4. Minor Trials Cause Major Contamination

Chapter 3: The Central, South Pacific and Australia
Part 4: Britain’s Forgotten Legacy

While interviewing radiation victims in Australia, we often heard talk about a type of test known as a minor trial. This type of test is different from the tests involving powerful atomic and hydrogen bombs in that ordinary explosives are used to disperse radioactive material. The aim of such trials is to obtain information that would be useful in, for example, the storage of nuclear weapons, protection against radiation, and countermeasures to be taken in the event of an accident involving the transport or storage of radioactive material. The materials used are plutonium, uranium, beryllium, and americium. Although atmospheric testing was halted in 1958, these minor trials continued until 1963. A total of 580 such tests were carried out in Australia. Avon Hudson, who worked on minor trials at the Maralinga site from 1961 to 1963, described his work:

"They used to explode various radioactive materials on top of a metal tower one hundred feet high. Our job was to go around the next day, pick up the pieces of the tower that were scattered, and rebuild it. We were advised to wear protective clothing, but the temperature is often over forty degrees (104ºF) there, and it would've been unbearable—nobody told us it was dangerous." Hudson now runs an antique shop in an Adelaide suburb and is chairman of the South Australian branch of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association.

"Four years after I stopped working there, I got skin cancer," he said, taking off his socks and showing us the black marks that still remained on his ankles. "I'm sure radioactive material has had some effect on me."

Minor tests can still contaminate the environment in a major way; the plutonium exploded at Maralinga, for example, was dispersed over a thirteen-mile radius. The total quantity scattered during the years in which the trials were carried out is estimated to be approximately fifty pounds. When calculated in accordance with the standards set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) , this adds up to the alarming figure of 130 billion times the recommended safe level per person per year. In 1967 Britain began a cleanup operation and buried the topsoil deep in the earth. However, according to a survey carried out in 1980 by the Australian Radiation Laboratory, the cleanup was not enough to make the area safe for human inhabitation.

When we tried to visit the test site, we found the road blocked off and two government employees patrolling the compound. An area over thirty miles square around Maralinga still remains off limits to outsiders.

The same type of small-scale trials was frequently carried out at the Emu test site, and the soil there remains contaminated. The land surrounding the Emu base was returned to the local Aborigines at the end of 1984. At the time, they were warned to stay away from the former test area, but it is doubtful whether they are fully aware of the implications of the term "radioactive contamination."

Sooner or later the test sites themselves must be returned to the native people, and in preparation for this the Australian government is investigating a variety of methods to clean up the areas. However, an official at the Department of Primary Industries and Energy told us, "If the cost of the cleanup operation is found to be excessive, there is the possibility that it may not be completed." It seems there is no way of telling when the twice-daily patrols will end and the Aborigines will be allowed to return to their homeland.