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Suppose you’re designing a new super-weapon. It’s based on an earlier model which you know is quite destructive, but you don’t understand all of its effects. You’d like to test its effects on buildings, animals and people but you are rather risk averse. And likely this weapon has bad effects you haven’t even dreamed of. How can you test it?
One way might be to find a friendly ally, con him into letting you test the weapon on his soil, using his troops, his environment, his general population and his babies. Of course, you’d keep what you find secret, and not let your ally see too much or ask too many questions.
Nah – far too fanciful. No-one would make a movie based on such an unlikely scenario. Do irreparable harm to an ally, in secret? Never.
But that is just what happened in the 1950s. Britain tested its atomic weapons in Australia, using Australian troops, the Australian population, and Australian babies as guinea pigs. And while the effects were (and still are) horrifying, secrecy was maintained for decades. Many people were harmed; few were told about it.
It’s actually quite hard to review Maralinga without slipping into hyperbole, outrage and visceral anger. Reading it caused a growing tide of disbelief, anger and despair. But this is a story which must be told.
Britain began nuclear tests in Australia during 1953. This was agreed to by the Prime Minister at the time, Robert Menzies, apparently on his own in an attempt to get even cosier with Britain. They began in the Monte Bello islands off northern Western Australia, and in 1955 moved to Maralinga, in the northern part of South Australia. They conducted seven atomic bomb tests, and perhaps as many as 700 “minor” tests, many of which were just as dangerous as a full bomb test. Australian troops did the dirty work, and while there were Australian scientists involved, they were kept in the background.
The first part of the book describes the preparation and conduct of these tests in a series of vivid descriptions. There was a staggering lack of knowledge about the effects of radiation, and tests were conducted with an almost insouciant lack of concern for the Air Force and Naval personnel involved. Some of the descriptions of troops collecting radioactive samples in ordinary dress, then passing the samples over to scientists in full protective gear simply stun the reader. It is hard to accept that the British boffins involved didn’t realise, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that radiation is not nice.
Was this deliberate, or just amateurish? The author has documentation that shows (in his words) “… from the very start the British regarded exploding atomic bombs in Australia as a chance to use troops, sailors and airmen as guinea pigs in their experiments, and Australia was to be regarded as one big laboratory”. Issues big and small pile up in the ensuing chapters The British treated even eminent Australians as “colonials”, and the disregard for their rights and interests blows the reader away (bad pun definitely intended). For example, Aboriginal groups were living unaware in the danger zone, and reporting of their presence was actively discouraged under military discipline.
The second part of the book describes some of the effects on those directly involved, their descendants, and the general population. Of course health issues are to the forefront here. Research into the effects of fallout continued long after the tests stopped in 1963. “Research” that went as far as to harvest bones from dead babies and foetuses, without their parents’ knowledge.
Eventually truth, or at least a change in government, will out. There was a Royal Commission in 1984, which drew many conclusions about the conduct and effects of the tests, and made recommendations about reparations and clean-up. Not all have been implemented. They paint an ugly picture.
Frank Walker is a freelance investigative journalist specialising in defence and related issues. In this book he draws on many sources – official documents, some of which were secret until recently, the report of the Royal Commission, news reports and most importantly many interviews with surviving veterans. These interviews are reported in lively word pictures which vividly describe the veterans thoughts and feelings as they took part in the tests and monitoring, and in their later years as what had been done to them became clear.
This is not a dispassionate book! There may be another side to this story, although I can’t imagine what it is. It isn’t mentioned here. The author makes no attempt to be a neutral reporter. Rather, he seethes with anger and outrage at what he refers to in the subtitle as “our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country”.
This is a horrifying story, told vividly and fluently. I do wish it weren’t true.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
Frank Walker talked with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ recently.
by Frank Walker
Published by Hachette Australia