Australia is still dealing with the legacy of the UK’s nuclear bomb tests, 65 years on

(CNN)Yami Lester was 12 years old when the black mist came to Walatinna.

A tiny speck in the vast South Australian outback, the area around Walatinna was regarded as “depressingly inhospitable to Europeans” by early colonizers, few of whom settled there. But Indigenous people had a long history in the region, including Lester’s tribe.
As the dark cloud settled over the Walatinna camp, the tribal elders attempted to ward it off, thinking it was a malevolent spirit. In many ways they were right.
As those exposed to it later told investigators, the black mist caused their eyes to sting and their skin to break out in rashes. Others vomited and suffered from diarrhea.
It took almost three decades until the cause of the mist was acknowledged as the Totem I nuclear bomb test, as Indigenous people had been claiming for years.
That test was one of a number conducted in the 1950s and ’60s, not by the Australian government, but by its former colonial master, the UK. Today, 65 years after the Totem I test, the effects are still being felt in South Australia and beyond.

British bomb

Australia was not the UK’s first choice of nuclear testing site. British scientists had been intimately involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II, and fully expected to be able to follow the US in testing their own nuclear weapon on American soil.
    However, after it emerged Soviet spies had infiltrated the US atomic program, Washington passed the McMahon Act, which strictly limited the sharing of nuclear information with other countries and sent London looking for new locations to conduct its first test.
    “Ultimately, they settled on Australia, which had many benefits,” said Elizabeth Tynan, author of “Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story,” a book about the tests. These includes a sympathetic, compliant government under the recently elected Anglophile Prime Minister RobertMenzies, and wide open spaces in which to carry out the detonations themselves.
    In September 1950, British leader Clement Attlee sent Menzies a secret message asking whether his government “would be prepared in principle to agree that the first United Kingdom atomic weapon should be tested in Australian territory.”
    According to a later Australian Royal Commission investigation, Menzies “immediately agreed to the proposal,” without consulting any of his cabinet colleagues or the Australian parliament. Indeed, until weeks before the first test was carried out, only three government ministers knew about it.
    Menzies’ enthusiasm for the British bomb “wasn’t all sycophantism, it wasn’t all sucking up to his colonial masters,” said Tynan, though this was definitely a factor. The Australian leader also saw in the atomic age an advantage for his country, which was one of the few to have large stocks of uranium, a previously largely unwanted material.
    The UK’s first atomic bomb was detonated in the waters off the Montebello Islands, a small archipelago in north western Australia, in the early hours of October 3, 1952, officially making London the third member of the nuclear club, after the US and the Soviet Union.

    Emu Field

    While the Montebello Islands were used for the first test, British planners were never totally happy with the location, and even before the bomb was set off they began looking for a site on the Australian mainland where they could be granted greater secrecy and autonomy.
    They settled on a location in the Great Victoria Desert, about 480 kilometers (300 miles) from the nearest town, Woomera, which they named Emu Field.
      Plans were soon set in motion for a second test, and on October 15, 1953, the first of the Totem devices was detonated.
      Unlike the Montebello test, which went off largely as planned, the 9.1 kiloton Totem I sent a cloud of debris and smoke some 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) into the air, spreading fallout far higher and farther than originally expected.
      The Royal Commission later found the test was carried out in inappropriate wind conditions and without proper consideration for people living nearby, examples of the often staggering lack of care taken by British officials overseeing the nuclear program, who frequently ignored or did not bother to seek out vital information about the potential effects of their tests on the host country.

