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KIRIBATI

ABOUT CHRISTMAS ISLAND
AND BOMB TESTS II

         

Two highly criticized statistical studies of test servicemen have been carried out in Britain and Australia. They have both demonstrated the difficulties which such studies present. Their figures have been disputed and their methods injected. The British survey raised questions about the safety of the tests, and the Australian study claimed to show that no one had suffered as a result of them. Statisticians of disease, epidemiologists, are notorious for the varieties of conclusions they draw from their data. The British government may hope that the controversy over the tests will be ended by the publication of the National radiological Protection board (NRPB) study of the health of test participants, but judging by the two previous surveys it seems more likely that the debate will grow still fiercer. The British survey was carried out in 1983 by epidemiologists at the University of Birmingham, who had been commissioned to do the work by the now defunct BBC Nationwide television programme after it had received a flood of anecdotes about men suffering as a result of their role in the Christmas Island tests, and to a lesser extent the Australian tests. The Ministry of Defence's argument that the tests were quite safe could not be countered by anecdote alone. No scientists, let alone a court of law, would accept the allegations of servicemen as firm evidence of negligence during the tests.

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The University of Birmingham was sent all the case histories which were received, in their hundreds, by the Nationwide programme. In turn the study team, lead by Dr Alice Stewart, an authority on the effects of low doses of radiation, sent out a questionnaire which sought details of medical history and service at the tests. Documentary evidence, such as a death certificate, had to be produced for a death from cancer the purpose was to establish whether the number of cancer deaths reported, when compared with the number expected among men of similar ages who had not been at the tests, was higher and showed anything suspicious Epidemiologists use a mathematical technique to show whether an excess number of cancers in a group is a product of chance, or is 'significant', and has a cause, like radiation. If the Birmingham study showed any statistically 'significant' excess of caners among test participants, a fuller, objective and independent study would be justified.

The study team was burdened from the beginning by the unreliability of the Government's estimates of the number of men who had participated in the nuclear tests. It was essential to have an accurate figure if any valid comparison of the rates of cancer deaths suffered by the test veterans and those who did not attend the tests could be made. Dr Stewart assumed that a total of 12,000 British servicemen took part in all the British nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. This assumption was based on a figure given by the Prime Minister in the House of commons early in 1983, when Mrs Thatcher stated that 12,000 servicemen took part in the entire test programme, with 1,500 civilians and 1,500 Australians. It later tu5rned out that the Prime Minister's figures were wrong. At first sight, however, the sheer number and coincidence of the illnesses and deaths seemed to justify the fears of ex-servicemen or their widows and families. To a non-scientist the numbers coming forward with anecdotes about the tests and tales of subsequent illnesses appeared to confirm the fears that the men had been exposed to radiation. There is an obvious tendency, however, for a response to a request for information to be inaccurate or unrepresentative of the larger group. A man suffering from a radiation-linked disease is more likely to report it than someone who is not; and those who believe that their illnesses are caused by the tests are keener to respond to a programme on the subject than those who do not.

By the spring of 1983 the University of Birmingham was able to present a study of 330 cases of men who had participated in the Christmas Island tests to the medical journal The Lancet. The findings seemed remarkable. On a provisional estimate of 8000 men at the Christmas Island tests, based on the Prime Minister's figures, there was evidence already of 'an abnormally high incidence of leukaemia and reticuloendothelial system (RES) neoplasms' (cancers of the blood often linked with radiation exposure). In the small sample of 330, there were 27 cases of death from blood cancers; ten more than might be expected in a normal group of 8000 men. The study also reported ten cases of cataract in men in their forties. In spite of the inevitable bias, the fact that the number of blood cancers exceeded the number expected if the entire group had been surveyed seemed evidence that something had gone very wrong in the tests. Even if the figure of 8,000 men was wrong and many more men had been at Christmas Island, the fact that so many cases had been reported in such a small group was suspicious. Dr Stewart and her colleagues put forward several explanations for the apparent excess of blood cancers. They suggested that far more men may have been at risk than the 8,000 they allowed, or that the men had been exposed to very high doses of radiation. It was also possible that they had found new evidence that low doses of radiation are more damaging than had been supposed, or that there may have been other causes for the blood cancers which are not yet known.

There was little official response to the reported findings. A senior Defence Ministry spokesman said off the record that the University of Birmingham's report was 'unscientific' and 'biased'. Professor George Knox, who had supervised the study, dismissed the Ministry's comments as a 'blanket denigration'. According to the Professor, the methods used were quite normal in epidemiology. The study only lacked a full response because dead men were unable, obviously, to respond to requests for information. It was possible that there were still more cases of blood cancer which had not been counted in the study. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Defence declared that it was uncertain about the number of men at the tests. The Ministry cast doubt on the Prime Minister's figures and, therefore, the result of the Birmingham study. A spokesman told the New Scientist that the number of men attending the Christmas Island tests was 'nearer 12,000'. David Alton MP asked the Prime Minister to clarify the position and in her written reply referring to the Government-commissioned NRPB study, she stated: 'The survey will be higher than previously estimated, and could be around 20,000. These will include support personnel who worked in areas away from the test areas and others who were at the time not considered to be at risk from radiation exposure'.

