British nuclear weapons testing – the toxic price paid by Australia

Australia’s hospitality, largesse and loyalty to Britain were not without their costs. Moreover, the sacrifices made by Australians on behalf of the ‘motherland’ were not equally borne. Whilst low population density and remoteness from major population centres were among the criteria for the selection of the testing sites, the Emu and Maralinga sites in particular were not uninhabited. Indeed, they had been familiar to generations of Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years and had a great spiritual significance for the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people.

A variety of factors underlay the harm to public health, Aboriginal culture and the natural environment which the British tests entailed. Perhaps most significant was the secrecy surrounding the testing program.

During the entire course of the testing program, public debate on the costs and risks borne by the Australian public was discouraged through official secrecy, censorship, misinformation, and attempts to denigrate critics

Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector / P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989 “…….
In 1950, Labor Prime Minister Clement Atlee sent a top secret personal message to Australian Prime Minister Menzies asking if the Australian government might agree to the testing of a British nuclear weapon at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia. Menzies agreed in principle, immediately; there is no record of his having consulted any of his Cabinet colleagues on the matter.

The Monte Bello site was deemed suitable by British authorities, and in a message to Menzies dated 26 March 1951 Atlee sought formal agreement to conduct the test. Atlee’s letter did not discuss the nature of the proposed test in minute detail. He did, however, see fit to mention the risk of radiation hazards:

6. There is one further aspect which I should mention. The effect of exploding an atomic weapon in the Monte Bello Islands will be to contaminate with radio activity the north-east group and this contamination may spread to others of the islands. The area is not likely to be entirely free from contamination for about three years and we would hope for continuing Australian help in investigating the decay of contamination. During this time the area will be unsafe for human occupation or even for visits by e.g. pearl fishermen who, we understand, at present go there from time to time and suitable measures will need to be taken to keep them away. We should not like the Australian Government to take a decision on the matter without having this aspect of it in their minds (quoted in Australia 1985, p. 13).

Menzies was only too pleased to assist the ‘motherland’, but deferred a response until after the 195 1 federal elections. With the return of his government, preparations for the test, code-named ‘Hurricane’, proceeded. Yet it was not until 19 February 1952 that the Australian public was informed that atomic weapons were to be tested on Australian soil. On 3 October 1952 the British successfully detonated a nuclear device of about 25 kilotons in the Monte Bello Islands.

The newest member of the nuclear club was by no means content to rest on the laurels of one successful test, however. Indeed, even before the Monte Bello detonation, British officials had visited sites in a remote area of South Australia with an eye to conducting future tests.

In December 1952, the new British Prime Minister, Churchill, asked Menzies for agreement in principle to a series of tests at Emu Field, some 1,200 km northwest of Adelaide in the Great Victoria Desert. Menzies replied promptly, in the affirmative. On 15 October 1953, Totem 1, a device with a yield of approximately 10 kilotons was detonated; two days later, Totem 11 was exploded with an approximate yield of 8 kilotons.

By this time, the British government had become firmly committed to a continuing nuclear weapons program. Three days after the conclusion of the Totem trials, the Australian government was formally advised of British desires to establish a permanent testing site in Australia. In August 1954, the Australian Cabinet agreed to the establishment of a permanent testing ground at a site that became named Maralinga, north of the transcontinental railway line in southwestern South Australia.

Following the ‘Mosaic’ tests in mid-1956, which involved the detonation of two weapons at the Monte Bello site, the British testing program in Australia was confined to the mainland. Four ‘Buffalo’ tests were conducted at Maralinga in September and October 1956, and three ‘Antler’ explosions were detonated there the following year.

Each of these explosions generated considerable radioactivity, by means of the initial nuclear reaction and the through dispersion of radioactive particulate colloquially known as ‘fallout’. In addition to British scientific and military personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radiation produced by the tests. These included not only those involved in supporting the British testing program, but also Aboriginal people living downwind of the test sites, and other Australians more distant who came into contact with airborne radioactivity.

A series of British hydrogen bomb tests was conducted in the Pacific Ocean during 1957 and 1958 without Australian involvement. In addition to the major weapons testing programs, the British undertook a number of minor trials at Emu and at Maralinga during the period 1953-1963. The ‘Kittens’, ‘Tims’ and ‘Rats’ series of experiments tested individual components or sub-assemblies of nuclear devices. Subsequent series, called ‘Vixen A’ and ‘Vixen B’ sought to investigate the effects of accidental fires and explosions on nuclear weapons.

While less spectacular than the major detonations, the minor trials were more numerous. They also contributed to the lasting contamination of the Maralinga area. As a result of the nearly 600 minor trials, some 830 tons of debris contaminated by about 20 kg of plutonium were deposited in pits which graced the South Australian landscape. An additional 2 kg of plutonium was dispersed over the area. Such an outcome was unfortunate indeed, as plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known; it dissipates more slowly than most radioactive elements. The half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. At this rate of decay, the Maralinga lands would be contaminated for the next half-million years.

Thus, Australia’s hospitality, largesse and loyalty to Britain were not without their costs. Moreover, the sacrifices made by Australians on behalf of the ‘motherland’ were not equally borne. Whilst low population density and remoteness from major population centres were among the criteria for the selection of the testing sites, the Emu and Maralinga sites in particular were not uninhabited. Indeed, they had been familiar to generations of Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years and had a great spiritual significance for the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people.

