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Best we Forget – Australia’s 70 year old nuclear contamination secrets about to be exposed

by Sue Rabbitt Roff | Jun 28, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

While Peter Dutton gets headlines for his nuclear fairytale and the Labor Government presses on with its AUKUS submarines, the fallout from nuclear bomb testing in the Pilbara in 1956 finally reaches court. Sue Roff reports from London.

In 1956, on the remote Montebello Islands off Western Australia, an atomic bomb was tested. It was supposed to be no more than 50 kilotons, but in fact measured 98 kilotons, or more than six times the strength of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945.

Ever since then, Australian and UK Governments have suppressed the facts and denied compensation to the victims. That may finally be about to change.

Three months ago, veterans of Britain’s Cold War radioactive weapons tests formally launched proceedings against the UK Ministry of Defence, alleging negligence in its duty of care to the men themselves and their families before, during and after the tests that began at the Montebellos in 1952.

Oli Troen, an Associate at the well-respected London human rights law firm of McCue Jury, told MWM, “The opening phase seeks the full disclosure by the Ministry of Defence of all records of blood and urine testing conducted during the weapons trials, with compensation sought for MoD negligence and recklessness if they were lost or destroyed.”

At the same time, the veterans have made an offer to resolve their claim through the creation of a Special Tribunal with statutory powers to investigate and compensate if decades of cover-up are established.

A very big bomb

In October 1955, the Director of British atomic and thermonuclear tests in Australia, Professor William Penney, wrote to the Chair of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority about the two detonations that were planned for the Montebello Islands in May and June 1956:

‘Yesterday I think I gave you the impression that the second shot at Montebello will be about 80 K.T. [kilotons]. This is the figure to which we are working as far as health and safety are concerned. We do not know exactly what the yield is going to be because the assembly is very different from anything we have tried before.

We expect that yield will be 40 or 50, but it might just go up to 80 which is the safe upper limit.

In fact, in recent years, it has been listed on the website of ARPANSA [the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency] as 98 kilotons.

atomic-weapons-testing-graph-only[1]

Source: arpansa.gov.au

The politics

A UK memo found in the UK National Archives  that is undated but filed around August 1955, states:

“TESTS IN Montebello ISLANDS (CODE NAME ‘MOSAIC’) 25 7.

“We had agreed with the Australian Government that we would not test thermo-nuclear weapons in Australia, but [Australian Prime Minister] Mr. Menzies has nevertheless agreed to the firings taking place in the Montebello Islands (off the North-West coast of Western Australia), which have already been used before for atomic tests [emphasis added].”

“As already explained, the Australians are very sensitive on the question of thermo-nuclear explosions, and although the true character of these tests is understood by the authorities immediately concerned, knowledge of the trials is restricted to a very small circle and no public statement has so far been made; when it is made, it will therefore require very careful handling.”

“Apparently it is still being very carefully handled by government agencies. 70 years after the British atomic and thermonuclear tests started in Australia scores of files held in the Australian National National Archives are marked ‘Not yet examined’. We urgently need to create an independent archive of Australia’s nuclear past.”

The fallout

Montebellos Island blast

Canberra Times, 20.6.1956 (trove.nla.gov.au)

In Roeboure, some 200km away from the blast, a witness – then seven-year-old John Weiland wrote later of “hearing and feeling the blast before going outside to see the cloud. My mother said she remembers material falling on her. I was in primary school at the time and we all stood out on the verandah to watch the cloud.”

Weiland later wrote to ARPANSA asking “if any testing was done or any follow up done particularly with the 30 or so children of the school. But I was told there was no radiation blown across from the islands.”

In December 1957, eighteen months after the second G2 Operation Mosaic blast at the Montebellos, the five scientific members of the Atomic Weapons Safety Committee (AWSC) appointed by the Australian government published a report titled ‘Radioactive Fallout in Australia from Operation ‘Mosaic’ in The Australian Journal of Science.