Because proper records had only been kept of the men who took part in the tests whose radiation doses had been recorded, the Government was unable to make a firm statement about the total number who had participated. Many thousands were never monitored for radiation exposure at all because it was considered that they were not at risk. The Prime Minister's earlier declaration of the numbers of men at the tests had been mistakenly based on radiation records, which did not exist for many men and they had not therefore been counted. They had, however, been included in the University of Birmingham's study. David Alton had his own suspicions about the government's announcement of the new figure of 20,000. 'It increases the figures to lessen the impact of any illness statistics. It builds in a statistical bias. The Minister should tell the House who are these additional 5000 people. Have they been included so that the percentage of people appearing to have contracted cancer will be reduced?'

In the same debate of July 1983 the Minister for Defence Procurement, Geoffrey Pattie, put on the record that the government-sponsored survey would cover 'about 20,000 men': 'There is plainly no change in the number of 4000 men who were radiation-monitored. They are well-recorded. The uncertainly lies with those who were assessed at the time not to be at any radiation risk and therefore did not figure in the lists maintained by the radiological protection authorities. For the Pacific tests our best estimate of the number to be considered is about 12,000. The remaining 8000 are associated with the Australian tests and other operations like the Maralinga experimental programme and the clean-up operations at Maralinga and Christmas Island.'

The high figure of blood cancer deaths among test participants in the Birmingham study could now be explained by the increase in the Government's estimate of the number of men at the tests. There was no longer a 'significant excess' of blood cancer mortality because as the Birmingham team had themselves suggested, there were many more men than they had allowed for at the Christmas Island tests. They now estimated the figure at 13,000, but their study still showed an excessive number of blood cancers suffered by a group of ex-servicemen under thirty years old at the time of the tests. Among the total of 594 cases which had been sent to the University for analysis, there were 42 cases of blood cancers reported by test servicemen under thirty years old when at Christmas Island, whereas only 30 cases would normally be expected in a similar population of men who had never been at the tests. Curiously, however, there were far fewer cases of blood cancer reported than normal in the older age group. To Dr Stewart and her team, the discrepancy between the older and younger age groups pointed to the conclusion that the survey, as might be expected, had not screened all the case and that there were more in the pipeline, given the already worrying incidence of cases among the younger men.

Professor George Knox gave cautious support to this view. Although the figures were not 'statistically significant', it looked as though there might indeed be a higher incidence of blood cancers among the men who served on Christmas Island. Professor Joseph Rotblat, the acknowledged expert on the effects of radiation in warfare, was more categorical. His opinion of the study remains that 'it definitely indicates an effect of radiation. Already the reported numbers of blood cancers in the sample of 594 respondents is nearly equal to the total number one would expect from 13,000 servicemen. This sample comprises less than five per cent of the total number. Therefore can one assume that nearly all the blood cancers were contained among the 594 and hardly any among the 12,400 who have not replied? To me this is inconceivable.' Soon after this last set of figures from the University of Birmingham was published, the National Radiological Protection board announced its plans for the government-sponsored health study of the test participants. The Board proposed a full survey of the number of deaths from cancer suffered by test servicemen. The objective of the Birmingham University study had been achieved.

In the same year, 1983, the Australian Government's Commonwealth Department of Health published a study of 15,364 men identified as having paticipated in the tests. The survey, which was carried out by Dr J. W. Donovan, came to the conclusion that the tests had caused no particular damage to Australian civilians and servicemen. The study had to parts: a survey of the number of cancers among living test participants who could be found; and a mortality study of those whose deaths had been traced. The Donovan Report, as the study came to be known, was widely criticized both for its methods, its impartiality and its conclusions. The first part of the survey was based on Government records held in Australia which showed that 15,364 Australian men had some part in the test programme. This, the true figure, was widely at variance with Mrs Thatcher's estimate of 1500 earlier in the year, which was based on the known radiation records held by the AWRE. Postal questionnaires were sent out to all those whose addresses could be traced. Only 2440 fully or partially completed questionnaires were received in return and Dr Donovan based his study on these replies.

Like the Birmingham survey, the Australian report had a strong bias; the men who had contracted disease were much more likely to respond to the requests for information than those who had not, and those who had suffered some illnesses were more inclined to believe that they had been exposed to radiation, even if the records showed this to be highly unlikely, if not impossible. Australia, unlike Britain, has no central cancer registry where the rate of the disease can be observed an it was not possible, therefore to compare the incidence of cancer among test veterans with that of a similar group who had not participated in the nuclear trials. Instead the 2440 replies were divided into groups according to the work the respondent claimed to have done. Each group was then compared with another of the same size which had taken part in the tests in order to establish whether any aspect of the test programme might have been dangerous. For example, those involved in decontamination were compared with a group with no known exposure, such as Maralinga construction workers. If many more cases of a particular illness were found in one group exposed to known radiation doses than in another not exposed, an effect of radiation would be established.

The survey did indeed find excesses of a variety of illnesses, but Dr Donovan refused to draw any conclusion from them. Those who had taken part in decontamination procedures were found to have 2-6 times the expected rate of melanoma - a skin caner. This excess was not related to radiation for two reasons. First, according to the study the men with this skin cancer had a wide variety of jobs within the decontamination process and it was not therefore possible to find a common source of radiation exposure which could explain the higher than average incidence of cancers. Second, there was no record of doses considered high enough to cause skin cancer and without evidence of high dose, Dr Donovan concluded, it was not possible to attribute the skin cancers to radiation. Dr Donovan also found 'statistically significant associations' between cataracts and the men who cleaned up radioactive areas or handled and transported radioactive materials. Again, because the radiation doses for  men reporting this condition were below the threshold assumed to cause cataracts, Donovan argued that radiation could not be the cause of the association.

