Ric Johnstone - The Nuclear Veteran Syndrome


By:  D. Ric. Johnstone    January 1996 

 The Nuclear Veteran Syndrome applies to and directly affects those who served in Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia and its environs, Navy, Army,Airforce and some civilians, in particular those who served in designated radio active areas.

The Syndrome arises for several reasons, not the least of which is the secrecy in which the tests were held during the 1950s and 60s, and the secrecy which still prevails to this day about what really happened at places like Maralinga, what type of weapons were used and what were the real results of the tests, what the affect on the population of Australia was and in particular, those Towns, Villages or Cities that were affected by the drifting radioactivity.  Is there any bearing here on the higher rates of various cancers in Australia, thyroid cancer and skin cancers in particular and what is happening at Maralinga today?

A Royal Commission was held in 1985 to inquire into the British Atomic Weapons Tests held in Australia in the early 1950s and 60s but all of the material supplied to the Commission by the British and Australian Governments was first vetted by Public Servants and although it would seem that a Royal Commission would have the power to demand anything that it required as evidence, with the McLleland Royal Commission this was not the case; anything considered too secret or too sensitive by the vetting British and Commonwealth Public Servants was not made available to the Commission and the Commissioner Jim McLleland is now on record as having said that he feels now that he was used by the Commonwealth government to make it appear as if they were doing something.

It appears that the Royal Commission was really used as a means of collecting information that might be useful in defending against the multitude of claims the Commonwealth Government had been warned they may be facing. The McLleland Royal Commission had come about by pressure from the media which had begun in 1980, pressure from the Nuclear Veterans,pressure from the Aborigines of the area and the South Australian Government which had detected the smell of compensation money. 

There was so much media hype all through the 1980s about The British Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia that nobody could miss it, in particular those who had a personal and greater interest, those who had been involved, the Nuclear Veterans. Books were published, and movies were made by those who saw a chance to make money out of it and those who had their own political drum to beat, great lists were published of those nuclear veterans who served at the test sites and had since died of cancer or other radiation related diseases and illness Veterans that had remained in contact since the tests began to contact others. 

By now those that were not already ill began to feel anxious about their continuing good health and social well-being, those that were ill became convinced that their illness related to their service at nuclear weapons test sites; they had also become aware of the growing group of widows and dependent children left by those who had died.  Groups began to form across the country and the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association was born, by 1995 all of the foundation members had died of cancer and or heart conditions and all of their widows remain convinced that their husband’s early deaths were caused by their service at nuclear weapons test sites while they were serving in the Australian armed forces. 

The ANVA was formed with the view that it would on behalf of all Nuclear Veterans talk to the Government of the day and seek some assistance in getting to the truth rather than just take the media reports as the only source of information. ANVA wanted a full and meaningful health study of all those who had served at nuclear weapons test sites, but the Federal Government would not co-operate; they would not supply names of those who had been involved or any other information on the tests, the health survey that they carried out was to send a questionnaire to some of the known nuclear veterans asking them to answer some questions on their health, the health history of their parents, the kind of work that they did during the tests, their smoking and drinking habits and where they actually were during the tests, then they should return it to the Government Department that had sent it to them, “the Department of Health”. A letter was enclosed with it that reinforced the idea that something may be wrong with their health. Alex. McDonald was one who received such a form and after having his GP fill it in saying that he was in perfect physical health died within three months of bilateral carcinoma of the lungs. It became obvious during the Royal Commission that this had been  simply another information gathering exercise by the Commonwealth Government without real regard to the health and well-being of the servicemen who had been used during the tests but more with regard to the defence of claims that may be bought against them.

As strange as it may seem nuclear veterans (Servicemen who had served at nuclear weapons test sites) were not invited to attend the McLleland Royal Commission but had to seek permission to appear, McLleland’s comment at the time was “ I don’t suppose it will do any harm “. The Royal Commission was not convened to look into the health of the servicemen; it was primarily interested in the real estate, the land that had been contaminated and the effects on the land’s traditional owners, the aborigines of that area, and how much money could be wrung out of the British. Millions of dollars have since been forthcoming from the British but not one cent of this has ever gone to an aborigine nor will it ever; it has gone into the Government coffers where some of it will be used to turn Maralinga into a permanent radio active waste storage dump.