They stated that “After the second test [June 19, G2] the cloud moved northeast over the Timor Sea without approaching the mainland of Australia.’ However ‘a pronounced stable layer produced a marked bulge on the stem which trapped a small quantity of particulate material and this was spread to the south-east of the Montebello Islands …The more finely suspended material’ or ‘debris’ was dispersed in the first 48 hours …’ although there was light rain over Marble Bar.

Thirty years after this AWSC report, the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia issued its 1987 report after 18 months of hearings around Australia and in London. In relation to Mosaic G2 it reported:

“7.4.25 The post-firing winds behaved similarly to those after Gl, i.e. they weakened and then began to blow to the south and east. An analysis of the trajectories of fallout particles showed that fallout at Port Hedland occurred 24 hours after the explosion and consisted of particles that originated from 20,000 feet in the region of the top of the stem and the bottom of the cloud….[RC 270, T24/57).”

Clearly part of the main cloud did cross the mainland.

The Royal Commission also concluded, “The Safety Committee communications with the Minister for Supply soon after the second explosion, when it reported that the cloud had not crossed the coast, with the implication that there was no fallout on the mainland, were misleading.”

Nearly forty years later, in January 2024, John Weiland submitted a query to the Talk to A Scientist portal of ARPANSA, asking for information. The unsigned response four days later referred him to Appendices B & C of a 32 year old document attached to the official response. A report, ‘Public Health Impact of Fallout from British Nuclear Tests in Australia, 1952-57, has a diagram annotated ‘Trajectories taken by radioactive clouds across Australia for the nuclear tests in the Mosaic and Antler Series. The main debris clouds from Mosaic Rounds 1 and 2 are not shown as they remained largely over the Indian Ocean, moving to the northeast parallel to the coast.’ (emphasis added).

This diagram doesn’t correlate with the maps in the Royal Commission Report north of Broome nor those of the AWTSC report in 1957 south of Port Hedland.

Distribution of Fallout

Butement et al, The Australian Journal of Science 20:5:1957 p.130

The cover-up

I have published extensive archival evidence about the score of coverups that have occurred over the past 70 years.

They range from the agreement of Prime Minister Menzies to the progressive testing of hydrogen/thermonuclear devices in preparation for the full assembly in 1957 for the Grapple tests at Christmas Island, including testing less than two months before the start of the 1956 Olympic Games in downwind Melbourne, and Menzies’ hope of getting tactical nuclear weapons for Australia by his collusion.

Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Counting down to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

They also include the submission of ‘sanitised’ health data on Australian test participants to the 1985 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia.

I presented my concerns about the role of UK official histories of the tests in a seminar hosted by the Official Historian of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office by invitation in February 2024.

The victims

Representing the victims, Oli Troen adds that “The Veterans previously sought redress through the English Courts, losing in the Supreme Court in 2012 when they could not prove they experienced dosages of radiation exposure. This meant they could not demonstrate their injuries resulted from that exposure.”

Blood tests taken at the time and in the years after presence at a test site are key to proving whether the legacy of rare illnesses, cancer and birth defects reported by the veterans is due to radiation from the nuclear tests and whether the government is culpable and can now be held accountable for their suffering.

A Freedom of Information tribunal has ordered the handing over of the blood tests of veteran and decorated hero Squadron Leader Terry Gledhill, who led ‘sniff planes’ into the mushroom clouds of thermonuclear weapons on sampling missions. This new case seeks to force the government to hand over such records for up to 22,000 UK veterans.

Talking the Talk: Dutton dumps climate commitment, Labor speaks with forked tongue

 

 

Sue Rabbitt Roff studied and taught at Melbourne and Monash Universities. Her recent writings on cultural aspects of settler colonial Australia have been published in Meanjin, Overland, the Conversation, the Independent and on Pearls & Irritations. She is currently writing a revisionist history of British atomic tests and nuclear trials in Australia.

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