Recognizing Australia’s Nuclear Past

Recent Features


Recognizing Australia’s Nuclear Past

More than 60 years after hosting British nuclear tests, Canberra is extending benefits to veterans who were exposed.

Recognizing Australia’s Nuclear Past
Credit: Flickr / InnoventionAustralia

The Australian government handed down its annual budget on Tuesday night, local time, for the forthcoming fiscal year (July 1st to June 30 2018). Alongside the usual big ticket items like taxation policy, and health and education expenditures, was an interesting and long overdue recognition of Australia’s nuclear past.

AUD $133 million (USD $98 million) has been allocated to military veterans who have been exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons or activity while serving in the military.  The money will provide any surviving military personnel with a health “gold card” entitling the holder to all necessary health care needs, whether these conditions are related to service within the military or not. Previously, both the British and Australian governments had deemed it too difficult to prove any relationship between exposure to radiation and subsequent health conditions, despite lobbying from veterans.

Alongside this assessment, both governments had not deemed the specific service of these military personnel “warlike,” a classification which would have qualified them for extended benefits. This shift in policy from the Australian government implicitly acknowledges that radiation exposure has been the cause of many veterans’ health problems, and that the service that led to this exposure should be reclassified to reflect the serious risks they were asked to face.

In October 1952 the British government began testing for its nuclear weapons program around the Montebello Islands on the coast of Western Australia. It subsequently conducted two more test within the islands in May and June of 1956. Two Australian navy vessels were stationed within several miles of the blast site during the test of May 1956, with many sailors on the deck during the test. In the years after the tests, crew from these vessels spent time on the islands working without protective clothing, uninformed about the dangers of lingering radiation. Indigenous Australian living on the mainland close to the islands were also not informed about the dangers posed by radioactive fallout.   

Of the men stationed on the navy vessels, 43 percent of the 51 men surveyed and still alive have some form of cancer; of the 28 who are no longer alive, 14 died from cancer. A medical study conducted for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association in 1999 concluded that 30 percent of the personnel involved in the tests had died from cancer or cancer-related illnesses, mostly in their 50s.

After the Montebello Islands, the British shifted their nuclear testing operations to the South Australian desert, and between 1956 and 1963 they conducted seven nuclear tests at two sites; Maralinga and Emu Field, as well as a number of smaller experiments with plutonium in the region. It was admitted by the British government in 2001 that they had used Australian troops during these tests in radiation experiments.

Demonstrating how slow the process has been for the British government to acknowledge the detrimental effects of their actions, this admission came eight years after the government of the United Kingdom made an ex-gratia payment to the Australian government AUD $35 million to assist in the clean up of the Maralinga site. The site had been deemed to be dangerously radioactive in an Australian state inquiry into the British nuclear tests released in 1985. Now in 2017, the Australian government is taking full responsibility for the health of those military servicemen who were affected by the tests.

This responsibility is also being extended to those Australian soldiers who were stationed in Hiroshima as part of the post-World War II British Commonwealth Occupational Force in Japan. Their exposure to the radiation present from the bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city is also now being acknowledged as a military service worthy of a veteran’s gold card.

Australia’s national memory of the British nuclear testing was revived last September, the 60th anniversary of the first test conducted. The anniversary has spawned a book detailing the Australian government decisions that led to the British tests, and the legacy they left, as well as an art exhibition depicting the aftermath.

The South Australian government’s recent consideration of hosting a nuclear waste dump has also brought attention to the country’s nuclear legacy. This, combined with Australia’s recent purchase of French-designed submarines, in part due to how they can easily be converted to nuclear power, would be significant shifts in Australia’s nuclear policy. Shifts seemingly at odds with the government’s long overdue recognition of the damage that can be caused by nuclear material.