Infertility among the men who had 'taken part in the construction of support facilities, cleaned up radioactive materials or had visited signposted areas' was 1.5 times higher than among those who had responded to the survey but had not carried out any of those tasks. Once more the report rejected radiation as a possible cruse because 'there was no association between infertility and measured exposure to radiation'. The same conclusion was drawn about the higher prevalence of skin cancers among the men who flew though the atomic clouds, or the excess of cataracts among those who passed through the health physics check-points. Dr Donovan also studied the causes of death of 1560 test participants and found a slightly higher proportion of cancer deaths among the test veterans than in a normal population. This was almost entirely explained by lung cancer. He concluded that there was no reason to believe that attendance at any of the tests raised the risks of dying from a radiation-related disease.

The report's conclusions were based on the assumption that the measured radiation doses were accurate enough to be relied upon. As they were so low Dr Donovan believed they could not explain the excesses which he found. Instead he put down the high frequency of certain conditions to chance. Today it is difficult to agree that all the recorded doses were accurate enough for any firm conclusion to be drawn about them. It is also quite possible that exposures occurred which were out recorded: the first Australians to fly through the atomic clouds, for example, were not monitored at all. Dr Donovan's refusal to explain 'statistically significant' findings by radiation because there are no records of exposure to fit the cases reported brought howls of rage from the test veterans;' associations. So many accounts of the tests in Australia point to inadequacy of monitoring that the excesses discovered may themselves be best indication of radiation exposure, but like the British Black report: Dr Donovan shied away from this conclusion.  

The fact that the report was produced by a government agency brought further criticisms. At the royal Commission Dr Gun, a Senor Medical Officer with the South Australian health Commission, said he could not accept its impartiality: 'Neither the findings not the methods really mean much to the experienced reader unless one feels confident in the attitude of the investigators.' He felt the report did not justify that confidence because 'it should never have been given to a government agency for carrying out'. Dr Gun suggested that the study be done again by an independent team, and he also proposed that a separate control group be found with which to compare the test participants. The method of comparing groups of servicemen with one another might have masked the effects of radiation exposure: 'The exposure data is acknowledged to be of poor quality. If too many presumed high exposure personnel were in fact not highly exposed, and too many presumed low exposure personnel actually received appreciable exposure, group differences would tend not to be visible in the statistical sense'. 

The accusation that the Australian health study was biased because it was carried out by a government agency was immediately levelled at the National Radiological Protection board in Britain when it announce the methods of its study of all British test participants. Even before the terms of the survey were proposed its impartiality was questioned in the House of commons in July 1983 by David Alton: 'Surely the truth is that there will be little confidence in the NRPB, because it is not wholly independent. The Ministry of Defence, in whose interests it is to disprove the findings of the University of Birmingham, is to be paymaster for the survey. The Ministry already uses the services of the Board and will be open to the charge of being in the Ministry's pocket.' His feelings were shared by Ken McGinley, Chairman of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association: 'How can we rely on their results when we know that they're a government body, and the government ordered the tests in the first place?' The self-appointed Joint committee on the Medical Effects of Nuclear Weapons questioned the NRPB's competence to carry out the study: 'The National Radiological Protection Board's expertise is in monitoring radiation exposure, not in carrying out health surveys'.

The NRPB firmly rejected these criticisms. Dr John Dennis, the scientist in charge of the study, pointed out that the Board is a statutory body, and not therefore responsible to any government minister. He added that the NRPB was only partly financed by the government, and that half its income comes from commercial work. Of the study itself, he said: 'The protocol has been looked at by the Medical Research Council and by the BMA Ethical Committee who have to be satisfied before we are allowed access to death certificates or morbidity data. We have Sir Richard Doll as an outside consultant, who was Regius Professor of Medicine in Oxford and a noted epidemiologist. As regards our competence to carry out the study, we have a highly qualified team who have demonstrated their ability to carry out this sort of analysis.' The terms of the NRPB's health study were outlined i a document called 'Protocol for a Study of the Health of the UK Participants in the UK Atmospheric Nuclear Weapon tests'. It confirmed that the Government did not at first have access to a comprehensive list of participants in the tests. At the time of the publication of the Protocol in October 1983, the Ministry of Defence had compiled a list of 12,000 names entitled 'the Blue Book', which was based mainly on the radiation exposure records. By the beginning of 1985 Ministry of Defence researchers had found more details of men who had attended the tests and the list had increased by 8000 names to 20,000. 

The study intends to compare the 20,000 men with a control group approximately the same size and with similar characteristics apart, of course, from having witnessed or participated in nuclear tests. Those characteristics include some service in tropical or desert climates so that the long-term effects of different temperatur5es and exposure to sunlight can be accounted for. The first task of the NRPB study team is to compare the number of deaths within the control group, and within the study group of test veterans, with the number of deaths which might be expected on the basis of national death rates the NRPB has recognized that both the control group and the test veterans - the study group - are likely to know a lower number of deaths than would be expected from national rates because men selected for the forces and for service overseas were fitter than men taken from an average cross-section of British society. The first comparison will show to what extent this so-called 'healthy-worker effect' should be allowed for in working out the significance of the results. It will also indicate whether the control group is a reliable sample with which to compare the test veterans.

