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Maralinga - Our Own Shame by tyndale


									                                   Maralinga - Our Own Shame

This information is taken from The Maralinga Rehabilitation Project (DPIE Issues Paper) at

Britain actively used Australian soil and people to conduct its nuclear testing program during the
1950s and 1960s. The five areas it conducted the tests are at Monte Bello Islands in north-western
Western Australia (just off the mainland, near Monkey Mia); Emu Field in north-western South
Australia; the infamous Maralinga in south-western South Australia; Christmas Island and Malden
Island, both due south of Hawaii, on either side of the Equator. After the Grapple series of tests, the
British lent the site to the US in 1962 for the Dominic series of 25 explosions.

Britain detonated its first nuclear device, Hurricane, on Monte Bello Island on October 3, 1952,
followed by tests on May 16 and June 19, 1956. The June blast had a 60 kiloton capacity. At one
monitoring point, over 3,200 kilometres to the east, radioactive iodine concentrations increased a

Two further atomic bomb tests, Totem 1 and 2, were carried out at Emu Field on October 15 and
27, 1953. The next series of atomic bomb tests were carried out at Maralinga between September
27, 1956 and October 9, 1957, along with a series of "minor" trials up to 1963. The Grapple series
of tests were undertaken at Malden and Christmas Islands May 15, 1957, to September 23, 1958.

During the mainland tests many army personnel were deliberately exposed to the blasts just to see
what effect radiation had on troops. Security at the test sites was lax. The testing range boundaries
were not properly monitored, allowing people to walk in and out. Any signs were in English, which
the local Aboriginal population could not read. Fallout from the ground blasts led to massive
contamination of the Australian interior. The fallout from Maralinga even reached Adelaide and
Melbourne. Some places are still heavily radioactive due principally to the presence of 20 kg of
plutonium, the most toxic element known to humans.

Maralinga is Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal dialect for "Field of Thunder". Aborigines may have been
directly affected by the blasts. Compensation is currently being sought in Australian courts.

Fallout pattern from the Maralinga tests.

Fifteen thousand Australians were involved in the work at the three British test sites over the twelve
years in Australia.
Why did Maralinga and Emu need to be rehabilitated?

Between 1953 and 1957, the British Government conducted nine nuclear weapon tests in the north
of South Australia with the support of the Australian Government. Two nuclear devices were
detonated at Emu and seven at Maralinga. Most of the nuclear devices at Maralinga were detonated
on 30-metre towers, though others were detonated at higher altitude or at ground level. These
nuclear explosions were not the major cause of contamination at Maralinga, as the heat and energy
of the fission explosions drew much of the contamination up into the atmosphere.

The major cause of contamination at Maralinga was the minor trials. The minor trials did not
involve nuclear explosions. They were developmental experiments designed to investigate the
performance of various components of a nuclear device. Almost all involved radioactive materials
in conjunction with conventional high explosives. The British Government conducted about two
hundred minor trials between 1953 and 1963. Most of the minor trials were "clean", but about
twenty minor trials dispersed plutonium contamination onto the surrounding soil.

What sort of contamination was at the sites?

Plutonium was the major radiological contaminant at Maralinga. It was dispersed into the
surrounding area through the detonation of nuclear devices and minor trials.

Plutonium is a hazard to humans inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through breaks in the skin. External
exposure to plutonium does not pose a health risk, as the element emits alpha particles which do not
pass through unbroken skin.

There were also small amounts of some other radiological contaminants, and uranium fragments.
Uranium is not a radiological hazard, but can be toxic to humans if ingested in large enough

What about British responsibility for the contamination?

The British Government conducted a series of clean-up operations at Maralinga and Emu between
1963 and 1967. These clean-up operations were based on a series of assumptions now recognised to
be inaccurate, and did not rehabilitate the site to the standard later recognised to be necessary for the
protection of people and the environment. After the final clean-up operation, which was accepted at
the time as adequate by the Australian Government, the British Government was largely released
from any future liability.

