Nearly 60 years have passed since Totem 1, a British nuclear test in the Australian desert, was recklessly conducted in unfavourable meteorological conditions.
Nuclear testing of any sort, even in the most “controlled” of circumstances, is inherently abusive, a crime against the environment and humanity for countless generations to come. Yet the effects of Totem 1 were particularly bad, even by the warped standards of the era.
The mushroom cloud did not behave in the way it was supposed to. Instead of rising uniformly, part of it spread laterally, causing fallout to roll menacingly at ground level over a remote yet still populated corner of South Australia, sowing injury, illness and death in its wake.
The number of casualties is unknown because the secretive and unaccountable nuclear establishment has always declined to investigate the full impact of its own criminal negligence. But it has been suggested by investigators that perhaps 50 short-term Aboriginal fatalities resulted.
In addition to those who died, many others were exposed to harmful levels of radiation. The long-term health effects on these individuals have never been charted — but anecdotal reports of high cancer rates and horrendous birth defects in isolated “downwinder” communities have circulated.
At the time of the tests, it was well known by authorities that communities of Aboriginal people were close by. Yet the official attitude was that the concerns of a “handful of natives” could not be allowed to interfere with the “interests” of the British Commonwealth.
Imagine you are out with your family one morning when suddenly a loud explosion issues from the distant horizon. The ground rumbles and shakes, as though it were about to open up. Minutes later, a thick, churning dark dust cloud engulfs the surrounding desert countryside.
Terrified, with all your senses in recoil from these unnatural developments, you wonder if an event of apocalyptic proportions is taking place. And your troubles are only just beginning.
This is what happened to 22-year-old Yankunytjatjara woman Lallie Lennon and her three young children at Mintabie on October 15, 1953. A 10-kiloton device (roughly two-thirds the yield of the Hiroshima bomb) was detonated 180 kilometres away at Emu Field, near Maralinga.
Lallie and her son Bruce, aged 3, were covered in the gunpowder-smelling dust and smoke that came rushing through the trees with such intensity that it apparently created eclipse-like visibility conditions. “It went dark and dark,” recalled Lallie in 2006. “Dark — we couldn’t see anything. The place was black, you couldn’t see nothing.”
The levels of beta radiation contained in this toxic plume were so great that it felt like being “rolled in a fire”. The “kids were [vomiting] … it was terrible … We was glad we was alive but we got sick. We were sicker and sicker.”
About a year later, both Lallie and her son Bruce developed a debilitating skin condition that involves the periodic eruption of oozing, agonising sores all over the body.
Lallie said: “It went away and then came back and the sores were getting bigger and bigger every time … I was in a mess after the sores.” Her two daughters, who were in a tent at the time the mist swept through, were spared the beta burns, but developed other symptoms consistent with radiological contamination.
Lallie’s story first achieved public recognition when she spoke about her experiences for a 1981 documentary, “Backs to the Blast”.
Since then Lallie, Bruce and Jessie Lennon have continued to provide convincing testimony. Lallie spoke with oral historian Michele Madigan in 2006 and again in 2009, adding further details.
A powerful manuscript entitled “The Black Mist and its Aftermath — Oral Histories by Lallie Lennon” (2010) was submitted to the South Australian and federal governments as well as to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Now aged in her 80s, Lallie has never had her health issues properly investigated, much less received any compensation. She continues to suffer from the beta burn-related skin condition to this day.
The official diagnosis is simple psoriasis, in spite of the consistency between Lallie’s symptoms and other beta burn survivors from the Marshall Islands.
Another Totem 1 fallout survivor, Yami Lester, was a young child at Wallatinna Station. He recalls hearing a “big bang” followed by “black-like smoke … coming from the south.” The elders tried to scare this “evil spirit” with their woomeras.
Afterwards, there was widespread sickness, with diarrhoea, vomiting and rashes. Yami was immediately blinded in one eye. A few years later, he lost the other eye due to an ongoing condition that started with the Black Mist. The full story can be read in Yami Lester’s autobiography, a remarkable piece of Australian writing.
There were also many non-Aboriginal witnesses to the Black Mist event, such as Almerta Lander, whose testimony is reproduced in Roger T Cross’s “Beyond Belief”: “A black cloud was slowly and quietly rolling through the scrub. To us it was quite sinister because of its blackness and because it seemed to be creeping upon us.”
Shortly after, “word went around that a sickness was laying low the Aboriginal people living at Wallatinna and Mintabie. Old people and young children were dying, their bodies covered in sores and their eyes weeping. No medical specialists visited them.”
Like Lallie Lennon, Almerta Lander suffers from a skin condition and her son developed an undiagnosed lung complaint.
In addition to their physical injuries, Lallie, Yami and other Totem 1 survivors have also had to endure the added insult of decades of official denialism.
Although the 1984-85 McClelland Royal Commission revealed evidence that was absolutely damning of the conduct of British nuclear testing in Australia, the establishment’s damage controllers have effectively suppressed the issue.
Professor Sir Ernest Titterton, the duplicitous architect of nuclear testing in Australia, typified the official contempt for survivors when he dismissed the Black Mist event as a “scare campaign”.
More recently, the ultra-right wing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has repeated this line. According to Bolt, the Aboriginal survivors of British nuclear testing have concocted their claims about fallout exposure to scam welfare payments out of the Australian taxpayer. Since then, Bolt has gone on to deny the harmful effects of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters.
The saga of British nuclear testing in Australia, which covered not only central Australia but the entire continent in harmful radiation, should occupy a more central position on the stage of our national historical consciousness. The precise number of casualties among Aboriginal groups, military veterans and the general population should be thoroughly investigated.
October 15 — the day of the Black Mist — would be an appropriate anniversary date to set aside as one for official annual remembrance of all the victims of this Australian atomic massacre.