Once this has been established, the control group will be compared with the study group to see if the test participants have suffered a higher rate of cancer deaths. If they have, then it will be an indication that participation in the tests has damaged the test veterans. Should this be established, the study team would go on to see if there was any connection between the known radiation doses and the excess of cancers. Smaller groups of test veterans will also be studied for cancer rates where their records have been well kept: the companies of ships or RAF squadrons, for example. The third part of the study will examine all those who wore film badges that recorded radiation exposure above the minimum detectable threshold. The NRPB will examine the death rate among this group to see if there is any link between the number of deaths and the strength of the dose. The study group will also be looking at the mortality rate for different age groups: the younger men are likely to have been more frequently exposed than their older counterparts. The NRPS's Protocol also announced plans for a 'Morbidity Survey' which would seek to find out whether there are more cases of cancer among living test participants than among the control group. The Protocol did not announce the methods of the study and was rather lukewarm about its possibilities. 'Such data presents problems in interpretation and may not provide a reliable measure of differences between the Study and the Control Groups.'

The proposals in the Protocol were widely welcome as broad-ranging and effective. The NRPB was criticized, however, for having left out any study of cataracts or genetic problems suffered by the test veterans and the following year the British Nuclear tests Veterans Association started a campaign for the recognition of birth defects caused by the tests. Ken McGinley, the Association's Chairman, said: 'We've had so many reports of children of veterans being born with defects in some way or other that we're convinced that these problems have been caused by our men being exposed to radiation at the tests.' Frank Cook MP referred to evidence from his constituency to the House of Commons in December 1984: 'I heard of a man who during his first marriage had three deformed children. That is unusual, but not so unusual that one would justify it statistically by exposure to a nuclear test. However, he divorced, remarried and had a further two deformed offspring'. Dr Shirley Ratcliffe, a leading paediatrician and member of the Medical Research Council, also believes that a genetic study is essential. In her opinion so little is known about the genetic effects of radiation that the rest participants merit a proper scientific study.

The NRPB sympathized with the demands for a genetic study but its members believed that such a survey would best be carried out only if an excess of cancers was first established among the test veterans. Although animal experiments have shown that there is a link between radiation and birth defects, no such link has yet been found in humans: the most sensitive evidence, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shows no increase in human birth defects after exposure to high doses. As so often the problem is a lack of knowledge: for this reason alone, the test participants may be considered by scientists a worthwhile case to study. The test veterans' associations are not satisfied with providing evidence about the effects of low doses of radiation only to fuel scientific controversy. They want clear answers to their claims that they were unknowingly exposed to dangerous doses of radiation. These may never be forthcoming. Even if an excess of cancer deaths is found among the participants, it will not be accepted as proof that large groups of servicemen were exposed to damaging radiation because, according to the Ministry of Defence, only five hundred measurable radiation exposures were recorded by test participants. The same argument used by Dr Donovan will apply. The battle to show that men were exposed will remain to be fought.

The cruel fact is that the small number of appreciable radiation doses recorded at the time of the tests could not, even by the most radical interpretation, have caused a measurable excess of cancers among all the ex-servicemen. If an excess is found, it will be up to the participants to prove that it is not a chance result and that they were negligently exposed to doses of radiation without being monitored. For those who took part in the Australian tests the task has been made easier by the Royal Commission. Without any such British inquiry, the Christmas Island veterans in particular will be left to make their case relying only on their repeated anecdotes and fading memories. 

*     *     *     *     *

RETURN TO MARALINGA,
Australia Bomb Test Site

On 24 May 1984 a special VIP flight to the RAAF left Adelaide for Maralinga. On board were the Minister of Resources and Energy, Senator Walsh, and the south Australian Premier, John Bannon, accompanied by scientists of the Australian Radiation Laboratory. The tour of the bomb sites took no more than four hours and the politicians learned little more than they already knew from their briefings in Canberra and Adelaide. But the importance of the trip was symbolic. The representatives of the Federal and South Australian Government were there jointly to express their regret that the atomic test series had ever been allowed to take place in Australia and to pledge their support for all investigations into the possible harm done to servicemen, Aborigines and the environment.

The test site visitors were presented with an array of desert landmarks that bore witness to the nuclear events that took place at Maralinga only three decades before. They are the debris of major tests, minor trials, clean-up operations and burial sites: the remains of which had been variously exhumed, relocated, auctioned and, in one case transported back to Britain. Where there once were craters, there were now concrete pyramids solemnly inscribed 'Test Site A British Atomic Weapon was exploded here on ....'. Where there would have been trees and scrub before the explosions, there were now the burnt-out skeletal remains. Nuclear burial sites were surrounded by barbed-wire fences with radiation warning symbols and written warnings in English, Greek, Italian , Serbo-Croatian and Spanish. More ominously, teams from the Australian Radiation Laboratory guiding the ministerial team showed the presence of radioactive material on the surface of the range with their constantly clicking Geiger counters.