In 1985, the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia recommended that the
British Government should bear all costs for a future rehabilitation of Maralinga. In 1993,
representations from the Australian Government and the traditional owners of the Maralinga lands
resulted in the British Government making an ex-gratia payment of £20 million to the Australian
Government. This amount was accepted as a significant contribution to the cost of the planned
rehabilitation project.

How was the rehabilitation plan decided upon?

In 1985, the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia recommended that the test
sites at Maralinga and Emu be remediated to be fit for unrestricted habitation by the traditional
owners. To address technical matters arising from the Royal Commission, the Australian
Government established the Technical Assessment Group (TAG).
TAG comprised Australian, British and American scientists with expertise in relevant fields. A
series of scientific and engineering studies was conducted, which showed that residual plutonium
contamination of soil from the minor tests and the consequent risk of inhalation of contaminated
dust was the predominant contributor to potential radiation dose at Maralinga. TAG assessed the
level at which the risks became unacceptable for traditional owners living a semi-traditional
lifestyle, taking social, economic and scientific factors into account

In 1990, the TAG Report presented the Australian Government with a range of costed options for
rehabilitating the Maralinga lands. In 1991, the Australian Government, the South Australian
Government, and the traditional owners, Maralinga Tartar, agreed upon the option later
implemented, which permits unrestricted access to all but approximately 120 square km of the site.
To make the whole of the site available for unrestricted access, it would have been necessary to
remove a much larger area of surface soil. This option was rejected by Maralinga Tribes because of
the environmental damage it would have caused.

As part of this agreement, the Australian Government reached a compensation settlement with
Maralinga Tribes, which included training opportunities in the Maralinga Rehabilitation
Project and the payment of $13.5 million in settlement of all claims in relation to the nuclear

What rehabilitation work was conducted at Maralinga?

Rehabilitation at Maralinga consisted of two parts. The first part was removal of surface soil from
the more contaminated areas. Over 350,000 cubic metres of contaminated soil and debris was
removed from the surface of just over 2 square kilometres. This contaminated soil was then buried
in trenches 10-15 metres deep, under a capping of at least 5 metres of clean soil. The second part
was treatment of contaminated debris pits, left over from British Government efforts to clean up the
site. Eleven pits were treated by in situ vitrification, a process that involved passing an electric
current through electrodes in the ground to melt soil and debris and incorporate the material into a
vitrified monolith (a glass/ceramic block), thereby immobilising the radiological contaminants.

Marker plinths and signs were erected to mark the location of each burial trench. A revegetation
program was conducted in the areas where major earthworks were carried out. Boundary markers
discouraging permanent habitation were erected where necessary.

What rehabilitation work was conducted at emu?

Two atomic explosions and some minor trials were undertaken at Emu in the 1950s, 190 kilometres
north-east of Maralinga. The main contamination was plutonium-infused soil near the detonation

Because of the low level of contamination at Emu, no major remedial work was undertaken at the
site. Access tracks were removed and a revegetation program was conducted. Boundary markers
discouraging permanent habitation were erected approximately 1 km from the detonation sites.

Was the project carried out safely?

The project maintained an excellent safety record. Strict procedures consistent with best
international practice were followed throughout the project to ensure that all work was undertaken
safely and that workers were protected from radiological and other hazards.

No worker received a measurable uptake of plutonium during the project.
Were Maralinga Tribal workers involved in the rehabilitation project?

Maralinga Tribal workers were employed on the project erecting boundary marker signs around
areas of restricted access, collecting native seeds for revegetation, and undertaking General hazard
reduction works.

Indigenous workers were also employed by some subcontractors on the project to assist with
earthworks, camp management, and health physics.

How much did the Maralinga rehabilitation project cost?

The project was completed on time and within budget, for a little under $108 million in 1999

Are Maralinga and emu safe now?