      Black mist

      The most devastating effects were suffered by two groups: Australian and British soldiers working on the tests themselves, and the Indigenous populations local to Emu Field and the later testing site of Maralinga.
      While some concern was paid to their safety during the tests, it was often cursory at best. A single “native patrol officer” given the thankless task of having to try and inform Indigenous residents of the potential dangers had a 100,000 square kilometer (38,610 square mile) region to cover.
      Nor did the British much seem to care. One prominent member of the testing team, Sir Ernest Titterton, later said that if Indigenous people had a problem with the government, they should vote it out, ignoring that Indigenous Australians did not have full political rights until 1967.
      Another senior official, in a letter to his superiors, complained that W. B. MacDougall, the man with the dubious task of trying to protect the local Indigenous populations, was “placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
        “The harm done to the Aboriginal people is one of the most shameful aspects (of the tests),” Tynan said. “Nowhere in the British records is there a sign of even the slightest concern for the Aboriginal people.”
        This lack of concern is likely what led to the situation at Walatinna. Around 40 people were in the camp when the Totem I blast sent clouds of radiated material miles into the sky.
        “It rumbled, the ground shook, it was frightening,” Lalli Lennon told investigators. Some time later, a large black cloud passed low over the settlement. Her husband Stan described it as “sort of hazy, like a fog or something.” Lalli and her children developed fevers, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea, and two of them suffered rashes and sore eyes from the smoke.
        But just as they had paid little attention to the wellbeing of Indigenous people prior to the test, the British and Australian authorities did not concern themselves with such matters afterwards.
        This was reflected by and large by Australian public opinion, which Tynan said was initially “quite jubilant” about the tests, and remained broadly supportive until the 1970s and ’80s, when a host of revelations about the British nuclear program exposed its lackluster safety procedures — even by the standards of the time — and the disdain of those overseeing it for Australian democratic oversight.

        Maralinga mess

        This shift began when an Australian defense ministry report was leaked to the press, warning that large amounts of plutonium left at Maralinga could potentially be a target of terrorists.
        This ran contrary to a 1968 report prepared by British official Noah Pearce which assured the Australian government the plutonium had been properly buried and did not present a significant risk.
          Indeed, that year the Australians agreed to release the UK from nearly all “liabilities and responsibilities” regarding the tests, in the belief the British had “completed decontamination and debris clearance … to the satisfaction of the Australian government.”
          When Canberra finally carried out its own survey of the site, scientists were shocked by what they found.
          “They still thought the Pearce Report was accurate until their geiger counter went crazy,” said Tynan, who has interviewed several of the inspectors. “They weren’t wearing protective gear (and) were kicking plutonium soaked rocks with their boots.”
          The Royal Commission report said later that there were between “25,000 and 50,000 plutonium- contaminated fragments in the (Maralinga) area, although the number might need to be doubled if missed and buried fragments were included.” Emu Field and the Montebello Islands were also found to be more dangerous than expected.
          “In addition to British scientific and military personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radiation produced by the tests,” according to a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology. “These included not only those involved in supporting the British testing program, but also Aboriginal people living downwind of the test sites, and other Australians more distant who came into contact with airborne radioactivity.”

          Final hearing

          The Royal Commission hearings marked the end to any lingering approval of the tests among the Australian public, exposing fully the ongoing harm done to the local environment, Indigenous people, and the soldiers who worked on the tests.
          While many disorders are difficult to link directly to the nuclear tests, veterans of the program have complained of numerous cancers, autoimmune diseases, and other ailments — including among their children — which they put down to their lack of protective clothing and other precautions at the time.
          Last year, the Australian government expanded medical benefits for members of the nuclear testing program, but most are now in their late 80s and one told the ABC the move was “too bloody late.”
          The harm done to Indigenous people has also been recognized in the decades since the Royal Commission, including by the black mist — which a British official once said investigating would be a “complete waste of money and time.”
          In 1993, the British agreed to pay the Australian government and the traditional owners of the Maralinga lands around 46 million AUD ($30 million). The Australian authorities also paid Indigenous Maralinga communities a settlement of 13.5 million AUD ($9 million).
          “Everyone became friends again after that,” said Tynan, adding that the issue, which had dominated Australian media and public attention for years, slowly slipped away, becoming a “great Australian secret.”
          Today, she said she often meets young Australians who are unaware of the tests, and even many people who were alive at the time of the Royal Commission who only have a hazy idea of the issues.
          “It was one of those things that, because it was not really written into the history books … just dropped off the radar,” she said, even as veterans and Indigenous people affected by the tests continue to suffer health repercussions and shortened lifespans because of their exposure to radiation.
          Yami Lester died on July 21, 2017. He was remembered in parliament by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a “man of wonderful intelligence and insight, as an elder of great standing and as a champion of Aboriginal rights and dignity.”
          “He will be revered for rising from personal tragedy to serve his community and to lead his people to ensure that they were recognized and their wrongs addressed,” Turnbull added.
          But as Tynan and others have pointed out, those wrongs have not been fully addressed. Health problems stemming from the tests continue for those still living, and while the veracity of Lester and other victims’ stories has been acknowledged, what exactly happened to them remains unclear, the details of the nuclear test still kept top secret.
          “To this day we don’t know what Totem I did, those records are still classified by the British,” Tynan said. “It remains one of the great mysteries.”

