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Chapter 16: A toxic legacy : British nuclear weapons testing in Australia

Chapter 16: A toxic legacy : British nuclear weapons testing in Australia

Published in:
Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector / P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989
ISBN 0 642 14605 5
(Australian studies in law, crime and justice series); pp. 235-253

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons in 1945 marked the beginning of a new era in warfare.

At the end of World War II only the United States commanded the resources and the expertise required to produce a nuclear weapon. This nuclear monopoly was to be short-lived, however. The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in 1948. France and Britain, each presiding over shrinking empires and anxious to arrest the decline of their prominence in world politics, sought eagerly to join the nuclear club.

Britain's decision to build an atomic weapon was taken in 1947. Although she remained a close ally of the United States, collaboration with United States weapons development programs was precluded by American legislation which prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons technology to other nations, no matter how friendly. Thus, the British founded the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, United Kingdom, and began to develop atomic weapons of their own.

The development of such high technology weaponry, of course, required periodic testing, ideally (for reasons of security as well as public health) in an uninhabited or sparsely populated area. It was originally hoped that United States nuclear weapons testing facilities either in Nevada or in the Pacific might be made available for British weapons tests. But United States willingness to form even such a limited nuclear partnership was inhibited by the escalation of the Cold War. The Soviets had begun to develop a nuclear weapons program of their own, assisted in part by secret information conveyed to them by British subjects Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs.

Thus the British, keen to begin their testing program and lacking the complete confidence of the United States, began to explore other venues for testing their new weaponry. The remoteness and sparse population of Australia made it an attractive alternative; sites considered by the British in the course of an initial geographic perusal included Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and an island in the Bass Strait off Tasmania. 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. A preliminary assessment of the suitability of the proposed test site was conducted in October-November 1950.

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.

Admittedly, in the 1950s knowledge of radiation hazards was not as advanced as it is today. At the time it was not generally recognised that small doses of low level radiation might increase the risk of cancer years later. But even in the light of knowledge of the time, the information on which Menzies based his decisions was seriously deficient.

There seems little doubt that the secrecy in which the entire testing program was cloaked served British rather than Australian interests. From the outset, the British were under pressure to demonstrate to the Americans that they were able to keep secrets at all. Full disclosure of the hazards and potential costs to Australia entailed in the testing program were out of the question. Information passed to Australian officials was kept to the minimum necessary to facilitate their assistance in the conduct of the testing program. The use of plutonium in the minor trials was not disclosed.

Australian tolerance of the British and their obsessive secrecy may be explained by the deference and loyalty to the 'motherland'. Prime Minister Menzies identified so strongly with Britain that he considered British national interest as Australia's national interest. Although he was later to seek assurances that hazards inherent in the testing program would be minimal and that appropriate safeguards would protect the Australian public, his enduring faith in the British was to blunt his critical faculties.

It is perhaps illustrative that on the occasions chosen by Australian authorities to assert themselves on matters of policy, the issues of concern were purely symbolic. The Antler series of tests was renamed, after Australians objected to the proposed name 'Volcano' (Milliken 1986, p. 226). On another occasion, a detonation scheduled for a Sunday was postponed in deference to Australian sensibilities (Australia 1985, p. 287).

Another factor which underlay Australian deference during the course of the testing program was the role of Sir Ernest Titterton. A British physicist, Titterton had worked in the United States on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapon.

After the war, he held a position at the British Atomic Energy Research Establishment, and in 1950 he was appointed to the Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University. Among Titterton's earliest tasks in Australia was that of an adviser to the British scientific team at the first Monte Bello tests. In 1956, the Australian government established an Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) responsible for monitoring the British testing program to ensure that the safety of the Australian environment and population were not jeopardised. To this end, it was to review British test proposals, provide expert advice to the Australian government, and to monitor the outcome of tests. Titterton was a foundation member of the Committee and later, its Chairman.

While Menzies had envisaged that the Committee would act as an independent, objective body, evidence suggests that it was more sensitive to the needs of the British testing program than to its Australian constituents.

Members tended to be drawn from the nuclear weapons fraternity, as was Titterton; from the Defence establishment, from the Commonwealth Department of Supply, from the Commonwealth X-Ray and Radium Laboratory, and from the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. Although the expertise of these individuals is beyond dispute, one wonders if they may have been too closely identified with the 'atomic establishment' to provide independent critical advice. The nuclear weapons fraternity have often been criticised as a rather cavalier lot; no less a person than General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb, has been quoted as having said 'Radiation death is a very pleasant way to die' (Ball 1986, p. 8). In retrospect, the Australian safety committee suffered from the absence of biologists and environmental scientists in its ranks.