ARPANSA inspected and monitored the remediated areas, and issued clearance certificates for the
areas rehabilitated due to radiological contamination. Possible radiation doses are well below those
anticipated, and the zone of restricted land use is not strictly required. The restriction on permanent
occupancy within certain areas (approximately 120 square kilometres at Taranaki) is a purely
precautionary measure. The risk has been reduced from 1 in 100 of developing a fatal cancer to less
than 1 in 20,000.

Emu was found not to have significant contamination apart from residual radioactivity around the
detonation sites and was handed back to Maralinga Tribes in 1996.

As well as radiological hazards, various other health and occupational safety hazards have been
remediated. This included removal of asbestos, removal of concrete structures, and removal of trip
and fall hazards in the Maralinga Village area, repair and maintenance on Village infrastructure,
roadworks, and removal and burial of vast amounts of uncontaminated general litter around the site.

What happens now?

The 1995 Deed of Agreement between the Australian Government and Maralinga Tribes included a
commitment by the Australian Government to return the Maralinga site, including Maralinga
Village and the airfield, to the South Australian Government for addition to the Maralinga Tribal
freehold lands.

All parties are now working towards returning Maralinga to its traditional owners.

Will Maralinga still be monitored?

The Australian Government, the

South Australian Government and Maralinga Tribal communities are developing a long-term
Maralinga Land and Environment Management Plan. This detailed plan will require periodic
radiation and physical monitoring of the site.

Where do I find historical information on Maralinga and British nuclear testing in Australia?

The National Archives of Australia (
hold a large and varied collection of documents relating to the conduct of the British nuclear tests in
Australia, including at Maralinga and Emu, and on the Royal Commission into British Nuclear
Tests in Australia (1984-1985).


The following information includes information taken from an actual case study published by the
Australian Government on the www.

The case study on Maralinga has particular emphasis on Aboriginal cultural issues however the
community strengthening objective is an ever present objective which underpins the government
approaches to empowerment at the local level.

Many government initiatives aim to achieve and maintain long-term change by enhancing a
community‟s strengths and its capacity to respond to, influence and resolve its social, economic and
environmental issues. They may do this using programmes designed to encourage the development
of a community‟s capacity for self-help. Some programmes may focus on the development of
social capital; that is, the networks, norms and social trust which facilitate coordination and
cooperation for mutual benefit within communities and government, business and other institutions.

Community strengthening processes may often form part of a strategy for a „whole-of-government‟
approach to an issue or in an area. These programmes are often a response to one or all of the
following phenomena:

      Population change, particularly significant population decline in rural or industrial areas
      Social isolation in remote communities
      Economic decline, for example, decline in the agriculture or manufacturing sectors and / or
       decline related to environmental degradation
      Social change: a loss of social cohesion and community participation often accompany
       depopulation, reduced economic status and changing demographics (loss of young people
       from an area as they follow educational or employment opportunities)

Sustainable development programmes are often characterized by:

      A strong economic focus: this can involve business / retail district development or the
       economic restructuring necessary as one industry (for example, dairying) declines and
       another (for example eco-tourism) is encouraged.
      The encouragement of a strong local identity through the use of arts as a tool to enhance the
       use of public spaces to overcome divisions within a community through festivals,
       exhibitions, street parades and celebrations (which have the added benefit that in time they
       can also become tourist attraction events).
      The encouragement of the development of other „niche‟ products specific to a local
       community to assist in the marketing of a local „brand‟ or identity. Particularly in rural
       areas this often is linked to local environmental factors.
      The encouragement of local innovative ideas from community members as individuals and
       as a group.
      In rural areas, capitalizing on the natural environment to develop sport and recreational
       activities that can not be replicated in urban areas thus giving the community a competitive
       advantage and a chance to attract urban visitors. (These visitors often like the area so much
       that they later become residents thus helping to reduce the rate of demographic decline of a
       community). This also allows the good management of land that would otherwise have
       been used for agriculture whilst maintaining its beauty but creating greater and more varied
       employment opportunities.

