Albion Monitor /News

Australia Worries About Birth Defects from 1950's Nuclear Tests

by Sonny Inbaraj

(IPS) DARWIN, Australia -- Patricia Campion used to regard as a cruel twist of fate the birth seven years ago of a granddaughter with only half a heart.

But the recent release of preliminary results from a study of 2,300 British men who worked at nuclear test sites in Australia more than 40 years ago, has made Campion suspect that her granddaughter's near-fatal birth defect was not some stray shard of bad luck.

Indeed, the study by researchers at Scotland's Dundee University is making Australians take another hard look at the long-term consequences of the nuclear tests Britain conducted on Australian soil during the 1950s.

12 nuclear bombs had been exploded in the atmosphere above Australia that sent radioactive fallout drifting across the continent
The study has uncovered evidence of radiation-related birth defects in the grandchildren of British servicemen stationed at the test sites in Maralinga, in the South Australian Desert, between 1952 and 1958. According to the researchers, miscarriages, still births and birth deformities have plagued more than 17 percent of the descendants of the study subjects.

Dr. Sue Rabbitt-Roff, head of the Dundee research team, has urged that a similar study be done among the Australian armed force personnel who had also been sent to the area at the time of the nuclear tests.

"One wouldn't expect the outcome for the Australians to be any different than it was for the British," Rabbitt Roff told the local ABC Radio. "They were at the same place with the same amount of fallout."

Patricia Campion's husband was among the more than 15,000 Australians who had been at Maralinga during the 1950s. Another 20,000 British servicemen were involved in the atomic tests in Australia and in a separate series of atmospheric hydrogen bomb trials in the Pacific.

On Sept. 16, 1950, then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee sent Australian premier Bob Menzies a top-secret cable asking for permission to test British nuclear weapons in Australia.

"Atlee asked Menzies if Menzies could lend him his country for the atomic tests," said Judge James McClelland, who presided over the 1984-1985 Royal Commission of Inquiry into the effects of the tests. "Menzies didn't even consult anybody in his cabinet. He just said yes."

By the time the British finished their tests in Australia in 1958, 12 nuclear bombs had been exploded in the atmosphere above South and Western Australia that sent radioactive fallout drifting across the continent. Hundreds of so-called 'minor trials' in which plutonium, uranium and other radioactive materials had also been exploded on the ground, scattering millions of contaminated metal fragments almost 130 km from the test site at Maralinga.

News regarding the results of the Dundee University study has prompted families of many of Australia's nuclear test veterans to declare themselves "sufferers."

Campion, who notes that her family has no history of any heart disease or any major illnesses, says she remains angry although her granddaughter's heart deformity has been corrected by surgery. "I am frightened," she adds. "I am frightened by something that comes right out of the blue."

One woman whose father was also at Maralinga told a local newspaper that she has been chronically ill since she was 17, with problems in her endocrine and immune systems springing from growths in her pituitary glands.

"My parents cannot have grandchildren," she told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I cannot have children. My brother has found out that he cannot have them. I believe that it is coming from my father. He was standing two miles away from the bomb blast at Maralinga. He watched the bomb go up. After the bomb went off, they were all hosed down."

The 1984-85 Commission found that the test site had been left heavily contaminated
In the past decade, some $70,000,000 -- a portion of which came from Britain -- were earmarked for the test site clean- up. The Aboriginal Maralinga Tjarutja community also received about $9 million to compensate for the loss of their land.

The 1984-85 McClelland Commission had found that the test site had been left heavily contaminated and that there was a significant hazard to aborigines in the area.

But the Commission had given no specific recommendation regarding the Australian servicemen who had been exposed to radiation because of the tests. The only Australian nuclear test veteran to win compensation from the government was also awarded a sum on the grounds that he suffered "stress" at Maralinga.

A former servicemen in the Royal Australian Air Force, Ric Johnstone, who endured numerous court hearings between 1989 and 1992, had been treated for radiation sickness after the Maralinga tests. He suffered from chronic ill health afterwards, and had sons with birth defects. One did not develop any teeth and had chronic skin problems. Another had a harelip and an irregular palate.

Johnstone helped form the Australian Nuclear Veterans' Association in 1972. He also sued the government on the grounds that it was negligent in exposing him to nuclear radiation. Yet while he won the case, there was never any admission by the government that Johnstone's health problems were due to the tests.

Johnstone may still count himself lucky. Former army engineer Pedro Cubillo, whose lawsuit against the government was regarded as a test case for some 30-odd nuclear test veterans, lost in court in 1995. According to the decision, there was no evidence that his renal cancer was caused by radiation.

So far, Rabbitt-Roff said, there has been no clear indication from the Australian government that it is interested in conducting a study into the health status of Australians who had been at Maralinga. But, she said: "The government owes a duty of care to anybody that would have been placed in jeopardy. And it owes a duty of follow-up, both medical and in terms of compensation."

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Albion Monitor March 9, 1998 (

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