Australian governments deliberately used human beings as guinea pigs in their nuclear test program. They have since systematically covered up the truth and obstructed the legitimate attempts of the victims to obtain compensation. But the problems just wonft go away. Itfs much the same as everywhere else really.
To the 2001 Wolrd Conference against A & H Bombs