The plight of Aborigines in the vicinity of the prohibited zone was in many respects a reflection of their status in Australia at the time. In a revealing statement to the Royal Commission, Sir Ernest Titterton was quoted as having said that if Aboriginal people objected to the tests they could vote the government out (Australia 1985, p. 121). It is naive to suggest that such a small disadvantaged minority might wield electoral influence; doubly so since Aboriginal people were denied full voting rights at the time of the tests, and indeed, were even excluded from census enumeration until 1967. There is no dearth of evidence of the low regard in which Aborigines were held at the time. The chief scientist of the Department of Supply, a British expatriate, criticised an officer whom he regarded as overly concerned with Aboriginal welfare for 'placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations' (Australia 1985, p. 309).

Because of their unique lifestyle, and often their lack of clothing, footwear and permanent shelter, Aboriginal residents in remote parts of Australia were particularly vulnerable to radiation. Although this was recognised and acted upon later in the testing program, the AWTSC was initially ignorant of or unconcerned with these risks.

Disinformation, whether deliberate or unintentional, was all too common during the testing programs. In order to provide accurate meteorological data for the weapons tests, a small weather station was constructed across the Western Australian border from Maralinga. The Australian Minister of Supply at the time, Howard Beale, quite falsely claimed that it was sited very carefully away from Aboriginal watering places (Australia 1985, p. 373). In fact, the site was chosen without seeking the advice of the native patrol officer. Moreover, the roads which were built to provide access to the weather station contradicted the assurances made by the government in 1947 that no roads would encroach upon the Aboriginal reserve.

In the aftermath of the second Monte Bello tests in 1956, the AWTSC filed a reassuring report which failed to refer to complications with the tests and to levels of fallout on the mainland which were higher than expected (Australia 1985, pp. 257-9).

In 1960, the British advised the AWTSC that 'long lived fissile elements' and 'a toxic material' would be used in the 'Vixen B' tests. Titterton requested that the materials be named, and later announced 'They have answered everything we asked.' The substances in question were not disclosed (Australia 1985, p. 414). In recommending that the Australian government agree to the tests, he appears to have been either insufficiently informed of the hazards at hand, or to have failed to communicate those hazards to the Safety Committee, and through it, to the Australian government. Earlier, before the Totem tests, he had reassured the Australian Prime Minister that

the time of firing will be chosen so that any risk to health due to radioactive contamination in our cities, or in fact to any human beings, is impossible. . . . [N]o habitations or living beings will suffer injury to health from the effects of the atomic explosions proposed for the trials (quoted in Australia 1985, p. 467).

There were other examples of Titterton's role in filtering information to the Australian authorities, a role which has been described as 'pivotal' (Australia 1985, p. 513). He proposed that he be advised informally of certain details of proposed experiments. In one instance, he advised the British that 'It would perhaps be wise to make it quite clear that the fission yield in all cases is zero', knowing that this would be a misrepresentation of fact (Australia 1985, p. 519). Years later, the Royal Commission suggested that Titterton may have been more a de facto member of the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment than a custodian of the Australian public interest.

The Royal Commission's indictment of Titterton would be damning:

Titterton played a political as well as a safety role in the testing program, especially in the minor trials. He was prepared to conceal information from the Australian Government and his fellow Committee members if he believed to do so would suit the interests of the United Kingdom Government and the testing program (Australia 1985, p. 526).

British secretiveness and imperfect review of test proposals and consequences by Australian officials notwithstanding, the degree to which Australian authorities went in limiting debate and discussion of the testing program and its effects cannot be ignored.

Such media coverage of the tests as was permitted by British and Australian authorities tended to be trivial and generally celebratory (Woodward 1984). Restrictions were onerous, in some occasions to the point of absurdity. D-notices were applied in such a manner that Australian journalists were forbidden from reporting items which had already been published freely in the United Kingdom.

Dissent or criticism by Australian personnel involved in the testing program was not tolerated. One patrol officer who objected that the development of testing sites was proceeding without due regard for the protection and welfare of local Aborigines was 'reminded of his obligations as a Commonwealth Officer' (Australia 1985, p. 304), and warned against speaking to the press.