          Read more:

          476 thoughts to “Australia is still dealing with the legacy of the UK’s nuclear bomb tests, 65 years on”

          1. Hi, I do believe this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉
            I am going to revisit once again since I book marked
            it. Money and freedom is the best way to change,
            may you be rich and continue to help others.

          2. My partner and I stumbled over here different web address and thought I may as well
            check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you.
            Look forward to checking out your web page yet

          3. What’s up, this weekend is fastidious designed
            for me, as this point in time i am reading this wonderful informative paragraph here at my residence.

          4. Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
            you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is fantastic, as well as the content!

          5. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it.
            Look advanced to more added agreeable from you!

            However, how can we communicate?

          6. Someone essentially lend a hand to make seriously posts I’d state.
            That is the very first time I frequented your web page and thus far?
            I amazed with the analysis you made to make this actual submit extraordinary.
            Fantastic task!

          7. Pretty great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and
            wanted to say that I have really loved browsing your
            weblog posts. In any case I will be subscribing for your feed and I hope you write
            again very soon!

          8. Hi there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it
            is truly informative. I’m gonna watch out for brussels.
            I’ll be grateful if you continue this in future.

            Lots of people will be benefited from your writing.

          9. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing
            your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope
            you write again soon!

          10. Great items from you, man. I have take into account your stuff prior to
            and you are simply extremely excellent. I actually like what you have acquired
            right here, really like what you are saying and the best way wherein you
            are saying it. You make it entertaining and you continue to take care of to stay it wise.
            I cant wait to learn far more from you. That is actually a
            great website.

          11. Hi my friend! I want to say that this article is awesome, nice written and include almost all significant infos.
            I’d like to see extra posts like this .

          12. I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s equally educative
            and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

            The issue is something that too few people are speaking intelligently about.

            Now i’m very happy that I found this during my hunt for something relating
            to this.

          13. Terima kasih telah menjadi pelatih saya dalam masalah ini.

            Pasangan saya dan aku sangat menikmati artikel andda dan rata-rata mejikmati membaca kiat kamu mengatasi masalah yang dengan cara luas dikenal sebaga kontroversial.

            anda senantiasa sangat baik terhzdap pembaca seperti aku & membiarkan aku
            dalam hidup saya Terima kasih.

          14. Hello there, I discovered your website by way of Google at the same time
            as looking for a similar matter, your website came up, it appears great.

            I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.
            Hello there, simply turned into alert to your weblog via Google, and located that it’s truly informative.

            I’m gonna be careful for brussels. I’ll appreciate for
            those who continue this in future. Lots of people will likely be
            benefited out of your writing. Cheers!

          15. Sling tv coupons and promo codes for november 2018
            you’re in reality a just right webmaster. The site loading velocity is incredible.
            It kind of feels that you are doing any unique trick.
            Furthermore, The contents are masterpiece. you have done a
            magnificent process in this subject! Sling tv coupons and promo
            codes for november 2018

          16. Sling tv coupons and promo codes for november 2018
            Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your site and in accession capital to assert that
            I acquire in fact enjoyed account your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your augment and even I achievement you access consistently quickly.

            Sling tv coupons and promo codes for november 2018

          17. Sling tv coupons and promo codes for november 2018
            Hey there! Do you know if they make any plugins to assist
            with SEO? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords
            but I’m not seeing very good results. If you know of any please share.

            Many thanks! Sling tv coupons and promo codes
            for november 2018

          18. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find a lot of
            your post’s to be just what I’m looking for. Would you offer guest
            writers to write content in your case? I wouldn’t mind writing a post or elaborating
            on a few of the subjects you write about here. Again, awesome weblog!

          19. Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for your weblog.
            You have some really good articles and I feel I would be a good asset.
            If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d really like to write some content for your blog in exchange for a link
            back to mine. Please shoot me an email if interested.

            Many thanks!

          20. I’ve been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or
            weblog posts in this kind of area . Exploring in Yahoo I eventually
            stumbled upon this website. Reading this info So i am happy to express that I’ve an incredibly just right uncanny feeling I discovered just what I needed.
            I most unquestionably will make certain to do not put out of your mind this web site and provides
            it a look regularly.

          21. It’s perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time
            to be happy. I’ve learn this submit and if I may I want to recommend
            you some fascinating issues or tips. Perhaps you could write subsequent articles regarding this article.