The Maralinga site will be a no-go area for many hundreds of years. At the One Tree test site, the scene of the first atomic bomb exploded at Maralinga, scientists have recorded the highest residual radioactivity level of any of the blast sites. It will be unsafe for human occupation well into the next century. At Taranaki, scene of the balloon-burst, twenty-one burial pits contain over 800 tons of contaminated material, including plutonium. At the test sites code-named TM 100 and 101, the experiments carried out in the minor trials left some twenty kilos of plutonium scattered over the surrounding area, and evidence of minute particles of plutonium on the surface of the ground are still picked up on the detection devices used by survey teams. The Australian Radiation Laboratory has declared that the British attempts at cleaning up after the tests were inadequate. The clean-up operation, code-named brumby, was carried out by a team of royal Engineers and scientists from AWRE in 1967. Before that date, the plutonium was left where it had been scattered. During Brumby it was ploughed back into the earth, under 10 centimetres of topsoil. Those who know the famous Maralinga winds and dust have argued that such a precaution was inadequate and the plutonium-contaminated soil was bound to get dispersed over the surrounding country. 'The storms were like whirlwinds', one veteran remembers, 'and very powerful'.

There was also the problem of Cobalt 60, a powerful gamma emitter. It was not until British records showed that Cobalt 60 pellets were found scattered at Maralinga that it became known that cobalt had been tested as a bomb component. One of the British clean-up team at Brumby remembers 'hand-scavenging' the pellets., which involved locating the pellets and scooping them up on a trowel of sand and placing them in a lead tin under the supervision of AWRE scientists. 'Although we all started keenly enough and aware of some danger, after a while things started being rushed and our boffin friends seemed homesick! This is when to my mind things got skimped. I know we did not recover all the pellets before the site was taken as cleared. I hope no Aborigine ended up carrying a pellet of cobalt between his toes one day!" Another veteran remembers hand-picking the still radioactive material that had been fused into glass by the heat of the atom bomb at the One Tree site. They were given protective clothing for the job but because of the temperature in the 120s they wore just army shorts and boots and dispensed with their respirators. The details of the 1967 clean-up operation were all carefully catalogued in a report by AWRE scientist, Noah Pearce. The Australian Weapons Safety Committee said they were happy with the operation and the 'Pearce Report' was subsequently classified by the British Government. Britain told Australia that she had no further use for the site, which remained under Federal control pending a survey and to 'return' to the South Australian Government. A permanent police presence was established at the site, located in the former cook-house, and a perimeter fence was built around the prohibited area. The authorities no doubt hoped that the story of Maralinga would remain safely behind barbed wire and in the vaults, hidden in British classified documents.

It was not so easy for the Federal Government to forget about the other 'remains' of Maralinga - the Australian veterans and their families who claimed that men had suffered as a result of the tests. In 1966, Melbourne widow Peggy Jones began her campaign for compensation for the death of her husband Bill. Warrant Officer William Jones was the serviceman who had stayed beside his tank in a forward area for two days after one of the 1953 detonations. He died of cancer thirteen years later. In 1974, she won a lump sum of $8600 under the Compensation (Australian Government Employees) Act. At the same time, Maralinga veteran Rick John stone successfully persuaded the authorities that his blood condition and nervous disorders had been caused by his experiences on the range. He was awarded a fortnightly payment of $220 by the commonwealth Employees' Compensation board. It was a breakthrough despite the small payments made. The authorities had admitted responsibility for injuries incurred because of the tests. The veterans' cause in Australia was launched.

The Australian Nuclear Veterans' Association (ANVA) was formally set up in 1979 by two Vietnam veterans, Pat Creevey and Harold Crosbie. Both men had had experience of fighting the government on behalf of the victims of Agent Orange and they were armed with the necessary know-how to organize a medical questionnaire for their members. A year after its foundation, the Association had enlisted four hundred veterans, of whom ninety had cancer, seventy-seven of them terminal cases. Crosbie immediately challenged the government to set up a proper epidemiological study to prove whether a disparity existed between their cancer victims and a control group. Other veteran organizations, such as the Maralinga and Monte Bello Atomic Ex-servicemen's Association, have been established in ANVA's wake. In the face of anxious questions from the veterans, both the British and Australian Governments assured the Australian associations that safety precautions at the test were second to none. Sir Ernest Titterton made a public statement that 'no one suffered on account of the test programme in Australia'. Nonetheless, the 'Maralinga question' became a national issue and the veterans' association shave grown steadily since their formation. In 1980, when Adelaide's Advertiser ran a bomb test veterans' campaign, hundreds of veterans began to tell their stories. Some were incredible but others were genuinely alarming. The issue was frequently debated in Parliament, highlighting the differences between the Liberal Party, whose predecessors had invited the bomb tests to be held in Australia and the Labor Party, more traditionally ambivalent about the Commonwealth and nuclear matters. The main anti-Government protagonist was the Labor MP, Tom Uren. He told the House of Representatives that the Maralinga story was one of 'negligence, dishonesty and secrecy on behalf of the Liberal-National Country government. Public concern has been answered by a series of untruths and half-truths about what testing took place at Maralinga, and the hazards present.'

Senator Carrick's statement in 1980 that his Government believed there was 'no case to answer' and that there was no need for a full medical or judicial inquiry served merely to incense the veterans' organizations and redouble their efforts to win compensation. After their first successes under the Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act, ANVA pushed forward a claim from Lance Edwards, the RAAF squadron leader who had eaten the packed lunch on the flight through the cloud after the Totem 1 shot. He developed cancer of the thyroid and, after acknowledging that his illness was due to the atomic blast, the Compensation board awarded him only $4000. Widows who applied for compensation fared rather better. Four widows were awarded the maximum allowable under the scheme, $36,000, about one year's salary for a squadron leader.

