The Guardian November 7, 2001


Maralinga: The issue the major parties won't touch

by Bob Briton

Maralinga veteran Avon Hudson has issued a challenge to whoever fills the 
position of Minister for Veterans Affairs after November 10. He would like 
to see incumbent Bruce Scott or Labor's Chris Schacht provide even a 
modicum of very belated justice to the veterans of the nuclear weapons 
tests that took place in Australia between 1952 and 1963.

Speaking at a meeting of the Retired Union Members' Association in Adelaide 
last week, Avon reflected on his experiences while serving at Maralinga 
during the so-called minor tests, the various inquiries and clean-ups of 
the sites and on the fate of his colleagues in the intervening decades.

Avon was first assigned to tasks under the direction of the British Atomic 
Weapons Research Establishment at a site code named Taranaki. He worked on 
the construction of special towers only 250 metres away from ground zero of 
some of the last of the "major tests" which took place in 1957.

These tests involved the actual detonation of atomic devices. The British 
exploded the equivalent of over 15 times the kilotonnage of the bomb 
dropped on Hiroshima in the 1950s.

The "minor tests" were designed to test "what if" scenario's, such as "what 
if an aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon crashed?".

The previously mentioned towers held weapons grade material inside steel 
casings, which were blown up using conventional explosives.

These tests were even filthier than the atomic bomb blasts.

They were a clear violation of the partial test ban treaty entered into by 
the world's nuclear powers not long before.

Avon was given no briefing as to how dangerous these tests were. It was 
only during his contact with the health physics staff attached to the tests 
that he became aware that arguments over safety questions were blazing.

Over the years he has been able to piece together the full picture denied 
him as a serviceman 40 years ago.

Nuclear materials and biproducts of the explosions such as plutonium 239 
(the "fuel" of nuclear weapons), caesium 137, iodine 131, americium 241 and 
uranium 238 (the "depleted uranium" now used by the US and NATO throughout 
the world) were lifted thousands of metres into the air and drifted over 
wide areas.

Over 900 tests were carried out at Maralinga.

One dust sized particle of plutonium 239 is sufficient to cause a cancer in 
a human. It has a half-life of 24,000 years. During just one test code 
named "Coolie" over eight tonnes of the material was blasted into the 
atmosphere.

Mr Hudson has been a campaigner on behalf of the test veterans since the 
1970s.

In 1983 and 1984, Jim McLelland headed an inquiry into the tests and 
recommended some measures to compensate the Aboriginal populations 
devastated by the tests.

Lately, it has been announced that a special medal will be awarded to the 
vets whereas they had previously been denied the customary 1945-1972 
service medal. The Federal Government said that it was considering another 
inquiry into the issues affecting the veterans.

Despite much appreciated support from the trade unions (Chris White of the 
UTLC was mentioned in this regard), fellow whistle blowers and a number of 
well motivated journalists, Avon holds out little hope for his fellow 
veterans.

They are not asking to be made rich, only for additional medical benefits 
and other concessions to better deal with the health problems caused by 
their involvement in the weapons tests.

A sad note on closing his address was that he had invited other veterans to 
Adelaide to attend the meeting, two from Ardrossan and two from Wallaroo. 
All four were keen to participate but were to ill to make the journey.

Over 8,500 Australian service personnel, 8,500 civilian employees and 
20,000 mostly conscripted British servicemen were involved in the nuclear 
testing.

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