Maralinga: nuclear testing in Australia

August 2, 1995

By Sujatha Fernandes

In all of the apparent outrage expressed by politicians over the French government's decision to resume testing in the Pacific, there has been little mention of the Australian government's own record of nuclear testing. In the 1950s the Australian government allowed the British government to develop a nuclear weapons program in Australia, and between 1952 and 1957 the Australian government permitted it to conduct 12 major nuclear tests.

The 12 British nuclear tests were conducted at the Monte Bello islands, off the north-west coast of Western Australia, and in central Australia, with the majority being conducted at Maralinga, a remote area in South Australia.

The Maralinga tests included many so-called "minor" tests, which continued until 1963. These "minor tests" consisted of about 500 experiments, including crashing aeroplanes with nuclear bombs on board, setting fire to atom bombs and placing them in conventional explosions. These tests actually left far more radiation than the major tests and resulted in large amounts of plutonium being spread over a wide area.

At the time, the Australian government displayed very little interest in the possible long-term effects of the tests. However, by the 1980s these effects started to become clear. Australian servicemen and the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land were suffering blindness, sores and illnesses like cancer. They started to piece things together, linking their afflictions with their exposure to nuclear testing.

Groups including the Atomic Veterans Association and the Pitjantjatjara Council put pressure on the government until in 1985 it agreed to hold a royal commission to investigate the damage that had been caused.

The commission found that the land where the tests were conducted is still highly radioactive, and the cost of cleaning up the area would be around $600 million. Even after this full clean-up, certain areas would still remain dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years.

The royal commission recommended that Britain pay for the clean-up of the test sites, but the British government said Australia had already agreed to its previous clean-up of the area, known as Operation Brumby. Later, after much public pressure, Britain contributed additional funds.

Operation Brumby involved burying the contaminated land under topsoil, which had very little effect. In June 1991, British high commissioner Brian Barder, touring the range with scientists, stumbled upon an active uranium core, pointing to the inadequacy of Operation Brumby. In the two decades after the tests, more solid uranium, weapons grade plutonium and other radioactive materials were found in the area.

A team of scientists, known as the Technical Assessment Group (TAG), mapped the contaminated areas at Maralinga. In some of these areas they found radiation levels 470 times the "acceptable" limits.

Among the 220 recommendations of the royal commission, one was for group compensation for all of those people affected by the testing. The commission had found that while Aboriginal people were supposed to have been removed from the area during testing, many were actually in the area during and after the tests and had been exposed to high levels of radiation.

For the last 10 years, the Maralinga Tjarutja people have been fighting a long battle to win group compensation. This period was a very difficult time, with many of the people becoming disillusioned and frustrated with the government's attempts to put them off.

However, last November they won a settlement of $13.5 million from the federal government. In order to receive any of the funds, the community had to set up a trust company, which they have done; they have also selected three trustees, two from Maralinga and one from Western Australia. They are now communicating to the people what has been done and discussing ways of using the funds for resettlement of the community and development of useful infrastructure.

Archie Barthan, administrator and adviser to the Maralinga Tjarutja group, commented that it had been a very long and arduous struggle, involving two visits to England to demand that the British government pay for the clean up.

But Barthan also said that the $13.5 million settlement represented a win for the community. "The community should be proud of the things that have been achieved through this struggle. We have educated the broader community about the fact that nuclear testing actually took place in Australia. We forced the government to hold a royal commission which proved that the land was still radioactive and dangerous. In 1984 we won the title to our lands. We have also forced the Australian government to pay a settlement of $13.5 million to the people and the British government to pay $45 million for the clean-up. This is a credit to the community."

Sixteen people from the Aboriginal community are seeking individual compensation. In addition, more than 200 Australian veterans or their families have lodged claims for compensation for illness or death due to radiation exposure.

The legacy of Maralinga and the horrors it showed about the reality of nuclear testing should lead us to oppose the testing of nuclear weapons anywhere, as well as activities that lead to nuclear testing such as the mining of uranium.

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