While the government tried to shelve the veterans' issue, they were unable to ignore the publicity given to the stories of plutonium waste left at Maralinga. The secrets of the Pearce Report were revealed to the public by Australian veteran, Avon Hudson, whose television interview in 1976 caused a sensation. Hudson gave the first details of the 'minor trials', in which he had worked as a construction engineer on the bomb platforms. He revealed how the shots scattered plutonium, Cobalt 60, beryllium and natural uranium over the South Australian desert, and he alleged that 40 kilos of plutonium remained at Maralinga. In reply, the south Australian Mines and Energy Minister, Hugh Hudson, confirmed that 800 tonnes of radioactive waste was buried in Maralinga and suggested that the area should be monitored. The following year, the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory council reported that plutonium was scattered over some of the test sites and that they were unsuitable for permanent settlement. Furthermore, in a report to the Prime Minister, Defence Minister Killen  said that it was possible for a small, determined group of terrorists to remove the ,plutonium and use it against the population. The Australian Government had recently rarified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ministers believed it would be wiser to get rid of their nuclear inheritance.

In October 1978 the Australian Foreign Affairs Department sent a telegram to the British Foreign Office asking Britain to remove some of the plutonium. The British sent out a team to survey the possibilities and Britain agreed to clear up some of the nuclear rubbish. On 17 February 1979, three Hercules aircraft arrived at Maralinga containing supplies and equipment for the job. The clean-up 'task force' was made up of members of the commonwealth police, AWRE scientists and members of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. In appalling heat, the team started work at sunrise and after a midday break continued working under floodlights into the night in the so-called 'airport cemetery' where the bins containing the radioactive material lay buried. Because it was considered unwise to handle the bins, a crane had to be improvised to raise them to the surface. It took dour days to remove the first bin to examine the contents. An area around the excavated site was cordoned off and access denied to all except scientists wearing protective clothing and respirators.

The burial records were imprecise and there was some confusion as to which bin contained the plutonium. Dr Symonds, chief scientist at the Australian Energy Commission, had to put his gloved hand into one of the containers. The first time he carried out this hazardous operation, plutonium contamination was detected on his glove and the men knew that they had located the bin containing the recoverable material. It took ten buckets of grout to reseal the container and the official records show that Dr Symonds lost three kilos in weight during the operation. Emergency oxygen supplies were on standby throughout and the medical team present forbade anyone to spend more than an hour at a time on the operation. After the grouting, tin drums sealed with concrete were used to transport the plutonium 'home' to Aldermaston. With hindsight, scientists today agree that the operation was unnecessary and possibly foolish. The British only repatriated half a kilo of plutonium - all that was transportable. The rest was left churned up in the Maralinga soil, and at least nineteen and a half kilos of plutonium remain. Nonetheless, 'honour' on the part of the Australian Government was satisfied and the International Atomic Energy Authority noted with gratitude that no reportable nuclear material from the tests was left at Maralinga. The operation had been carried out on the understanding that Britain would never again be asked to remove waste from Australia.

In 1982, the Australian Government sought to regain the initiative by commissioning a study by the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council into the safety measures during the tests and their possible after-effects. A second study was made by the Commonwealth Department of health into the 'Health of Atomic Test Personnel'. The report from AIRAC, which came out in 1983 claimed that no Australian who worked on the test range was exposed to levels of radiation higher than those permitted by international recommendations. There was 'no evidence' that members of the RASF or ground crews received excess doses of radiation. There was also 'no evidence' that any Aborigine was injured by the nuclear tests. AIRAC's only concession to human error was in admitting the possibility that unauthorized entry to a contaminated area fouled not be entirely ruled out, but here again 'no evidence has been found that such an incident occurred'. A year after the report's publication, a Radiation council member told the authors that 'AIRAC9', as the report is known, was 'written without wanting to offend the British'.

The special committee chaired by Professor Kent, set up in 1984 by the Hawke government to review all the literature concerned with the test series criticized AIRAC9 for its obfuscation, especially in those parts dealing with matters of political and public sensitivity, and for significant omissions of highly relevant data. Most of all it disagreed with the philosophy behind it: 'the use of simplified assumptions which do not accurately reflect the complexities of what took place and the constant endeavour to present the best possible case, which results in a comfortable picture of the British nuclear tests'.

1983 brought a new government and a new attitude to the test debate. In March, Bob Hawke's Labor Party, the party which had promised a full inquiry in October 1980, was voted back into office after eight years in opposition. Labor Ministers used the historical association of the tests with the Liberal party and their own 'innocence' in the affair to full advantage. Never one to mince words, the Minster for Resources and Energy, Senator Walsh, told Parliament during one of his early debates on the tests that the real villain was Sir Robert Menzies, 'the lickspittle empire royalist who regarded Australia as a colonial vassal of the British Crown'. In his first ministerial visit to London , foreign Minister bill Hayden asked the Thatcher government to 'open up the files' so that his Government could resolve once and for all whether sufficient safety measures had been taken during the test series. In a press conference held before Australian and British journalists at the Australian High Commission in London, Hayden said that the tests had taken place 'in an atmosphere of incompetence and ignorance'.

