Secrecy and The British Nuclear Weapons Test in Australia
by D. Ric Johnstone
Maneuvering by the Australian Federal Government over the past 50 years strongly hints at a discernable pattern, if not outright Governmental collaboration, with their own appointed various commissions and committees to deny compensation to Nuclear Veterans (Australian Nuclear Weapons Tests Participants) for disabilities associated with exposure to ionizing radiation during the British Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia.
The British Atomic Bomb tests in Australia began in secrecy in the late 1940’s in the United Kingdom. Many secret messages went between British and Australian Prime Ministers. Permission was eventually granted by Sir Robert Menzies without consultation with his cabinet for the British to hold their Nuclear Weapons tests in Australia beginning in 1952 at Monte Bello Island off the coast of North West Australia.
The tests then moved in 1953 to the Australian mainland to a place called Emu Claypan code named X200 in the Great Victoria Dessert of South Australia.
A permanent nuclear weapons testing facility was eventually established in 1956, 150 mile south of X200 and named Maralinga. All of this happened under the utmost secrecy and all of those service personnel who were involved in the testing were each made to sign the Secrecy Act.
What was all the secrecy about? Was it to keep Britain’s Atomic secrets from the world or a perceived potential enemy bearing in mind that Britain was already sharing atomic secrets with America and the Russians were getting well ahead of both.
During the tests some Australian Servicemen were affected by seemingly unexplainable illnesses now in some cases recognized as classis symptoms of Radiation Poisoning.
Some of these Servicemen were admitted to the Maralinga Base Hospital but any records of patients in this hospital have disappeared and therefore are not available to claimants.
Some of these Servicemen as individuals later appealed for medical support from the Federal Government as being Service Personnel injured while on duty. They were told that if they had no overseas service (service in a prescribed area) that they could not make a claim under the Veterans Entitlement Act where the onus of proof would be on the Federal Government, but they could make a claim under the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act (later changed to be the Military Compensation and Rehabilitation Scheme) where the onus of proof was on the claimant and of course the tests having been carried out in the utmost secrecy there was no proof available to the claimants that was not controlled by the Australian and/or British Governments.
These Ex-Service Personnel later formed their own organization and called it the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, of which there were a couple of splinter groups who formed other Atomic Veterans Association’s.
With pressure from these groups the general public and the indigenous past owners of the Maralinga Lands with some support from the South Australian Government, the Hawke Government in 1984 called for a Royal Commission into the effects of the British Nuclear Weapons Test in Australia. The Royal Commission was headed by Justice James McClelland (Diamond Jim). In 1985 the McClelland Royal Commission handed its findings to the Federal Government which included seven recommendations.
The Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia
Pages 613 - 615
16.0.5 Page 613 Vol. 2. The Royal Commission has accepted that in the present state of knowledge it must be assumed that any exposure to ionizing radiation, however small the dose, gives rise to an increased risk of a cancer or heritable defects. This increased risk, of course, does not apply selectively and only to employees of the Commonwealth Government. Thus it is only fair and appropriate that those people placed at increased risk, either knowingly, such as university scientists at the tests, or unknowingly, such as the Milpuddies and the Wallatinna people, should be afforded the same access to compensation as those people who currently enjoy those rights.
16.0.6 Page 613 Vol. 2. By their very nature, the diseases and injuries upon which claims will be based, will be life-threatening or will have resulted in fatalities. Justice demands that such claims be processed as expeditiously as possible. To achieve this, the Royal Commission believes that the Commissioner for Employees’ Compensation should have access to a data base as complete and as accessible as is possible. Consequently, it believes that a national register should be compiled of nuclear veterans, Aborigines and other persons who may have been exposed to the “Black Mist” or exposed to radiation at the test sites during or after the tests.
The benefits of the Compensation (Commonwealth Government Employees) Act 1971, including the shifting of the onus of proof from the claimant to the Commonwealth should be extended so as to include not only members of the armed forces who are at present covered by the Act, but also civilians who were at the test sites at the relevant times, and Aborigines and other civilians who may have been exposed to the Black Mist.
To assist the Commissioner for Employees’ Compensation in the performance of the additional duties recommended in Recommendation 1, a national resister of nuclear veterans, Aborigines and other persons who may have been exposed to the Black Mist or exposed to radiation at the tests should be compiled.
Action should be commenced immediately to effect a clean-up of Maralinga and Emu to the satisfaction of the Australian Government so that they are fit for unrestricted habitation by the traditional Aboriginal owners as soon as practicable (see Section 14.4).
A Maralinga Commission, comprising representative of the traditional owners, the UK, Australian and South Australian Governments should be established to determine the clean-up criteria, oversee the clean-up and co-ordinate all future Range management (see Section 14.5).
Action should be taken immediately to ensure that all areas of the Monte Bello Islands where the radiation levels are above the limits recommended for continuous exposure of members of the public are suitably signposted until safe for permanent occupation. Small pieces of debris should be collected to avoid them being removed as souvenirs. The large structures remaining on Trimouille Island that are relics of the test programs could remain for historic interest (see Section 14.7).
All costs of any future clean-ups at Maralinga, Emu and the Monte Bello Islands should be borne by the United Kingdom Government (see Section 14.6).
The Australian Government should make compensation to those persons and descendants of those persons who have a traditional interest in sites at the former Maralinga Prohibited Area for loss of use and enjoyment of their lands since the beginning, and as a result of the atomic tests program. This should take the form of technology and services which Aboriginal people regard as necessary for them to re-establish their relationships with their land as rapidly as possible and with minimal hardship (see Section 14.3).