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The Maralinga Nuclear Tests (hist essay)

Posted on October 1, 2012 at 11:50 PM

Maralinga is a remote desert area of western South Australia. It is the home and hunting grounds of the Tjarutja people, who had lived in the region for thousands of years. In the 1950s, however, the Australian government granted the United Kingdom access to the area, so that their scientists could test nuclear devices and atomic weaponry. Fatefully, the name Maralinga translates into “Fields of Thunder”, which is exactly what the Tjarutja people witnessed on 27 September 1956, when a nuclear warhead, code-named Operation Buffalo, was detonated on their ancestral homeland (Anderson). The atomic blasts released a radioactive cloud that exceeded 11.4 kilometres (well above the expected fallout), with unpredicted wind patterns spreading radiation across the Anangu Indigenous lands, as far as the Northern Territory and Queensland (Anderson).


The Fallout

It is impossible to determine how many Indigenous lives were lost in the immediate detonations, but those outside of the blast-zone, described a searing white light, followed by a horrible black mist that rolled across the land and blotted out the sun. The Tjarutja people were totally exposed to the blast and the subsequent hard rain that fell on their lands. Many of them became sick with vomiting and diaorrhea. Older members of the group died from terrible illnesses. A young boy named Yami Lester witnessed the mushroom cloud from afar, and was immediately blinded in one eye. He lost sight in his other eye shortly after. In a number of cases, such as the Milpuddie family, pregnant mothers gave birth to stillborns. Some of elder Tjarutja referred to the black smoke as “Mumoi”, fearing that an evil spirit had descended on their land. They were not far wrong (Michel).


While the major test series, Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler, were marginally publicised at the time, hundreds of minor tests were carried out by the British in secret. These operations were conducted over a number of months, and tested the response of nuclear devices to elements such as fire. One of these secret tests, Operation Vixen, hurled molten uranium and plutonium almost a kilometre into the air, forming pools of concentrated radiation all over the Maralinga flatlands (Anderson).


Very little effort was made to protect the Tjarutja people from the fallout of the testing. Steps were taken by the federal government to curtail Aboriginal traversal into Maralinga, including signs and fences, with warnings about the area. Unfortunately, such signs were printed in English, making them of little use to the Maralingan-speaking locals. Boots were distributed among the community to avoid contact with contaminant soil, but most of them did not fit, leading as many as 100 Aborigines to walk barefoot across the radioactive Maralinga plains. British scientists even found families of Tjarutja sleeping in craters formed by the initial detonations (Michel).


What the white authorities were failing to grasp was that the land itself held great spiritual significance to the Tjarutja people, and contained mythological sites that were important to their daily lives. Cut off from their homeland and culture, many of the Indigenous refugees travelled considerable distances (such as Cundalee, Western Australia), to attend ceremonial functions in other Aboriginal groups. Some died of thirst along the way, because they were unfamiliar with the river-systems this far from home. These efforts emphasise the intrinsic link between Indigenous culture, identity and land (Lynch).


The Paul Kelly song Maralinga captures some of the horror and fear felt by Tjarutja during the testing: “First we heard two big bangs/we thought it was the great snake digging holes/Then we saw the big cloud/then the big black mist began to roll/this is a rainy land/A strangeness on our skin/a soreness in our eyes like weeping fire/a pox upon our skin/a boulder on our backs all our lives/this is a rainy land.”


The McClelland Commission

In the decades following, victims of the Maralinga testing (both Indigenous and military personnel) were still suffering from the effects of radiation poisoning, including blindness, sores, and illnesses such as cancer. In the words of the Atomic Veteran Associations, “they started to piece things together, linking their afflictions with their exposure to nuclear testing” (Parkinson) Treatment of Aborigines during the testing attracted strong condemnation. In 1984, the Hawke government announced a public inquiry into the British testing program and its aftermath. It was called the McClelland Commission, after its chairman. The resulting report was a scathing indictment of the British and Australian governments of the time, for placing their military and scientific pursuits above the safety and wellbeing of their own people. McClelland concluded that the organisation, management and resources allocated to ensuring the safety of Aborigines were completely inadequate, and denounced officials as “ignorant, incompetent and cynical” (Michel).


Attitudes towards Aborigines

The plight of Aborigines in vicinity of the blast-zone was in many respects a reflection of their status in Australia at the time. In a revealing statement to the Royal Commission, Sir Ernest Titterton was quoted as having said that “If Aboriginal people objected to the tests they, could [simply] vote the government out”. Yet, in 1956, Aborigines were not even counted on the census, let alone given the right to vote (Michel). Such a small and disadvantaged minority was given no chance to wield electoral influence in the protection of their land and customs. There is no shortage of evidence illustrating the low regard in which Aborigines were held at this time. The chief scientist of the Department of Supply, a British expatriate, criticised an officer whom he regarded as overly concerned with Aboriginal welfare for “placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. Occasionally, when Aborigines were sighted in restricted areas, reports of these sightings were disbelieved, or less than subtly discouraged. One officer who reported sighting Aborigines in the prohibited zone was asked if he realised “what sort of damage [he] would be doing by finding Aboriginals where Aboriginals should not be” (Parkinson).


The Clean-Up

In the late 1990s, the Australian government carried out a clean-up of the Maralinga test site. However, nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson denounced the project as “a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land”. The majority of residual plutonium was buried underground, and covered with cement. However, it will remain toxic for the next 24,000 years. Despite being granted Maralinga back, the Tjarutja people now regard it as mostly poisoned, not just for the pockets of radiation still present in the soil, but for the history of pain, sorrow and betrayal they now associate with it (Lynch).


The Anangu Story

Several years ago, a group of Tjarutja women came together, and created a book of traditional paintings, detailing the struggles of their people. The picture book captures the Anangu way of life before and after white settlement. It illustrated the Tjarutja people’s exile from Maralinga; the physical and spiritual effects of the nuclear testing; and the feelings of homesickness that exists in the current generation. The book served as an expression of their grief and frustration over the destruction of their homeland, but also a special record of their experiences for white Australian’s and younger Aborigines to appreciate (McCartney).


Categories: ESSAYS, History

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