Maralinga: 'An act of indefensible callousness'

May 23, 2001


After years of denial and deceit, the British government has admitted that military personnel were used in radiation experiments during the nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga in South Australia in the 1950s.

Confirming statements made repeatedly by veterans over the years, the British ministry of defence acknowledged on May 11 that it used military personnel from Britain, Australia and New Zealand in radiation experiments, but claimed they were testing clothing not humans. A statement released by the British government said that military personnel were "transported to or walked in various uniforms to an area of low-level fallout".

The admission followed publicity surrounding documents found in the Australian National Archive in February by Sue Rabbitt Roff, a senior research fellow from Scotland's Dundee University.

(A report in the May 19 Melbourne Age by defence correspondent Mark Forbes says that the publicity "provoked both [the British and Australian] governments into a whispering campaign to undermine Roff's credibility while publicly professing concern". Forbes himself says Roff's "nose for publicity is impeccable" but disputes only minor details of her recent statements.)

An October 12, 1956, document on "Australian Military Forces — Central Command" letterhead refers to the "Buffalo" series of four atmospheric nuclear tests conducted at Maralinga in September and October, 1956. The document names 70 Australian military personnel and one civilian, plus five New Zealand officers, all listed as exposed to radiation following a September 27 nuclear test.

"As far as can be determined the individual dose for round one was received over a period of two to three hours while the various indoctrinee groups were touring the target response area ... Certain people were exposed to radiation on dates other than 28 and 29 [September], during clothing trials or for a limited number during a tour of the contaminated area after round two", the document said.

The central command document reveals that at least 26 of the 76 people named as being exposed to radiation from tests in 1956 received a dose greater than the "maximum permissible exposure" of 0.3 roentgens in a week; the highest exposure was 0.66 roentgens in a few hours.

Some men were chosen for "clothing trials" from an "indoctrinee force" of British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel. The men walked, crawled and were driven through a fallout zone three days after a nuclear test at Maralinga.

Roff dismisses the British government's claim that it was testing clothing, not humans, and says that thousands of Commonwealth military personnel not directly involved in the nuclear tests at Maralinga were required to be outdoors to observe the detonations.

Roff said the recently uncovered documents contradict claims by the British government in the European Court of Human Rights in 1997 that no humans were used in experiments in nuclear-weapons trials, a claim which enabled the British government to successfully defeat compensation claims.

"I was in the court in 1997 when the government denied using humans [in] studies of the effects of radiation", Roff said. "In fact the government said it would be 'an act of indefensible callousness to have done so'."

The European Court of Human Rights was presented with a 1953 memo issued by the British "Defence Research Policy Sub-Committee of the Chiefs of Staff Committee". The memo, titled "Atomic Weapons Trials" and marked "Top Secret", stated, "The army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosions on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection".

Veterans of the Maralinga tests have described trucks speeding past to raise dust to make sure military personnel "got a bit of the fallout over the top of us"; being ordered to uncover equipment shelters located 100-150 metres from ground zero about one hour after a test, without protective clothing; men being ordered to roll in the dust about 5 kilometres from ground zero after a test; ship and ground crews washing down equipment and themselves with irradiated water; and drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated food.

The national president of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, Ric Johnstone, said in a July 2000 statement, "They [military personnel at Maralinga] were provided with little or no protective clothing and seldom badged while some badges and dosimeters were falsified or not recorded because of high readings. In spite of this long-lived dangerous level of radioactivity, the Australian government expect us to believe that the test participants were exposed to only minimal non-hazardous levels of radiation."

Thirty Australian veterans are seeking compensation from the federal government as a result of weapons tests at Maralinga and on the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Australia complicit

Buck-passing between successive British and Australian governments has for many years been a familiar trick to avoid responsibility for the nuclear tests. Another ploy has been to stall for time in the expectation that the political controversy will fade away as veterans die. A large majority of people involved in weapons tests in Australia have already died.