The new government brought a rush of revelations about the test series. The premiers of south Australia and Victoria both protested when it was discovered that fallout over Adelaide and Melbourne had been higher than previously admitted. A former worker in the physics department at the Peter MacCallum Clinic to Melbourne told the Melbourne Age that a survey in 1957, after the Monte Bello and early Christmas Island tests, detected radiation levels up to 167 times the normal background radiation. Laboratory technicians in Adelaide claimed that one of their team, Keith Oliphant, brother of the nuclear physicist Sir Mark Oliphant, had admitted falsifying the records of radiation levels over Adelaide after the Maralinga tests by moving the decimal points 'one or two places'. In fact the fallout recorded by the now dead Oliphant should have shown radiation levels one thousand times those normally recorded.

There was renewed concern over the environmental hazards at Maralinga. In March the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act was passed, handing back to the Aborigines the land that had been 'requisitioned' by the Federal government for the bomb tests in 1955. Two months later, however, the Pearce Report with its full revelations about contamination at Maralinga was tabled before the Federal Parliament. During his trip to London, foreign Minister Hayden had asked the British to issue the full unexpurgated version. Before this, Parliament had had to rely on an edited version deposited in Canberra in 1979. The Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement wanted to know how safe the area surrounding the bomb site was. While it was agree that the immediate test site area should remain condoned off, there was concern about contaminated wildlife straying beyond the limits of the prohibited area. Aboriginal groups had been seen camped within thirty miles of the bomb craters and it was possible that they were eating contaminated rabbit flesh.

The deathbed confession of John Burke added to the furore. He claimed that he had found four dead Aborigines in a bomb crater in 1963. He also revealed details of the hitherto unpublicized minor trials and claimed that he knew that Aborigines had already taken advantage of their salvage rights in the area. They had, according to Burke, dug up contaminated articles such as Land Rovers and heavy engineering equipment and had sold them in Coober Pedy. Within days of his death, South Australian senators were calling for a public inquiry. At its caucus meeting on 8 May, the Labor Party called for a full judicial inquiry into the tests. On the same day Adelaide's Advertiser said that with all the new allegations, Britain should stop repeating its blanket, assurances that no one suffered during the tests. 'It behoves Britain to give a much more detailed explanation than has been given so far.' In its leader, entitled 'Maralinga cover-up', the Melbourne Age claimed that 'what we are witnessing is a conspiracy of silence: a conspiracy to which the Australian Government is party, albeit a reluctant one'. The Australian government reacted with the establishment of the Kerr committee. Senator Walsh, Minister for Resources and Energy, gave Professor Kerr and his team just sixteen days to review all the published scientific literature on the tests, to assess any dangers that the tests might have caused the Australian people and to recommend to the Government any appropriate action. The government wanted to be seen to be treating the matter with the highest priority and urgency. A week after announcing the Kerr committee, Senator Walsh accompanied premier Bannon on the flight to Maralinga. In prepared statements to coincide with the trip, Walsh announced: 'Let me assure the Australian people that the government has no interest or intention of keeping facts relating to the nuclear tests in Australia secret.' Premier Bannon said that the tests should never have taken place and 'it's now up to us to make amends'. 

On 31 May 1984, Senator Walsh received the report from the Kerr committee. Contrary to all the assurances on the safety given by the British and Australian Governments, the Committee had concluded that 'with such a large and prolonged endeavour it is unrealistic to assume that things did not go wrong and on occasions they did.' the report said that the task of unravelling the truth about the tests was impossible without full access to the documents and that, notwithstanding Britain's thirty-year rule laid down by the Public Records Act, the declassification process should begin right away. Above all, the committee recommended that 'the government hold a public inquiry to determine how the conduct and consequences of the British nuclear tests affected the health and well-being of Australians who served at the nuclear test sites and on those, mainly Aborigines, who lived in the region of the tests'. Exactly twenty-one years after the British testing team fired their last shot, the Australian government announced a Royal Commission to look into Britain's conduct of the test series. The commission was asked to examine the safety measures carried out during the tests and whether the health of people in Australia t the time, British servicemen included, had been adversely affected. They were also asked to look at the management of the test sites, both at the time of the tests and afterwards. The Commission was given the authority to recommend to the Australian 'Government that it should make provision for certain individuals or groups and, if necessary, recommend ways of making the test sites safe.

The decision to set u a royal commission created many political and legal problems. It was the first time that a commonwealth country had summoned a Royal commission to look into the behaviour of the 'mother country'. Hostility from Britain was only to be expected but, as the Kerr Committee had already pointed out, there was little a further inquiry could achieve without access to Britain's documents. The Australian Government took a gamble. Britain might snub the Australian request for documents, in which case the commission was unlikely to achieve anything, though if Britain took that attitude she would lay herself open to accusations of a 'cover-up'. Or Britain might weigh the consequences of a diplomatic row against the indignity of having to 'com e clean' and decide to cooperate. In the early days of the commission, relations between the two countries were acrimonious. When the commission opened in September 1984, it was still not known whether the British government would hand over all the documents required by the commissioners or whether the British Government would be represented when the Commission moved to London. The Chief commissioner, Mr Justice James McClelland, a former labor Cabinet Minister under the Whitlam government, made no secret of his dislike of the British and Australia's pro-British politicians. When after the first few weeks of the hearings, the British High commissioner in Canberra complained that Britain's name was being dragged through the mud, Justice McClellan d asked whether the High commissioner would prefer Australian history books to remove all reference to the nasty way Henry VIII treated his wives. 'If he wants the Royal Commission to be fully appraised of the British government's view of the way the nuclear trials were conducted, he should advise his Government to do what it had repeatedly been invited to do but which it has not yet deigned to do: be represented before the commission.' The Sydney Morning Herald paraphrased the Judge's challenge to the British with the headline, 'Show Up or shut Up'. A few weeks later, the British government announced that it would be present at the Commission's hearings. 