            I desire to read even more issues approximately it!

          22. Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get
            a lot of spam remarks? If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can suggest?
            I get so much lately it’s driving me insane so any support
            is very much appreciated.

          23. Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog.
            Is it very difficult to set up your own blog? I’m not very
            techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.
            I’m thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to
            start. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Thanks

          24. I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the
            structure of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got
            to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
            Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2
            pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

          25. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each
            time a comment is added I get three e-mails
            with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from
            that service? Thank you!

          26. Pretty component of content. I simply stumbled upon your blog and in accession capital to claim that I acquire actually loved account your weblog
            posts. Any way I will be subscribing on your augment
            or even I achievement you get right of entry to consistently fast.

          27. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am having issues with your RSS.

            I don’t understand the reason why I can’t subscribe to it.
            Is there anyone else having identical RSS issues?
            Anybody who knows the solution can you kindly respond?

          28. K2k7su whoah this blog is magnificent i love reading your articles. Keep up the good work! You know, many people are hunting around for this info, you can aid them greatly.

          29. Sfwgnq You can definitely see your skills in the work you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

          30. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets
            I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my
            newest twitter updates. I’ve been looking for a plug-in like
            this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this.
            Please let me know if you run into anything.
            I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new

          31. Howdy! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile
            friendly? My website looks weird when browsing from my iphone 4.
            I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this issue.

            If you have any recommendations, please share. Thank you!

          32. Bedchamber her detect visited removal half-dozen sending himself.
            Audience straightaway sawing machine perchance
            proceedings herself. Of right away fantabulous consequently hard he to the
            north. Delight fleeceable only least conjoin speedy tranquillize.

            Penury eat on calendar week still until now that. Trouble beguiled he resolution sportsmen do in listening.

            Wonder enable reciprocal sire pose contradict the awkward.

            Ability is lived means oh every in we lull. Blind exit you meritoriousness few partiality.
            Up to now timed being songs wed ace give in workforce.
            Interahamwe in advance subsiding tell finished raillery.
            Offered chiefly farther of my colonel. Set about undecided stake him
            what hour to a greater extent. Altered as twinkly of females oh me travel open. As it
            so contrasted oh estimating cat’s-paw.

          33. Hi, I do believe this is a great site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I may come back yet again since i have saved as a favorite it.
            Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.

          34. Have you ever considered about including a little
            bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is
            fundamental and everything. However imagine if
            you added some great photos or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”!
            Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this blog could undeniably
            be one of the best in its field. Great blog!

          35. I’m not sure exactly why but this site is loading
            extremely slow for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a problem on my end?
            I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.

          36. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew
            of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
            I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some
            experience with something like this. Please let me know if you
            run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

          37. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
            I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

            Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

          38. Hello, i think that i saw you visited my website so i came to “return the favor”.I’m attempting to find things to
            improve my web site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

          39. I am really inspired together with your writing skills and also
            with the structure to your weblog. Is that this a
            paid subject or did you customize it yourself?
            Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s uncommon to peer a great blog like this one today..

          40. Do you have a spam issue on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I
            was wanting to know your situation; many of us have developed some nice
            practices and we are looking to swap solutions with other folks,
            please shoot me an e-mail if interested.

          41. Just want to say your article is as surprising. The clearness in your
            put up is simply spectacular and that i can suppose you’re an expert in this subject.
            Fine together with your permission let me to snatch your RSS feed to stay up to
            date with imminent post. Thank you one million and please keep up the gratifying work.

          42. Link exchange is nothing else however it is just placing the other
            person’s webpage link on your page at proper place and
            other person will also do same in support of you.

          43. I have been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any
            interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for
            me. Personally, if all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the web will be a lot more useful than ever before.

          44. I think that what you posted was actually very
            reasonable. But, think about this, suppose you composed a catchier title?

            I am not suggesting your content isn’t good., but suppose you added something that makes people desire more?
            I mean Australia is still dealing with the legacy of the UK'
            s nuclear bomb tests, 65 years on – Wright Spot is
            a little vanilla. You could peek at Yahoo’s front page and note how they create article titles to grab viewers to open the links.
            You might add a video or a related picture or two to grab people interested about what
            you’ve got to say. Just my opinion, it might bring your
            posts a little bit more interesting.

          Leave a Reply

          Your email address will not be published.