Bruce Scott, the federal minister for veterans' affairs, responded to Roff's release of Australian archives by saying that his office has contacted Roff in Scotland to ask her to forward the documents. But the documents are held in the national archive in Canberra, and Scott has access to further information which still remains classified.

In 1999, the federal government announced it would compile a "nominal roll" of veterans, Aborigines and others who may have been exposed to radiation from the Maralinga tests. The roll is expected to be complete in June or July. A cancer incidence study is promised following compilation of the roll.

A bureaucrat from the veterans' affairs department said in a Senate hearing in May 2000 that the cancer incidence study would be complete by the end of 2000 — but, a year later, it is yet to begin.

Johnstone said in his July 2000 statement that the government's procrastination was "just another stalling tactic as the government [is] now fully aware that time is on their side".

Scott says that issues raised by Roff in recent weeks will only be pursued if "there is any new material in these documents that hasn't been raised before in the context of the royal commission".

The royal commission into the British weapons tests in Australia did raise the issue of "clothing trials" in its 1985 report, quite possibly basing its findings on the same document uncovered by Roff.

However, the fact that the royal commission discussed the "clothing trials" is no reason for the Coalition government to ignore the matter. Rather, it adds strength to the victims' claims for the compensation they are being denied. Johnstone says this issue was "buried" following the royal commission. Scott seems keen to keep it that way.

Johnstone derided the government's claim that victims are being adequately dealt with under the Military Compensation Scheme, pointing out that the scheme was "almost impossible" to qualify for, because the government had put the onus of proof on the veterans while simultaneously denying them assistance or access to documents.

Johnstone also addressed the Coalition government's refusal to provide funding for medical tests to assist in the determination of past radiation exposure: "Given the attitude of the government you might think this would be a great opportunity for them to prove once and for all that nuclear veterans had never been exposed to harmful amounts of radiation, but no, they are well aware of the truth and will not assist in supporting a test that will help the survivors prove their case."


In addition to the issues arising from exposure to radiation from the weapons tests, another unresolved issue is the radioactive contamination remaining at Maralinga — much of it from "minor" trials which did not involve fission explosions but scattered about 24 kilograms of plutonium nonetheless.

The last of four "clean-ups" was completed last year, but a leaked email from Geoff Williams, a senior officer of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), complained about "a host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups".

Publicly, ARPANSA is part of the charade, with its chief, John Loy, describing the "clean-up" as "world's best practice", even though more thorough clean-up options were debated and discarded in favour of simply burying contaminated materials in unlined trenches.

Alan Parkinson, a nuclear engineer with over 40 years experience and a former government adviser on the Maralinga clean-up, wrote in the April 16, 2000 Canberra Times: "Is Dr Loy saying that a hole in the ground, without any treatment or lining, is world best practice? That isn't even world best practice for disposal of household garbage, let alone a long-lived hazardous substance such as plutonium."

Parkinson said a temporary storage pit should have been dug and lined with concrete for use until a permanent storage technique had been devised to immobilise the plutonium.

Aborigines effected by the nuclear tests have been treated even worse than the military guinea pigs. Robert Menzies' government did not seek permission from traditional owners before the nuclear tests. Some Aborigines in South Australia were given one-way train tickets to Kalgoorlie; others were herded into a concentration camp at Yalata, a mission station 150km west of Ceduna; while others remained in the testing range (a fact known to the Australian government).

A 1996 government report on the Maralinga "clean-up" said that "The project is aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination". Having appropriated and polluted Aboriginal land, the federal government now wants to "reduce Commonwealth liability" by giving the land back to the traditional owners, the Tjarutja. The government's manoeuvring to avoid future responsibility will continue for some months or years and will involve the puppet regulator ARPANSA.

The ongoing scandals surrounding the Maralinga project are of interest to the vast majority of South Australians who are opposed to the federal government's plan to build a national radioactive waste dump in South Australia. The same bureaucrats are involved, the same minister, the same puppet regulator. And the same game plan — dump the waste in unlined trenches while insisting, straight-faced, that this is "world's best practice".

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