Frank Walker’s Maralinga (a Pitjantjatjara word meaning “field of thunder”) documents one of the most scandalous episodes in the history of Australia’s relationship with Britain. Between 1952 and 1963, the British government conducted a series of nuclear experiments in western and central Australia. With the full co-operation of the Menzies government, Australian territory was virtually handed over to Britain. For prolonged periods, Australian servicemen and civilians, including scores of local Aboriginal men, women and children, were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation. Vast swaths of country were contaminated, some areas irreparably. In 1954, as nine million Australians joined prime minister Robert Menzies in publicly displaying their allegiance to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, few were fully aware of the British government’s activities in the deserts of South Australia. As Walker goes to great lengths to demonstrate, if ever there were a case of Britain exploiting Australia’s unconditional loyalty, Maralinga provided the most graphic example.
The first pages of Walker’s polemic leave no doubt regarding his intentions. The tone is shrill and accusatory, with caricatures the order of the day. The prime minister is the chief villain, the “fawning and obsequious Anglophile”, the “great betrayer”. “Menzies,” argues Walker, “never explained why he didn’t join up in the First World War.” Then he pins a white feather on Menzies’ breast. Menzies “spent the entire war safely studying in Melbourne … while his student comrades volunteered and left to fight and die in the war”. Walker sets out to prosecute Menzies for his failure to protect Australia’s self-interest.
By allowing the experiments, Walker insists that Australia effectively rolled over. “There was no shock, no questioning, no debate.” Although this was partly explained by ignorance, as the tests progressed and the evidence mounted, there was little doubt that the radiation sickness experienced by many of those close to the explosions pointed to reckless disregard for the health and safety of hundreds of individuals, not to mention the radiation fallout from the tests that frequently drifted over central and south-eastern Australia.
British scientists and officials are next in the dock, charged with using “the people of Australia . . . as guinea pigs in bizarre nuclear tests”. The man most responsible, alleges Walker, was Britain’s leading nuclear scientist, Ernest Titterton, who should have been charged with “criminal negligence”.
Despite the fact that Maralinga is the latest in a line of several books over the past decade to examine what took place, Walker, drawing on his own interviews with surviving servicemen and the evidence presented to the 1984 royal commission, has written an original and compelling account that succeeds in exposing the subterfuge and myopia of both British and Australian governments. The details he elicits from servicemen who witnessed the explosions give the narrative its power. He relives the sinister spectacle of the blasts to chilling effect: the dead fish floating on the water in Western Australia; ships rocked by the aftermath of the explosions; black mist and radioactive dust that fell like rain in South Australia; the alarming lack of protective clothing; observers who fell immediately ill with severe vomiting and diarrhoea; others who died later from cancer or whose children were born deformed; and sailors and soldiers who saw and felt a flash of white light so bright that it burnt the back of their necks and allowed them to see their finger bones with X-ray clarity. Being told to turn their backs and close their eyes afforded them no protection.
While Walker skilfully reveals the false reassurances and repression of damning medical evidence by the authorities, he also charts the dramatic change in public opinion. After the first explosions near the Monte Bello Islands in 1952, the Australian press reacted with pride. By the time of the blasts at Maralinga in 1956, Labor leader Doc Evatt, an early supporter of the development of atomic energy in Australia, was openly opposed, while sections of the press, allowed for the first time to observe the tests, began to expose the potential dangers to public health and to question the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A 1957 poll found the Australian electorate split down the middle over the tests, with Menzies pressured to demonstrate that Australia retained control over the operations at Maralinga, clamour that ultimately saw the establishment of the National Radiation Advisory Committee in 1957 and forced the British to scale back the number of nuclear tests.
Some of the most alarming evidence presented by Walker concerns the furtive British policy in which Australian pathologists removed bones from corpses in major hospitals across the country in order to test for evidence of exposure to radiation. These tests, given the full tabloid treatment by Walker, who describes them as the “mad scientist experiment” of the “baby body snatchers”, went on for 21 years after the tests at Maralinga. Twenty-two thousand bone samples were taken from infants, children, teenagers and adults up to the age of 40. As with the radiation damage suffered by Australian servicemen and the environmental damage to the country around Maralinga, it would take decades before the truth was acknowledged, and even then this acknowledgement was guarded and partial – a story Walker unveils with considerable force.
Despite the British government’s decision in 1993 to pay £20 million towards the environmental rehabilitation of the country around Maralinga and the $13.5 million in compensation eventually paid to Indigenous landowners by the Commonwealth in 1994, a succession of government inquiries and commissions has failed to prove a connection between the illnesses and early deaths suffered by many of the servicemen involved. As Walker reminds us, unlike in the US, Canada, India, Russia and France, British and Australian governments have refused to compensate their veterans of nuclear testing. WW
Hachette, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 13, 2014 as "Frank Walker, Maralinga". Subscribe here.