In the interests of the testing program, it was decided to curtail the movements of those Aboriginal people traversing the Maralinga area. In addition, a number were taken to a reserve which had recently been established at Yalata, some distance to the south, across the transcontinental railway line. The removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional homelands was more than an inconvenience. The Maralinga lands contained mythological sites of spiritual significance for their inhabitants, a significance which was at best only vaguely appreciated by white officials. Indeed, this lack of sensitivity was illustrated by the consideration given by authorities to identifying sacred objects and ‘removing’ them to areas of resettlement (Australia 1985, pp. 300-1). During the 1950s, hundreds of former inhabitants of the Maralinga lands sought to reaffirm their threatened culture by travelling considerable distances from the Yalata area in order to attend ceremonial functions and to visit other Aboriginal groups. These movements extended as far west as Cundalee, Western Australia, and as far east as Coober Pedy and Mabel Creek.

Some Aboriginal people were even less fortunate. Security patrols in and around the Maralinga area were intermittently effective, and from time to time some Aboriginal people were evicted from the area. Years later, Aboriginal people from Western Australia would recall how they were directed away from Maralinga along a road which diverged from their standard water hole routes, and how some of their party died from lack of access to water.

For those who survived, there seems little doubt that for the Western Desert (Maralinga) people the alien settlement of Yalata and lack of access to their desert homelands contributed significantly to the social disintegration which characterises the community to this day. Petrol sniffing, juvenile crime, alcoholism and chronic friction between residents and the South Australian police have become facts of life (Brady & Morice 1982).

The security measures taken to restrict access to the testing site were not without flaws. One morning in May 1957, four Aboriginal people, the Milpuddie family, were found by range authorities near the crater formed by the ‘Buffalo 2’ explosion the previous October. ‘Me man, woman, two children and two dogs had set out on foot from the Everard Ranges in the northwest of South Australia, and were unaware that the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Maralinga area had been removed. When authorities discovered them, the family was immediately taken to a decontamination centre at the site, and were required to shower. After this experience, which must have been frightening enough, the family was driven to Yalata.

As one of the site personnel described the experience:

It was a shocking trip down as they had never ridden in a vehicle before and vomited everywhere (Australia 1985, p. 320).

On instructions from the Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Supply, the dogs were shot. ‘ne woman was pregnant at the time the family was taken into custody; subsequently, her baby was born dead. Australian authorities went to great lengths to keep the incident secret, but they appear to have been less concerned with the family’s subsequent health. Commenting upon the fact that no-one appears to have taken the time to explain the experience to which the hapless Aborigines were subjected, a team of anthropologists was to comment:

[T]he three remaining members of the family have been subjected to a high degree of stress and unhappiness about the events of twenty-eight years ago (Australia 1985, p. 323).

Knowledge of the hazards of radioactivity has accumulated only gradually over the past century. Some of the dangers posed by radiation become apparent soon after the discovery of X-rays in 1895. It was recognised early on that exposure to sufficient doses of radiation could cause injuries to internal organs, as well as to the skin and the eyes. Only after a number of years did scientists become aware of the risk of genetic damage, and of carcinogenic effects as well, at low levels of exposure. Degrees of exposure regarded as tolerable in the 1950s are now internationally recognised as unsafe.

The amount of radioactivity generated by a nuclear explosion can vary considerably depending upon a number of factors. These include the size of the weapon, and the location of the burst – an explosion at ground level may be expected to generate more dust and other radioactive particulate matters than an air burst. The dispersion of radioactive material is also dependent upon weather conditions.

The heritable and carcinogenic effects of radiation often do not manifest themselves for considerable periods. Moreover, both effects may result from other causes, unrelated to radiation, or may even occur spontaneously. Thus, any determination of the health consequences of nuclear weapons testing in Australia would require very detailed records identifying those citizens who were exposed to radiation, and the degree of radiation to which they were exposed.

Although most of the British and Australian personnel involved in the testing program were equipped with film badges and dosimeters to record the extent of their exposure to radiation, some did not. Moreover, those measuring devices which were provided did not record exposure with perfect accuracy.

Nor could the risk to the general public be assessed with any real rigour. Despite the fact that airborne radiation from the Monte Bello tests was detected as far away as Townsville and Rockhampton, official fallout measurements were not compiled, and available data was insufficient to estimate collective exposure. Whilst it is probable that some cases of cancer and genetic damage were caused by radiation generated by the nuclear tests, a realistic estimate of their extent is not possible.

A variety of factors underlay the harm to public health, Aboriginal culture and the natural environment which the British tests entailed. Perhaps most significant was the secrecy surrounding the testing program. The decision to make the Monte Bello Islands available to the British for their first nuclear test appears to have been made by the Prime Minister alone, without reference to Cabinet, much less Parliament or the Australian public. During the entire course of the testing program, public debate on the costs and risks borne by the Australian public was discouraged through official secrecy, censorship, misinformation, and attempts to denigrate critics……Read http://aic.gov.au/publications/previous%20series/lcj/1-20/wayward/ch16.html

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