On 9 August 1945, 66 years ago this week, "Fat Man" was dropped out of a US Army Air Force B29 bomber and onto the city of Nagasaki, instantly killing 40,000 people upon detonation and injuring a further 60,000. Radiation-based cancers, deformities and other illnesses have plagued successive generations of Japanese people since.
Perhaps you recall the last time a nuclear bomb fell on Australia? The 2.9 kiloton "Kite" fell out of a British Royal Air Force Vickers Valiant in late 1956. You can see it here. This time the bomb wasn’t dropped in war — the Australian government agreed to a development trial, as part of extensive nuclear tests designed to arm Britain for the atomic age from September 1956 through to 1963. The South Australian site was dubbed Maralinga or "field of thunder".
Seven nuclear devices were tested between 1956-57, with soldiers ordered to run, walk and crawl through the site wearing various light clothing in the days immediately following the detonations. These took place during the deceptively named "minor trials" that began in 1955 continued through until 1963. You can read a detailed list of these chilling experiments and their effects here. 550 experiments were carried out which exposed 1120 personnel to radiation, consumed several tonnes of uranium and more than 20 kilograms of plutonium. Blood evidence for the government’s figures of dangerous radiation levels has been destroyed. These minor trials also subjected warheads and radioactive material to various stress tests, detonating them in various risky conditions to test their relative safety.
It goes further, according to Professor John Keane of the University of Sydney. He writes that, "the dead were subject to experimentation as well. After a cloud of strontium-90 drifted towards Adelaide following a detonation in 1958, the bodies of deceased Australians, especially of young children and still-born babies, were secretly harvested." Adelaide residents were not offered assistance to combat the poison cloud.
There is a long history of Indigenous campaigning around nuclear issues in South Australia in the wake of the Maralinga tests. As Friends of the Earth reports:
"Permission was not sought for the tests from affected Aboriginal groups such as the Pitjantjatjara, Tjarutja and Kokatha. The use of atomic weapons contaminated great tracts of traditional land, and transformed an independent and physically wide ranging people into a semi-static and dependent group — forced relocation was one of the traumas. The damage was radiological, psycho-social and cultural."
Military authorities failed to ensure that the local Indigenous inhabitants were kept away from the affected site. In 1995, the Tjarutja community was paid $13.5 million by the British government, in a settlement of all claims.
Statistics quantifying the rate of radiation-related illness and death for the Indigenous communities of Maralinga are hard to come by, but of the 8000 service personnel who worked in the nuclear testing program, up to 30 per cent are alleged to have died, mostly in their 50s, and mostly from cancers or cancer-related illnesses.
According to Keane, anecdotal evidence of veterans’ injuries includes unusual clusters of multiple myelomas, hip and spine deformities, teeth falling out, poor eyesight, bleeding bowels, post-traumatic anxiety and depression. "And perhaps up to a quarter of them, according to preliminary data collected by the New Zealand government, have disabled offspring," he claims.
A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) told New Matilda via email that "Australian veterans have access to a comprehensive range of health care services and compensation in relation to any health effects related to participation in the British Nuclear Tests." In 1993, the Keating Labor government accepted a $50 million ex-gratia payment from Britain on the proviso that Australia would pay all further claims beyond this amount. While $13.5 million went to the Tjarutja community, on publication the DVA had not confirmed how much, if any, of these funds had been distributed to veterans as direct compensation. An earlier report claimed the total compensation dispensed to veterans, as of January 2010, was nil. In 1988 meanwhile, a small group of veterans received compensation for certain types of leukemia and a rare blood disorder.
In the British Court of Appeal in late July, British, New Zealand and Fijian nuclear veterans and civilians of Maralinga and Western Australia’s Montebello Islands overcame the latest hurdle by Britain’s Ministry of Defence to have their case for compensation heard. The prosecution successfully appealed an earlier Supreme Court decision to overturn the case based on the Limitations Act, and will now go back to the Supreme Court in November for the next round. Australian lawyers Stacks-Goudkamp have notified the British Supreme Court of their intention to prosecute Australian veterans’ claims based on the outcome of the current case.
Stacks-Goudkamp solicitor Michael Giles told New Matilda over the phone that for the 270-plus Australian veterans waiting on the outcome of the British vets’ class action, their own is "not so much a compensation issue, but more about them having their ‘day in court’ and getting recognition." Giles is clear that ultimate responsibility lies with the British government that instigated the tests. This raises a legitimate sovereignty issue about Australia’s status in the Commonwealth, which similarly arises with regard to events like Gallipoli or the Boer War.
At the same time, there is a degree of practical strategy in queuing up to hold the British government responsible, for as Giles concedes, "the limitations issue is even more difficult here than in the UK." He tentatively suggests that when Australian vets succeed in their claim against the British Ministry of Defence, Britain may call on Australia to uphold its 1993 payout obligations.
As far as recognition from the Australian government goes, Kevin Rudd met his 2007 election promise to vets by falling in line with earlier recommendations to have them considered equivalent to non-warlike hazardous service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 (VEA).
Such advances for the Maralinga veterans have come only after decades of insufficient practical support and recognition for the myriad health issues experienced since exposure. It may be that British and Australian governments are hoping that time is against both nations’ sick and ageing nuclear veterans. Giles asks, "Why would the Ministry of Defence spend 10 million pounds fighting the claim in court, when that money could go to veterans and help resolve the issue once and for all?" He says widows and family members can continue to participate in the Australian class action, and expects that if the current Supreme Court case goes in favour of the British, New Zealand and Fijian veterans, the Australian veterans may well find settlement out of court, at last giving them the recognition they have sought for half a century.
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