Occasionally, when Aborigines were sighted in restricted areas, reports of these sightings were disbelieved, or less than subtly discouraged. One officer who reported sighting Aborigines in the prohibited zone was asked if he realised 'what sort of damage [he] would be doing by finding Aboriginals where Aboriginals could not be' (Australia 1985, p. 319).

After the Milpuddie family was found in the restricted area at Maralinga, the Range Commander invoked the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 (Cwlth) to prevent disclosure of the incident by any personnel on the scene.

The flow of information within government departments was at times impeded, with adverse consequences. According to one account, incomplete information about plutonium contaminations at Maralinga was given to Vic Garland, a Minister in the McMahon government, causing him to mislead Parliament in 1972 (Toohey 1978).

The full legal and political implications of the testing program would take decades to emerge. The secrecy which surrounded the British testing program and the remoteness of the tests from major population centres meant that public opposition to the tests and awareness of the risks involved grew very slowly.

But as the ban-the-bomb movement gathered momentum in Western societies throughout the 1950s, so too did opposition to the British tests in Australia. An opinion poll taken in 1957 showed 49 per cent of the Australian public opposed to the tests and only 39 per cent in favour.

Evatt and Calwell, Leader and Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition, called for an end to the tests. Following the conclusion of the Antler series in October 1957, the British conducted their large thermonuclear tests at Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean; only the so-called 'minor' trials continued at Maralinga.

By the early 1960s, the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain signed an agreement to cease atmospheric nuclear tests. The British, having finally gained the confidence of the United States, were invited to conduct underground tests at United States facilities in Nevada. It was thus decided to close the Maralinga facility.

In 1967, the British undertook an operation to decontaminate the Maralinga range. 'Operation Brumby' as it was called, involved burying a variety of radioactive debris, including plutonium, in pits which were covered with concrete. Radioactive fragments scattered over the terrain were ploughed into the earth or covered with topsoil to reduce the likelihood of dispersion and subsequent inhalation or ingestion. A top secret report on the operation was prepared, submitted to the Australian government, filed, and soon forgotten. In September 1968, the British and Australian governments signed an agreement which released the British from all legal liabilities or further responsibilities arising from the testing program.

The issue lay dormant for almost another decade. In 1974, the Commonwealth government made a compensation payment of $8,600 to the widow of a warrant officer who had died of leukemia six years previously. The officer had been exposed to a relatively high dose of radiation while repairing a tank at the Maralinga test site. In December 1976 an Opposition frontbencher, Tom Uren, queried whether the minor trials had been in breach of international agreements in force at the time, and whether radioactive wastes were buried at Maralinga. He was reassured by the Minister of Defence that rumours and allegations to that effect were unfounded. Despite Uren's call for a Royal Commission, the media failed to develop the story (Milliken 1986, p. 263).

Later in 1977 The Australian lonising Radiation Advisory Council (AIRAC) began a review of waste at Maralinga. But before it was completed, the leak of a Cabinet document shed further light on the matter. An article in the Australian Financial Review (Toobey 1978) revealed that the Minister of Defence had warned Cabinet that the quantity of weapons-grade plutonium buried at Maralinga was vulnerable to theft by potential terrorists, and that Australia might thereby be in breach of international safeguard arrangements.

The Fraser government, anxious to minimise embarrassment in general and to minimise any political threats to the burgeoning Australian uranium industry in particular, quickly asked the British government to remove that plutonium which existed in recoverable form. The British were agreeable, subject to further conditions, including that they would bear no further responsibility for removal of additional waste.

Not long after this operation was completed, the Fraser government released a 'sanitised' version of the previously top secret report, but by this time, the issue was to remain on the agenda for public debate. A team of investigative reporters from The Adelaide Advertiser published a series of articles raising questions about the incidence of cancer among Australian ex-servicemen and civilians who worked at the site. They further suggested that fallout from one test reached as far as Adelaide, and that local Aborigines had been contaminated by radioactivity (English & Delonno 1980a; 1980b; 1980c).

