Nuclear test veterans granted long-overdue healthcare

Published on Thursday, 01 June 2017 12:02

Not many Australians would appreciate that we consented to having 10 atomic bombs exploded in Australia, a number of which were more powerful than the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three were detonated in the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. Seven more were detonated in South Australia. On 27 September 1956, a 15-kiloton atomic bomb of the type called Red Beard was detonated from a tower at Maralinga. The mushroom cloud rose to a height of 11,400 metres, and radioactivity was detected in South Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, and Queensland.

Mr Wilson (12:02pm) — I welcome this bill, the Veterans Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2017, whose chief purpose is to provide better health care for those affected by the British nuclear tests, and I give credit to the government for including this measure in the budget.

Considering those tests occurred 75 years ago, the measures are long overdue, and the people who will benefit from them are a very small proportion now of those who were affected, because many of those affected have died, often from being exposed to atomic radiation. A study in 1999 for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association found that 30 per cent of those involved in the tests died of cancer, most in their fifties. The experience of Australian veterans and affected civilians has been the same: high rates of cancer, bowel disease, hip and spine deformities, and crippling depression. That is why it is important to reflect on the long and painful road that has brought us to this point. And I thank other members for making contributions, including the member for Makin, who I listened to earlier.

Not many Australians would appreciate that we consented to having 10 atomic bombs exploded in Australia, a number of which were more powerful than the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three were detonated in the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. Seven more were detonated in South Australia. On 27 September 1956, a 15-kiloton atomic bomb of the type called Red Beard was detonated from a tower at Maralinga. The mushroom cloud rose to a height of 11,400 metres, and radioactivity was detected in South Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, and Queensland.

These facts are not well known because the tests were conducted without proper scrutiny, and their impact was covered-up. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the people who worked hard and against a great deal of obstruction for many years to bring this part of our history to light—people like South Australian whistleblower Avon Hudson and journalists like Brian Toohey and Mark Colvin. And I encourage members to consider reading the fantastic recent book by Elizabeth Tynan called Atomic Thunder, about this dark episode in our history. It is available in the Parliamentary Library. I have it out currently, but will return it very soon.

I am grateful to have the opportunity in this week to reflect on the British nuclear tests. That is partly because it is Reconciliation Week. Among the several and severe shortcomings in the decision-making process that led to the British nuclear tests was the unthinking and careless dispossession and displacement of Aboriginal people.

It also happens this week that when I am back in Fremantle I am scheduled to meet with two Western Australian members of the Australian ex-Services Atomic Survivors Association—Mr Ray Whitby and Mr Rex Kaye. Ray Whitby was present at the Montebello tests, aboard HMAS Fremantle. He was 18 years old. He has suffered ill-health ever since, and he and his wife experienced five miscarriages. Those have been prevalent in the families of fellow sailors. Rex Kaye was in the Air Force and based at Woomera in the 1960s. On three separate occasions he was given the job of cleaning down a Vickers Valiant bomber that had flown through the mushroom clouds to collect samples. In 2000 he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia.

The decision to detonate and blow-up atomic weapons was made without reference to the Pitjantjatjara or Anangu people. Whole communities were forcibly relocated to Yalata and Oak Valley, and traditional lands were poisoned forever. The area that South Australian Len Beadell surveyed as a test location was initially called X300. It was then named Maralinga for the purpose of the tests. It is not a local name; it is from a language group in the Northern Territory and it was chosen because it means thunder.

The worst contamination at Maralinga was not caused by the detonation of the atomic bombs but by the hundreds of explosions in the Vixen test series, which involved blowing up plutonium to see what would happen if a nuclear bomb should ever be in a plane crash or subject to an artillery strike. This involved 22 kilograms of plutonium, and it left thousands of fragments of plutonium all over the land's surface. Maralinga is now one of the most contaminated places on the planet.

Several clean-ups occurred over the decades from the 1950s to the present—the 2000s. The early ones were poorly planned and ineffective. The most recent clean-up occurred as one of the processes that followed the McClelland royal commission, which the Labor government initiated in the 1980s. That clean-up actually took place between 1996 and 2000. It cost $108 million and I understand it took some considerable effort to get the United Kingdom to agree to pay for half. Three-hundred and fifty thousand cubic metres of soil and debris from within a two-kilometre area at Maralinga was removed and buried in trenches.

I will finish by again welcoming this important, if long-delayed, further instalment in responding to the profound damage inflicted on our people and our country by the British nuclear tests, which we agreed to. We would do well to reflect on the cultural and structural decision-making framework that existed in Australia at the time, because it allowed harm to occur—enormous harm—and allowed that harm to be covered up and to go unaddressed for a long time. It is still unhealed.

The Australian government of the time was utterly careless in its consideration of Aboriginal people. It perpetrated a 1950s form of terra nullius in the dispossession and displacement of Pitjantjatjara and Anangu people. And the Australian governments at the time and since have not shown sufficient care for Australian service people, many of whom had their lives severely blighted and shortened by exposure to atomic radiation. As Rex Kaye has said, 'I spent years trying to be recognised as an atomic veteran, and I don't trust the government anymore.'

Finally, I think it is crucial that we reflect on the fact that nuclear power and nuclear weapons continue to pose an extraordinary threat to human life and to the health of our planet. We should not regard that as someone else's problem. More Australians should know that their government is currently boycotting the United Nations process to advance a draft treaty banning nuclear weapons. One-hundred and thirty countries signed up last week; we continue to obstruct that process. More Australians should know that earlier this year we entered into a new agreement to supply uranium to the Ukraine for its civilian nuclear program.

As we adopt an important but long-belated and imperfect measure to deal with the atomic radiation we inflicted on ourselves 75 years ago, let's be careful that we are not sleepwalking along the path to the next nuclear disaster.

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