Maralinga: The shame of Australian nuclear testing

Australia's first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.
Australia’s first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.

With the world remembering the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs in Japan, reading Frank Walker’s book Maralinga proved a timely reminder of Australia’s own nuclear shame. In the 1950s Prime Minister Robert Menzies colluded with the British government to turn Australia into a giant nuclear experiment and its nine million people into guinea pigs.

Britain had been frozen out of the American nuclear testing program for good reason: many of its intelligence officers were double agents working for the Soviets. Britain needed a site for its post-war testing program and Australia’s remoteness, friendliness and utter compliance fitted the bill. The site chosen was the Monte Bello Islands off the WA coast. On September 16, 1950 British prime minister Clement Attlee cabled Menzies to see if Australia would agree to the testing and for British “experts” to conduct reconnaissance of the islands. They wanted to drop the bomb in October 1952, and expected winds would take the radioactive cloud out to sea. Attlee said the area would be contaminated for “three years”.

Without consulting anyone, Menzies responded with an enthusiastic yes. There was no Australian oversight and Britain had total control of safety. After winning an election in 1951, Menzies finally announced the news to the public in February 1952 saying there was no danger to the public, but did not say where it would happen. There was no debate, instead the mood was one of excitement and the press speculated on the likely site (most assumed it would be at Woomera rocket range in SA). Parliament passed a bill to deny Australians entry to huge zones of the country that might be used for testing.

Menzies painted a rosy picture of equal partnership but Australians provided labour and land only. There was a third secret use of Aussies: as lab rats for British nuclear experiments. Australia’s leading nuclear expert physicist Mark Oliphant was barred from the program for having the temerity to be “appalled” at the atomic bombs’ impact on Japan. Australia’s head scientist was the Briton Ernest Titterton who helped developed the US bomb. Titterton was an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons and his biggest fear was they might be stopped.

The ageing British Navy frigate HMS Plym was donated to be the carrier of the first atomic bomb in Australia. It sailed from Britain with the frame of the bomb while the radioactive core was flown to Australia. WA newspapers had wind of something big happening at Monte Bello as British and Australians built buildings and structures for the test. The nearest mainland town, Onslow, was packed with journalists as the big day approached. The day itself depended on wind conditions when it was blowing north-west towards Indonesia (which wasn’t a concern). At 8am on October 3, 1952, officers sent an electronic signal to spark the explosives around the plutonium core.

The 25 kiloton blast disintegrated the Plym and created a seven meter deep crater in the seabed. Witnesses saw a blinding electric blue light and many reported seeing the bones of their hands.  The 4km high cloud formed a Z shape rather than the more familiar mushroom cloud. While the wind initially took it west, it changed direction and took it back towards the mainland. Under strict secrecy, Australian and British soldiers were ordered into the blast area to pick up pieces of the Plym and put them into drums. They wore no protective gear and were not tested for radiation.

The bomb was front page news, all positive. The West Australian praised Britain’s skill in providing “a reliable shield for the Commonwealth”. Sailors on the HMAS Macquarie saw thousands of dead fish in the water, some were scooped up and cooked. A day later the captain got orders not to eat the fish. Many on the Macquarie later died of cancer and many families also had health issues. It was a similar story for crews of other vessels sent to the scene. Confidential documents warned some degree of risk had to be run to get the full value of the test. Fallout spread across northern Australia reaching Cairns and Townsville on the east coast.

Menzies approved further testing on the mainland. The area chosen was Emu Field, 650km north-west of Woomera. The date set was 12 months from the first test on October 15, 1953. RAAF crews were told they had to fly into the mushroom cloud without protective gear to find out what went on inside. They were told it might bring sterility and were offered the chance to turn it down. None did. When the bomb was detonated on the ground, the RAAF men were in the air 20km away and the explosion nearly tore the planes apart. They turned towards the mushroom cloud and took photos. When they went inside the cloud, it was like entering a tornado. They were “entering the gates of hell”, as one airman put it. Under British orders they were told to enter the cloud a second time.

When they finally landed, they were greeted by scientists in space suits breathing with oxygen bottles who wouldn’t come near the pilots. Instead they wanted the canisters attached to the planes and flew them direct to England. The pilots realised they were lab rats. They were forced to continue the mission to track the radioactive cloud across Australian which drifted east. One pilot said the cloud stayed over a Queensland town for five days as it rained but would not reveal the town for fear of being jailed. As at Monte Bello, soldiers had to enter the bomb zone without protection to conduct clean-up operations while Geiger counters “went berserk”.

Northern SA is the home of the Yankunytjatjara people. Around 170km north-west of Emu Field, 11-year-old Yami Lester heard a huge bang in the distance. The following morning a big black cloud rolled in like a dust storm. Lester told the 1985 Royal Commission it frightened his people and he could feel sticky dirt from the black mist. People felt sick and had sore and watery eyes. Many died in the following days. Lester became blind but doctors dismissed a link with the bomb. It was an experience repeated across the north of the state. But Aboriginal people did not have a vote in 1953 and no one cared about their plight, nor the plight of Australian military personnel in harm’s way. Menzies hailed the bomb a great success. Progress was too important, as was Australian toadying to Britain.

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