These articles generated interest throughout Australia. Ex-servicemen who had worked at Maralinga formed organisations to press for enquiries into the health consequences of their service. Aborigines who had lived northeast of Maralinga at the time of the tests came forward with allegations that on one occasion, they had encountered a 'Black Mist' which left a number of people ill. An article in The National Times (Toohey 1984) raised questions about continued plutonium contamination at Maralinga. Rumours began to circulate in the British press that intellectually handicapped civilians were used as 'human guinea pigs' in the tests (Watts & Brock 1984). Although strenuously denied by British authorities, such rumours persisted, as did uncertainties surrounding the health of ex-servicemen. The South Australian government, desirous of granting additional land rights to the Pitjantjatjara people, expressed concern about the habitability of the former test area and surrounding lands.

A study commissioned by the Federal Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Walsh, criticised the previous (AIRAC) report and recommended a public enquiry into the British testing program and its aftermath. The Hawke government announced a Royal Commission in July 1984.

The Royal Commission faced a daunting challenge - its terms of reference were broad, but it had no power to compel the disclosure of British government documents, many of which remained classified top secret. Most of those who had been personally involved in the testing program were not young; the difficulty of recalling events which had taken place three decades earlier is sufficient challenge for anyone.

The President of the Royal Commission was Justice James McClelland, Chief Judge of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court. Other Commissioners included Jill Fitch, a health physicist, and Dr William Jonas, a geographer of Aboriginal descent.

The official opening of Commission hearings was held in Sydney on 22 August 1984. The following fifteen months were to see the Commission sit for a total of 118 days in ten different locations as diverse as London and Marla Bore, South Australia. Hundreds of witnesses were examined; transcript of proceedings ran to 10,424 pages. In addition, Commission staff waded through literally tonnes of documents.

The Royal Commission's report, presented in November 1985, constituted a scathing indictment of British and Australian governments. It faulted the British for failing to disclose sufficient information to permit the Australian government to make informed decisions about the testing program, particularly the early Monte Bello tests and the minor trials. Indeed, the Royal Commission observed that the first series of 'Kittens' trials, conducted in 1953, was carried out without formal Australian government approval and without advice being provided to the Australian government by either British or Australian scientists (Australia 1985, p. 524).

The Australian government was criticised for entering commitments without adequate discussion of the issues by Cabinet, much less Parliament or the public. The oversight machinery established to provide the Australian government with technical advice also came in for strong criticism. The Royal Commission described the atmosphere of mutual trust between the 'watchers and the watched' as 'altogether unsatisfactory and dangerous.' The AWTSC was criticised as 'deceitful' and having allowed unsafe firing to occur (Australia 1985, p. 525).

Treatment of Aborigines during the testing program attracted some of the strongest condemnation. Organisation, management and resources allocated to ensuring the safety of Aborigines were described as inadequate. Responsible officials demonstrated 'ignorance, incompetence and cynicism' (Australia 1985, p. 323).

The Commission made seven recommendations regarding decontamination of test sites and compensation of those harmed as a result of the testing program. It maintained that the Australian government should compensate the Aboriginal people who were displaced from their traditional lands, by providing technology and services necessary to re-establish traditional relationships with the land.

The Commission further recommended that decontamination and clean up of the former testing sites take place, and that the costs be borne by the United Kingdom government. Regarding compensation of those who may have been injured as a result of exposure to radiation produced by the tests, the Commission recommended significant changes to existing procedures.

The Compensation (Commonwealth Government Employees) Act 1971 already permitted ex-service personnel to recover compensation if they were able to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that their disability resulted from exposure to radiation from the tests. The Commission recommended that eligibility be extended to civilians at the test sites and to Aborigines and others exposed to the 'Black Mist', and that the onus of proof be shifted to the government - in other words, that claimants be entitled to compensation unless the government were able to prove on the balance of probabilities that the disability did not result from radiation produced by the tests.

Despite the findings of the Royal Commission, the British government continued to deny both legal liability or moral responsibility for the consequences of its tests in Australia. The British insisted that they had made sufficient information available to Australian authorities to permit informed decisions, and that the agreement of 1968 and 1979 absolved them of further responsibility for decontamination or compensation.

In 1986 the British and Australian governments decided to defer further discussions of liability, and jointly to engage in an assessment of alternatives for the decontamination of the sites at Monte Bello, Emu, and Maralinga. The British agreed to participate in these evaluations on the basis that their involvement constituted no admission of responsibility or liability.

