Maralinga − 60 years on

Jessie Boylan

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012,

Travelling to Maralinga for the first time after hearing so much about the effects the British nuclear blasts had on Indigenous people and Australian and British personnel, I didn't know what to expect. I think I expected some sort of overwhelming physical evidence of the blasts, but what appeared was a space full of much remnant history and memory.

I travelled with Australian nuclear veteran, Avon Hudson and Dr. Mick Broderick from Murdoch University. Avon's name is synonymous with Maralinga − he worked there during the bomb tests and, from the 1970s onwards, has done more than anyone to lift the lid on the scandals that took place. His reward has been 40 years of abuse. Mick is an academic whose research interests include 'nuclearism and apocalypse as a cultural phenomenon'.

We'd waited for six months to get permission to enter Maralinga-Tjarutja lands, in particular the Maralinga village and testing sites. The village and surrounding sites were handed back to the Maralinga-Tjarutja people in 2009, though many areas remain radioactive. The 'clean up' in the late 1990s − the fourth but probably not the last − was sharply criticised by scientists-turned-whistleblowers.

Upon arrival we were let in by one of the two caretakers, Robin Matthews, who with his partner Della manages the Maralinga Village and surrounding areas, looks after tour groups and visitors.

The next day we set about exploring the village area and Avon took us to the airfield, next to which is one of the many waste pits where plutonium and cobalt-60 are still buried. We had to wait another day to visit the Forward Area where the nuclear blasts took place.

Veterans were organising a reunion for Remembrance Day 11/11/11 in the village and they had invited Avon, who then invited me.  The veterans came from all over the country to catch up and share stories. Most veterans have long since died. How many died as a result of their work on the nuclear blasts is the subject of endless controversy. A scientific study found clear evidence of increased cancer rates among veterans; but for governments and nuclear apologists, science is overrated.

I chatted with some vets who told me they weren't impacted physically or psychologically from their time at Maralinga, and that they had a simple job of going to Watson (the closest rail-stop) and collecting supplies to bring back to the village.  These veterans remember the benefits of living out at Maralinga, the cricket pitch, the football field, the swimming pool, cinema, bar and mess hall.

Later we were privileged to sit down with some of the old ladies from Oak Valley Community, Margaret May and Aida Hart, and also Leena Taylor from Ceduna. They talk about their memories of being removed from Ooldea soak during the nuclear blasts and taken to Yalata Mission.

"We heard the sounds: one, two, three ..." they say, referring to the first bombs at Emu Field, including the blast that blinded Yami Lester at the age of 10 at Walatinna Station, where he still lives today. "People could feel it as far away as Yalata."

They say they knew that something bad was happening because of all the whitefellas and trucks around.

Leena questions whether it's really that safe for communities to live around here and go hunting; she prompts the government to explain. All around the forward area sites, as we see later, there are signs up that say "kuka palya, ngura wiya" –"the food is ok [to hunt/eat], no camping".

Even after the hand-back of land to the Maralinga Tjarutja people, the area still isn't being used − people think the land is poisoned and don't want to be there. The land is still poisoned − that much we know from the scientists-turned-whistleblowers, and from Avon's first-hand knowledge of the place. The Howard government claimed the latest 'clean up' was 'world's best practice'. The Menzies government claimed the bomb tests posed no risk to man nor beast. Governments lie. Then and now, paid hack scientists and so-called regulators parrot government lies; it's just easier that way.

Avon reminisces: "The countdown was on ... and then it went bang, and they had to have the wind blowing the right way, blowin' it away from where we were working, they didn't want to contaminate all the area, they'd have to abandon it otherwise.

"The area became highly toxic as well as highly radioactive, but no-one ever told us, the scientists knew, but no-one told us Australians, and some of the English personnel that worked along side us."

Ground Zero

On day three we visit the Forward Area, to see ground zero of some of the seven Maralinga nuclear explosions − named One Tree, Marcoo, Kite, Breakaway, Tadje, Biak, and Taranaki.

Avon speaks alot about Taranaki; he was ordered to work here not long after a blast had taken place. Some military personnel were ordered to roll around in ground zero dust shortly after nuclear blasts; the British later claimed they were testing the effects of radiation on clothing. This place was also used for so-called 'minor trials' or 'safety tests ' which left a greater legacy of local contamination than the atomic tests which spread their pollution across Australia and beyond.

A plinth sits in every space where a bomb was exploded:




And on the other side (depending on the bomb):




Lunch is prepared for the veterans in the shelter of a large shed. The shed was the site for trucks to get washed down after the latest clean up attempt at Maralinga. It isn't the place to be preparing and eating food.

Avon talks as we walk down and around the plinth. I can't imagine what he's thinking, to look back 50 years and see yourself as a young man, participating in a dark episode of Empire history. He feels betrayed. He was betrayed. Talking is cathartic for Avon; it releases a little anger and frustration, if only momentarily. His anger is infectious.

The last day at Maralinga. The evening is purple and pink after a big rain that helps wash away the dust. I wander around the empty concrete slabs where buildings used to be. I listen to birds chirping madly. Radioactive birds, perhaps; just this week, swallow droppings around the Sellafield nuclear site in northern England have been found to be radioactive − apparently their mistake is to eat radioactive mosquitoes. Closer to home, birds drop dead after drinking from tailings ponds at the Olympic Dam uranium mine − oases in the desert.

It gets dark and I head back. Avon is there chatting away to Mick. I make a cup of tea on our camp stove and toast to getting the hell out of here.,