International Meeting
2001 World Conference against A & H Bombs

Philip White
Australian Peace Committee

Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia - Summary of Recent Developments

Between 1952 and 1957 the British and Australian Governments cooperated in a nuclear weapons test program at the Montebello Islands, off Western Australia, and at Emu and Maralinga in the south central desert area of Australia. According to The Advertiser newspaper (26 May 2001) 12 tests were conducted during this period. In 1985 a royal commission handed down a scathing report on the tests, which exposed Aborigines, military personnel and other civilians to radiation. After the royal commission a clean-up of the area was ordered, but it is claimed that the clean-up was a failure. Recently Maralinga and related issues have re-emerged in the media as more gruesome details have come to light. Below are the key points that have been covered in recent newspaper articles.

1. A Botched Clean-Up
It has been claimed that an agreement with the Maralinga Tjarutja indigenous people was breached through a failure to use in situ vitrification (immobilising the nuclear materials by turning the waste into glass) to store plutonium-contaminated debris from the nuclear tests. The decision to abandon in situ vitrification was made after a sub-surface explosion at Maralinga on March 21, 1999. An engineer involved in the clean-up says that they dug a hole in the ground in totally unsuitable geology to store the radioactive waste. The waste is now only 3m below the ground. He said a temporary storage pit should have been dug to a much greater depth and then lined with concrete for use until a permanent storage technique had been devised to immobilise the plutonium.

2. Nuclear Guinea Pigs
It has long been claimed that military service people and civilians were used as guinea pigs in the tests, in particular the Maralinga tests. Successive governments have refused to compensate these people. Only one nuclear test veteran has ever succesfully sued the government for compensation for radiation poisoning, although more than 8,000 service people and 8,000 civilians were assigned to the program. (Apparently some others have received confidential out of court settlements.) An estimated 6,000 servicemen have since died.

3. Indigenous People
The tests were carried out despite the fact that Aboriginal people remained in the general area. Many suffered serious health consequences as a result of the 'Black Mist' that spread over the area and some parts of their land are permanently inaccessible due to the remaining radiation. These issues are only briefly touched upon in recent newspaper articles and I don't have access to the 1985 royal commission report. I am therefore unable to give an adequate account of the suffering of Aboriginal people, but it should be remembered that they have probably suffered more than anyone. One recent newspaper article recounts how Aborigines were found drinking alcohol in a concrete bunker in the area just before the explosion. They were found by a soldier. He reported this fact to his supervisor who told him to gForget about it, donft worry about it and say nothing.h

4. Responses and Admissions

5. Conclusion
The British and Australian governments deliberately used human beings as guinea pigs in their nuclear test program. They have since systematically covered up the truth and obstructed the legitimate attempts of the victims to obtain compensation. But the problems just wonft go away. Itfs much the same as everywhere else really.

To the 2001 Wolrd Conference against A & H Bombs