By 1986, the economic and financial constraints which the Federal Labor government faced had begun to shape its response to the Royal Commission report. Committed to the continued mining and export of uranium, Australian officials were disinclined to dwell extensively on the mistakes of the past, or to highlight the risks posed by radioactive substances. Concerned about reducing government expenditure, they sought to minimise outlays for compensation. The generosity which led previous Australian governments to spend millions of dollars to host the British tests had become a thing of the past.

In 1986 the government announced a payment of $500,000 compensation to Aboriginal groups for land contaminated during the course of the British testing program. The announcement was made shortly after publication of the 1986 Federal budget, which announced resumption of uranium sales to France. The savings to result from this change in policy were estimated to reach $60 million per year.

The Federal government's response to compensation claims by nuclear veterans and civilian support personnel was even less charitable. There exist two basic avenues of redress for those who claim to have been injured as a result of the testing program. Under the Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) Act a claimant may obtain benefits by demonstrating that an illness was probably caused by exposure to radiation.

It is not necessary to prove that the exposure resulted from any negligence on the part of the government. The decision rests with an administrative body, the Commissioner for Employees Compensation. The Federal government accepted the Royal Commission's recommendation that eligibility for compensation under this Act be extended to Aborigines and other civilians who may have been affected by the tests.

To obtain common law damages, on the other hand, an injured party must demonstrate in a court of law that his or her illness was probably caused by exposure to radiation, and that the exposure resulted from negligence on the part of the government.

The major obstacle faced by claimants in either jurisdiction is the formidable task of proving that their disability resulted from exposure to radiation produced by the tests. The task is compounded by the fact that in these cases, the ex-service claimants are totally dependent upon their former employer for the evidence necessary to present their case.

Cancer has many causes, and to demonstrate conclusively that a particular case was caused by Maralinga exposure and not by smoking, diet, exposure to X-rays, or some inherited predisposition is extremely difficult. The Royal Commission's recommendation that the onus of proof be borne by the government was not accepted. For this reason, most claims have thus far been unsuccessful.

By October 1986, a total of 272 claims arising from the testing program had been registered. The Commonwealth government, concerned over the possibility of having to defend common law actions alleging negligence in its involvement in the testing program, vigorously contested each claim. Of the 126 cases in which determinations had been made, claims were denied in 116 cases, and liability was found in only 10, two of which related to causes other than radiation exposure. Common law damages were sought by a few claimants, but the likelihood of success seemed low. Public assurances that the nuclear veterans were being well looked after did not appear to be borne out in the courts and hearing rooms of Australia.

In 1984, the South Australian Parliament passed the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act conferring freehold title to the Maralinga lands upon their traditional owners. But Aboriginal control over their land was not absolute. Mineral rights remained vested in the Crown, and the Act did not confer a right of veto on the Aboriginal owners. Rather, in the event of a dispute over whether the lands could be explored or mined, an Arbitrator would weigh the interests of the traditional owners against the economic significance of the proposed operations to the state and to Australia.

One wonders if the interests of a 'handful of natives' might on some future occasion again be deemed subordinate to those of the dominant culture.


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  • Ball, H. 1986, Justice Downwind: America's Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s, Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Brady, Maggie & Morice, Rodney 1982, Aboriginal Adolescent Offending Behaviour. A Study of a Remote Community, School of Medicine, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide; Criminology Research Council, Canberra.
  • English, David & Delonno, Peter 1980a, 'SA Atom Tests: Was Cost Too High?', The Advertiser 16 April, pp. 8-9.
  • English, D. & Delonno, P. 1980b, 'New Claims of A-test Link With Cancer', The Advertiser 17 April, pp. 1 and 11.
  • English, D. & Delonno, P. 1980c, 'Fall-out Blankets a Sleeping City', The Advertiser 17 April, pp. 10-11.
  • Milliken, Robert 1986, No Conceivable Injury, Penguin Books, Melbourne.
  • Toohey, Brian 1978, 'Maralinga Issue Raises Defence Dept. Question', Australian Financial Review 13 October, p. 7.
  • Toohey, Brian 1984, 'The Terrible Legacy of Maralinga', The National Times 4-10 May, p. 3.
  • Watts, D. & Brock, G. 1984, 'A-tests: The Human Guinea Pig Question', The Australian 25 June, p. 4.
  • Woodward, L. 1984, 'Buffalo Bill and the Maralingerers', New Journalist, vol. 43, pp. 18-24.
Last updated
3 November 2017