There was no welcoming home coming parade for nuclear veterans, after up to 12 months of separation with only severely censored communications, quite a few returned to broken marriages and relationships, some were ill and some had been injured, a few had been killed in accidents, many had permanently damaged skin now claimed to be caused by long exposure to the extremely harsh desert sun and compounded by chemical poisoning  caused by being forced to bath in salt water using a chemically constructed soap known at the time as Seagull soap, now known to cause severe skin damage, many were changed in their outlook on life as can happen to anyone that is removed from family and friends to be confined for a long or indefinite period under extremely harsh, arduous and hazardous conditions. It may also be included here with regard to chemical poisoning that in attempt to control insects the whole of the tent lines and work areas were continually sprayed by a machine called a TIFFA which belched a sickly smelling and tasting green smoke consisting of chemicals that included Malithion and Dioxons, dieseline and kerosene; these chemicals were used later in Vietnam where it is generally accepted that they were the cause of some of the chemical poisoning that affected so many Vietnam Veterans.

Men who were selected to serve with the British nuclear weapons tests were formed secretly into what was called a combined services task force, I say men because there were never any women sent to Maralinga or any of the other nuclear weapons test sites, it was said that their different biological make up (more red blood cells than men) would make them even more susceptible to the detrimental effects of exposure to ionizing radiation that they could be exposed to during the tests.

The men were selected from different units all over Australia, they were told to store all of their personal equipment and take nothing other than their tooth brush and what they stood in, they were not told exactly where they were going, some were told of a place called Maralinga but none were sure where it was, all were assembled at Base Squadron Edinburgh, a large R.A.A.F base in South Australia where they were re-equipped with slouch hats new boots and Army working dress (giggle jackets and trousers). No Navy or Airforce uniforms could be worn, all were dressed to look the same, again other uniforms clothing and personal effects would be stored, they were then forced to sign the secrecy act and were shipped secretly out of the unit on a special train that had been shunted right into the Base. They were given cardboard cartons containing some bread and canned fruit for the trip which took them like a gang of convicts out across the desert of the Nulabor plains to a remote railway siding called Watson just a little east of the West Australian border.  From here they would travel cross country the 43 miles where they established a camp site that became known as camp 43 and was close to the site where the first tower required to explode an atomic weapon was constructed.

 Conditions at Camp 43 were like those of a hell camp, the work was around the clock with only enough time off to get some sleep and food, the food was absolutely terrible, there was never enough of it, or anything to drink, field rations and or fly blown mutton sometimes with dehydrated vegetable or powdered eggs, and cereals full of weevils, ( see attached letter from an officer type, it indicates clearly why no officer, doctor or priest would go there ), the daytime temperature could rise as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, severe burns could be caused by unthinkingly grasping tools that had been left in the sun or bare skin contacting the steel of a vehicle body, there was never enough fresh water to drink, it was rationed to one quart per man per day, bathing and washing of clothes was in brackish salty bore water, at night the temperature could drop to zero and ice would form on water left in a wash bowl. All were housed in army jungle green canvas tents that filled with the desert dust and sand, the latrines were slit trenches in the ground, the flies were a black mass on every mans back and were constantly being sucked into the mouth or nostrils.  It was like something out of a 1930’s movie, like a huge slave or convict camp where the men were forced to work under terrible conditions as punishment, there were no amenities of any kind, no doctor, no priest, no women, and no way out. I write here of 1956 operation Buffalo; by 1957 operation Antler and the following tests, living conditions had improved greatly but the real hazards of the forward area (blast areas) and radioactive materials (fallout) had increased with every nuclear explosion.

 The authorities of the day had decided that the atomic weapons tests were so top secret that information was to be given only on a need to know basis, that is only enough information was given to any individual that was needed for him to fulfill his particular function and no more.  Some personnel who were to be sent into the blast areas were given short lectures on the dangers they would be exposed to, some were also sent or went in without protective clothing or instruction, but in general most received no information or instruction on the dangers of exposure to ionizing radiation.  Rumours about the effects of exposure to atomic radiation real and imagined were always part of the camp and village gossip; the one most commonly heard was that after six months at Maralinga your balls would shrivel up and you would not be able to have children or they would be deformed if you did, others were that your hair would fall out and you would suffer premature aging, or you fingernails would turn black, some who had seen a 40’s or early 50’s movie staring Mickey Rooney called the “Atomic Kid” thought they might end up like him, (here is where the Nuclear Veteran Syndrome began to take root.).

