BIO: Dr Liz Tynan’s PhD in science communication from the Australian National University examined aspects of the British nuclear tests in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. She recently published the book, ‘Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story’.
NITV: What inspired you to write about the Maralinga nuclear tests? And what can we expect to see in your book?
LT: Some years ago, I did a PHD on the Maralinga nuclear tests. At the time, I worked with a colleague who was a journalist that helped to uncover what had happened at Maralinga.
I’ve always said it’s a story that people need to hear, and I didn’t want to have my PHD just sitting on library shelves, so I’ve reworked it into the form of a book that anybody can read. The book itself goes from the early 1930s, almost right up to present day. It also discusses other cases of nuclear testing around Australia.
NITV: Why did the British Government do its nuclear testing in Australia and why did Menzies allow it?
LT: The British didn’t initially want to test in Australia; they actually wanted to keep working with the Americans. Their joint work initially began during the Manhattan project, during the Second World War. In 1946, when the Americans discovered that there was a British spy working on the Manhattan project, the Americans enacted the McMahon Act, which prevented them from working on secret military programs with other countries.
Britain found itself in the situation where it had to decide if it wanted to go it alone. Britain decided that it would go down that road, but the problem was deciding where it could carry out testing. The initial plan was to do the testing in Canada, but when the Canadians saw the quite detailed plans, they said no. So, Britain looked to Australia.
At the time, Menzies has just been re-elected. He had been Prime Minister for 10 months, so s Menzies said yes for a varied number of reasons. They weren’t just sycophantic reasons.
Australia was looking for post-war security and saw this as a chance to have protection from Britain again.
Australia had just discovered its uranium, so by having the testing here it opened up a potential market for further uranium exports. So there were actually many different reasons to Menzies approving the testing.
NITV: What bombs were tested in Australia? How many were tested?
LT: The major bombs that were tested were Fission bombs, not Fusion bombs.
Fission bombs which produce the mushroom cloud were low yield bombs, and some of these were tested at the Montebello Islands. The largest tested there had a 60 Kilotons warhead. It was four times bigger than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
The British were also testing bomb designs. They had two types: the Blue Danube, which was the first to go operational. It was designed by William Penny, who was very keen to see it get tested. This was followed by the Red Beard design.
Smaller tests were also carried out, such as radiological tests which were actually much more dangerous than the bigger ones. The biggest legacy of these tests is the leftover plutonium from the tests at Maralinga. It’s that leftover plutonium that is the big concern.
NITV: Were Indigenous people ever consulted prior to the Maralinga tests?
LT: No they weren’t. They were not consulted at all and they were cast-off their land, sometimes in a brutal fashion.
Some peoples did cross back across the land despite attempts to stop them. We don’t know how many Indigenous peoples got sick because of these tests, and it’s likely we never will. It’s very tragic what happened to those people.
NITV: What was the kind of damage done to the land and to humans from these tests?
LT: The British attempted to clean up the area in 1964 and 1967, but these efforts were largely ineffective. In fact, they actually made the problem worse by spreading the affected materials across a much larger area.
They signed off all responsibility for the area in 1968. The problem just sat on the surface for many years, until it was eventually discovered by journalists and the scientific community.
In the 1990s, there was a much larger clean-up of the area that cost $100 million. The British government paid about half, but they weren’t keen. The final clean up still isn’t perfect, but I believe it is much safer now than it was before. The site is safe, but not enough to camp or live.
NITV: Has there been any real compensation to those that have been affected by these tests? Where do they stand legally now?
LT: There has been some small compensation paid to the Traditional Owners (only a total of $13.5 million), but it is really more tokenistic than anything.
Service personnel have tried to get compensation with notable lack of success, as very little has been paid to them. My understanding is that legal avenues have been exhausted for them.
Cherie Blair was going to try to take the matter to the highest British court nearly 5 years ago, but this apparently was going to be too hard or take too long to achieve.