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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


The Maralinga Experiment

Posted 3/08/17 (Wed)

Between 1956 and 1963, the British performed nuclear tests at a place in South Australia called Maralinga.

It prompted a 1987 movie called “Ground Zero,” about a cinematographer, who prompted by curiosity about some old film footage his father took, tries to find out the truth about what happened at Maralinga.

Reports suggest that 16,000 Australians were exposed to radiation during the tests at Maralinga over those eight years. That included many Aborigines who owned the land where the tests were conducted.

Obviously, Maralinga was contaminated with radiation and the British made an attempt to clean it up in 1967. Eighteen years later, a royal commission delivered a report suggesting that significant radiation hazards remained at many Maralinga testing sites.

At the time of the tests, the tests themselves were under intense secrecy and those who were exposed, were sworn to secrecy or face jail time.

By the 1970s, however, the Australian media began digging into “Britain’s Dirty Deeds at Maralinga.”

They found politicians who would cower at the thought of having to answer questions about Maralinga. They uncovered still significant amounts of radiation hazards, many of which are most likely still there today. And finally, the British government and/or military had no intent to compensate Australia, South Australia, the Aborigines or the military men who were exposed.

The other part of this equation is that Maralinga was a sacred ground of the Aborigine people and when the British decided they were going to make bombs go boom at Maralinga, the Aborigines were relocated to a place called Yalata.

Attempts were made to stop Aborigines from going back to their sacred ground, but that was unsuccessful.

A Department of Veterans’ Affairs study concluded that “Overall, the doses received by Australian participants were small.

Only 2 percent of participants received more than the current Australian annual dose limit for occupationally exposed persons. However, such findings are contested.

Australian servicemen were ordered to repeatedly fly through mushroom clouds from atomic explosions, without protection; and to march into ground zero immediately after bombs detonated.

Airborne drift of radioactive material resulted in “radioactive rain” being dropped on Brisbane and the Queensland countryside.

A 1999 study for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association found that 30 percent of involved veterans had died, mostly in their 50s, from cancers.

Successive Australian governments failed to compensate servicemen who contracted cancers following exposure to radiation at Maralinga.

However, after a British decision in 1988 to compensate its own servicemen, the Australian government negotiated compensation for several Australian servicemen suffering from two specific conditions, leukemia (except lymphatic leukemia) and the rare blood disorder multiple myeloma.

In addition, the Aboriginal community was finally compensated as well to the tune of $13.5 million to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.

If you see “Ground Zero,” it will remind you of Area 51 in Nevada. It’s very desolate and is an obvious desert environment. It’s a waste  land so the British thought why not test nukes there?

By 1956, science knew a lot about nuclear exposure and what it does to the human body. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were studied at length in the 11 years since the end of World War II, but the Maralinga tests went on anyway knowing major cities in Adelaide Brisbane and Canberra were close enough to be effected.

That didn’t stop the British because they had to develop a better bomb than the United States or the Soviet Union.

It was a time of great uncertainty as we all found out in October 1962 when Russia and the United States were an arm’s length away from all out nuclear war because of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

There’s a part of the scientific world that is necessary in order to know what risks may be, but what happened at Maralinga was no excuse for the British government or the British military to play dumb. They knew exactly what they were doing.

It’s just too bad that so many Aborigines were displaced and so many cancers were manufactured. What a lesson in science!