The nuclear veterans syndrome developed from these years of secrecy, lack of information or instructive training, deprivation and uncertainty, at the time it was a matter of placing your trust in your immediate superiors and those in command as was expected of any serviceman of that era, but it was to become evident later through the McLleland Royal Commission that very few if any of the senior NCO’s or Officers knew anything of the hazards of exposure to nuclear radiation. They too had been victims of the need to know policy.  The only people at that time who had any real idea of what was going on were the scientists (Boffins) under the control of Sir William Penney and the health physics team, but all of their information and knowledge was considered far too secret and sensitive to pass on and in fact they also were not sure of their information; that was part of what the tests were about; they were trying to confirm or establish the truth of what the biological effects of exposure to ionizing radiation were, they had already established what they determined to be a safe level of exposure for the troops to radiation but this proved later to be incorrect and there is still to this day no known safe level of exposure for human beings to ionizing radiation.

 As can be seen by the earlier preamble in this article the nuclear veterans syndrome was re-enforced in the veterans as time went by, because of their personal knowledge of friends that had since died at an early age of what appeared to be radiation related illness, by the stories circulated by the media (true or false), the evidence of the McLleland Royal Commission and in the attitude of the Federal Government (Public Service) which has so far failed to help them or even acknowledge that they exist.  It has also refused to fully implement the seven recommendations of the McLleland Royal Commission; it refuses to this day to extend full veteran benefits as available to WW2, Korean, Vietnam and other veterans, unless they had served previously or later in other approved prescribed areas.  If their service was only within Australia or with nuclear weapons tests then they are not afforded the dignity of being treated as genuine veterans and have no entitlements under the Department of Veterans Affairs, and although all of their mates that served with them, (and in other prescribed areas) receive help

with health, family, housing and other problems from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs where they are assisted and treated with a sympathetic attitude and are often given the benefit of the doubt by the bureaucrats that run that Dept. nuclear veterans on the other hand, and other service people who have not served in a so called “prescribed area” are told the only help they can receive is for an illness or injury that they can prove beyond doubt is related to their service, and they must make a claim through a civilian type of bureaucracy that used to be called the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Dept. and is now known as Comcare and although there is now a Dept. of Comcare within the Defence Dept. it is set up mainly for civilian Public Servants who have always had good amenities and pay during their service, have never been subject to military law and discipline, never taken the oath of attestation, never put their life on the line for their country, and few if any have been forced to sign the secrecy act.

The discrimination against nuclear veterans is not just because of where they did not serve but in fact because of where they did serve.  Nuclear veterans like most other regular servicemen of the time had volunteered to serve as fighting men anywhere that they may be needed.  It was generally accepted hat other than being a rifleman on the front line in Korea, there was no more hazardous service in the early 50s than being assigned to nuclear weapons testing in Australia.Many nuclear veterans who later served in Vietnam have said that they would have rather done five tours of duty in Vietnam than one at Maralinga where they were used as cheap labor in the desert for the British and guinea pigs for their tests.The discrimination against nuclear veterans is political and treated in a bi-partisan way by both major political parties, both have great interest in uranium mining  and sales of Australian uranium to the world nuclear industries; both have involvement in future plans for Maralinga, it would not suit either party to accept that the Australian Government made a great mistake in allowing atomic weapons to be exploded in Australia and that the consequences of those tests are far more serious and ongoing than has ever been revealed to the Australian public, especially for those who served there, the nuclear veterans. It would not suit the Australian Government to acknowledge that they have created Nuclear Victims in Australia and although they have been found guilty of negligence in at least one case bought before the Courts, they continue to try and sweep it under the carpet by maintaining a policy of (given enough time all Nuclear veterans will be dead, and their cries for help will be silenced forever).

As recent as late last year a nuclear veteran suffering cancer took his case to court before a Commonwealth appointed judge, claiming that his cancer was caused by his service at a nuclear weapons test site. His case was thrown out through lack of any evidence that would prove beyond doubt that the cancer was caused by nuclear radiation or that he in fact had ever been exposed to nuclear radiation. It was thought at the time that because of evidence put before the McLleland Royal Commission that records and files had been lost, taken by the British or falsified, including radiation profiles of individuals known to have worked in contaminated areas or with contaminated materials, and all other documents are controlled by the Commonwealth, that he would be given the benefit of the doubt, but not so.The Australian Nuclear Veterans Assoc. was late last year denied permission to hold a small memorial service at the village of Maralinga, by the Australian Government,  a small party of about six including a padre were prepared to go, it seems that the Australian Government which appears to be compassionate and understanding of the problems of other minority groups in the community and has even enacted laws so that they may not be discriminated against, do not take the same understanding view of nuclear veterans and other small groups of ex-service personnel, i.e.the Voyager victims, mustard gas guinea pigs etc.