When the Commission moved to London in January 1985, McClellan d adopted the same technique to goad the British Government into handing over all the documents required by the commissioners. Before a crowd of barristers, press, television and veterans assembled for the commission's first day's hearings, the judge lambasted the British. He said that they had only agreed to be represented before the commission  because he had accused them of 'dragging their feet'. On Britain's reluctance to hand over documents that might involve military secrets, he said 'secrecy, in the national interest, has always been a convenient alibi for failure of disclosure. But today it is hard to believe that Britain is in possession of any atomic secrets unknown to the great powers'. The British had 'told the Australian authorities almost nothing' about what they were doing in Australia during the tests and they were now morally obliged to make everything known. McClelland was successful in his campaign to gain access to secret documents. When the commissioners left London three months later they had few complaints about co-operation from the British. Except for extremely sensitive weapons data, the British Government had made available almost all the thirty-eight tons of material on the tests stored at Aldermaston, in the Ministry of Defence and in the Public Records Office, Where necessary the thirty-year rule was broken. 

The outspoken and brash behaviour before and after the Commission by Justice McClelland was an indication of the strong anti-British feeling aroused in the aftermath of the tests in some Australian quarters. However, his loud-mouthed obiter dictum about Margaret Thatcher and a divided British nation caused anger and embarrassment to many Australians. Critics of the Royal Commission accused the Labor Government of establishing it as a sop to anti-nuclear and anti-British feeling; while US bases remained and uranium mining continued in Australia attention could be turned to the proceedings of the politically unimportant and possibly based Commission. That the comments of Justice McClelland caused little diplomatic ill-feeling between Britain and Australia was, perhaps, an indication of the importance with which he and his Commission was regarded. Political leaders in Britain have shown little interest in the tests or the royal commission. Neither major party has been keen to condemn its predecessor's handling of the bomb test programme: both conservative and Labour Prime Ministers ordered the construction and testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. Even the Liberal party, traditional champion of environmental causes, has steered clear of formally associating itself with the veterans' cause. Politicians on all sides are aware that the causes that appear attr5active in opposition can prove expensive in government. A single admission of negligence could open the floodgates to costly claims and stir up the simmering nuclear controversy in Britain.

The prospects of reaching a satisfactory conclusion to the veterans' campaigns in Australia and Britain look remote. The political will is lacking and the scientific uncertainty about the effects of low levels of radiation makes any attempt at proof almost impossible. In some cases, the veterans have been their own worst champions. The tendency to blame every death from cancer on the test programme is understandable but misguided. Similarly, the accusation that birth defects can be blamed on the tests needs proper examination before it is made. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the tests in Australia and on Christmas Island were undertaken in haste. The nuclear scientists responsible were under strong political pressure to build and test the atomic and hydrogen bombs at almost impossible speed. In this the men of Aldermaston were successful. They reaped both personal and political rewards. William Penney was elevated to the peerage, and other senior nuclear scientists received knighthoods for their endeavours. Britain's weapon design team was firmly established: in a far shorter time-scale than either of the super powers and with fewer resources, effective kiloton and megaton weapons had been built. It was , in its own terms, a great political and scientific achievement. Britain was enabled to exchange secret with the United States and, for the next three decades, the atom scientists could draw on enormous financial resources without reference to Parliament.

The senior Aldermaston men questioned at the "royal Commission appeared bewildered and upset by the hostility of some of the questioning. They had served their country well and had worked in dangerous conditions far beyond the call of duty. They considered the risks for the majority of the test servicemen to have been negligible. That they were now indicted by a foreign government for actions faithfully undertaken on behalf of their government many years ago. They will suffer no more than damaged reputations. The British Government has ensured their protection from any prosecution. The senior politicians responsible for the tests will not suffer either. They are either forgotten or have gone to the grave. The British Government has steered a difficult but successful course between revelation and self-protection. However, the aftermath of the tests, at one time a symbol of Anglo-Australian co-operation, has been to drive another nail into the coffin of Anglo-Australian friendship. The long tradition of Australian resentment at the seemingly superior and knowing attitude of the British, leading simple and trusting Australian manhood into danger, has been reinforeced. Just as Gallipoli and the Bodyline controversy built up a deep feeling of righteous anger against the pom, so the nuclear tests today appear the epitome of cynical and arrogant British botching. The feeling is not entirely justified. Australia willingly and eagerly co-operated in the nuclear trials, having fought with other commonwealth countries for the honour of playing host-country. Her scientific and nuclear knowledge benefited enormously from the co-operation and her armed services were only too happy to be able to learn as much as possible about the nature and effects of nuclear warfare.

The real victims of the tests are often forgotten in the orgy of righteous indignation against the authorities responsible. They are the ex-servicemen and their widows, and the Australian Aborigines, who face years of complex legal and scientific argument before their cases are resolved. Deliberate exposure of many thousands of men to radiation may not be possible to prove, but there is no doubt that the men 'fortuitously' exposed to radiation were guinea pigs in an extensive and often mismanaged operation. No doubt history will refer to the tests as another footnote in the catalogue of grandiose attempts to restore Britain's declining post-imperial prestige. Unlike the victims of the Falklands war, however, there will be no memorials to the men who may have given their lives in the effort to put 'Britain on level terms again'. 

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