It seems that the Australian Government feel secure in their knowledge that no case will ever be proven against them, they are not a compassionate Government, even though they control and have access to all records, documents  and other aspects of these matters and all the resources available to do something about it, it is not their intention to help nuclear veterans in any way. Nor do they ever intend to extend the benefit of the doubt or any other benefit to nuclear veterans,  the most recent indicator of this is the discrimination against nuclear veterans in relation to the new Australian Service Medal, they have been excluded from qualifying for it unless they have also served in some other “prescribed area”. There was and still is great concern in the community about some of the minority groups that are funded with taxpayers money by the Federal Government, but I am sure that the Community in general and all ex-service groups would only applaud if bona fide nuclear veterans were given full veterans status with all benefits and entitlements; it would also help to boost morale within the armed services which is badly needed today, and the name Maralinga would no longer be synonymous with betrayal. It is the opinion of the writer and of some professional medical and legal people who have been consulted, that to be affected by the nuclear veterans syndrome is to be affected by post traumatic stress (anxiety neurosis) and this is a compensationable condition for which many ex-servicemen are now supported by the awarding of the (TPI) Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pension. It was public concern and public pressure that eventually convinced the Australian Government that they should finally recognize the service to their country of Vietnam Veterans, and the problems which that service had created for them. It is not the fault of the nuclear veterans that their service turned out to be a great dis-service to their country with disastrous results and ongoing problems. They like all other service personnel had no say whatever in where they went or what they did, the bringing of nuclear bombs to Australia and the contamination of our country forever was not the fault of our servicemen it was the fault of the Australian Government.

It is now time to stop the discrimination against Nuclear Veterans, it is time to recognize the unique service that they had and let us all hope that the experiences they had will never be repeated in this country or anywhere in the world or experienced  by any other living beings. Let them be the last witnesses to the destructive force and psychological effects of exposure to nuclear weapons and the possible end of the world. One of the reasons the French hold their tests underground is because of the psychological affects on observers of atmospheric tests. The servicemen that served at nuclear weapons tests in Australia were commended by Sir William Penny, all tests were ready to go before or on schedule, to achieve this Australian servicemen had to endure hardships and hazards, risks were taken and there were casualties but all of this was done in secret, without the benefits of television cameras or even records that were (not) and are still secret.

Once again we appeal to the Australian Government and to the Federal opposition to end the discrimination against nuclear veterans, extend to them full veteran status so that those still alive and who want to, can seek help for their problems through veterans affairs with the same dignity afforded other veterans. Let any bona fide nuclear veteran suffering with cancer be given the benefit of the doubt. There are so few left alive it would cost little, and extend to them eligibility for the new Australian Service Medal. It is not a medal awarded for bravery or extraordinary service, it is a medal awarded purely to indicate service to your country and nothing else. As already stated it was not their fault that theirs is seen nowadays as a dis-service to their country they had no say in the matter and their service under the circumstances was in fact extraordinary and exemplary.

We of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Assoc. recently incorporated with the Australian National Veterans Assoc. respectfully seek the assistance of the Australian Veterans and Defense Services Council and all of its member groups, the Returned and Services League of Australia, all community groups ex-service or otherwise and the general public at large to help us pursue the matters that are listed here on behalf of those few remaining nuclear veterans who are now too small in number to represent a voting block on their own, please help the nuclear veterans, and LET THEM finally COME HOME.

If you think the nuclear veterans were never at war think again It is because of the fact that Britain and the Commonwealth were able to demonstrate that they had effective nuclear weapons via tests at Montebellos, Emu and Maralinga in Australia which were monitored by Russia and the U.S. that we won the so called “ COLD WAR”.

It has been said and recorded by one of those boffins who helped with the first Atomic Bomb : “NO ONE WHO HAS BEEN EXPOSED TO THE BLAST OF A NUCLEAR EXPLOSION REMAINS UNCHANGED”


D.R. Johnstone (Ric.) ex-R.A.A.F.  A217183 L.A.C. Motor Transport Mechanic, Operation Buffalo Maralinga 1956-7.

Ric was one of the first servicemen into the desert and helped with the establishment of Camp 43 and the motor transport  workshop, later he was one of the first into the forward are after the detonation of atomic bombs. Ric can be contacted at P.O. Box 6201 West Gosford 2250 N.S.W. Australia