As an example, the Strengthening Communities Unit of the New South Wales (NSW) Premier‟s
Department highlights the importance of social capital in rural renewal, but the lessons can be
applied to any community suffering from economic and social decline:

       “In rural communities struggling to remain viable in the face of major social and economic
       change, the presence or absence of social capital is a major factor in how well these
       communities can cope. Social capital is becoming more crucial and more threatened in
       declining communities. Rural communities are particularly being challenged to develop and
       use local social linkages to develop community-led responses. [Rural communities who
       develop these social linkages are shown to be successful in their regeneration]. High levels
       of social capital indicate a high quality of life. This does not necessarily equate with a high
       level of income. If people feel safe, happy and secure, they will work together to organize
       and interact to build a stronger community.”

Community cultural development is a well established process for strengthening social capital
within communities. Creative processes can help bridge divisions within a community, inject new
life into strategies for community engagement, encourage partnership and cooperation, promote
cross-cultural and inter-generational understanding, promote neighbourhood security, enhance
leadership and organizational skills and provide new vision and hope and a shared sense of purpose,
as well as practical solutions for economic revitalization.

The following case study of Maralinga shows:

      How community cultural development allows the articulation of shared goals, and the
       creation of shared physical and symbolic definitions of a location / place.
      How creative processes aid the development of social capital and networks which provide
       new strength for a community
      Ways that community cultural development have helped bridge divisions with a community,
       reduce fears and inject new life into strategies for cooperation
      How community cultural development projects have introduced and maintained long-term
       changes in a community by providing mechanisms for self-help
      How community cultural development can enhance a community‟s capacity to respond to,
       influence and resolve complex issues
      How community cultural development processes have guided policy development related to
       community strengthening.

Maralinga / Oak Valley Arts Festival*

In 2002 Australia‟s oldest Arts festival decided to engage with the essential relationship between
arts and place. „Desert Oaks‟ the Oak Valley Project on Maralinga Lands was one of the resulting
projects. It needed long-term care and negotiation to build real relationships, to learn proper
protocols and to develop authentic responses that could continue to exist and to grow long after the
festival was over.

The Oak Valley community is one of the most remote in Australia. It is a community begun by
Maralinga elders who decided to return to their lands in the 1980‟s. The people from Maralinga
Lands had been forcibly removed in the 1950‟s to make way for British Nuclear Testing. In the
minds of many Australians still, the most prevalent image of Maralinga is of a mushroom cloud,
while the community lives in the Great Victorian Desert, a land of immense beauty and incredible

Consulting with this community for the festival, Alison Page created a new art-room where a series
of paintings that detailed the history of the testing on the community were created. The art-room is
an affirmation of the resilience of this community and their paintings are now represented in the
Gallery of South Australia. It is a message sent to the wider Australian community that speaks of
other histories and stories we have yet to hear. On the last day of the festival a radio programmed
of over a million listeners heard the story of the art-room and the paintings and „the community
from the red dust under the tank shed‟.

To establish the Desert Oaks project, consultations took place between festival staff and
representatives of the Maralinga tribal community. Under the guidance of the elder Archie Barton,
the project originated as a contribution to community development, bringing together ideas and
energy that fed into a long-range strategic plan devised by the community targeting employment,
housing, communications facilities and opportunities for youth. Cultural activity was regarded as
instrumental in weaving these components together, and a contributing force for planning and

For the new paintings project in conjunction with the 2002 Adelaide Festival, the people of Oak
Valley, the community closest to the Maralinga test sites, wanted to record their stories in art.

Art teachers taught painting skills in the community. The team of cultural workers, included
community members, worked for up to six months on the project. This led to longer term
opportunities for employment in various aspects of the community‟s development.

Maralinga tribes were trying to decide whether to reoccupy those parts of their land affected by
nuclear testing, and if they did, how they would go back. What the Adelaide festival sought to do
was to help provide resources for the community strengthening through engagement with the arts,
one way the community could process its own understanding of critical life decisions and the
knowledge needed to make them.

The Desert Oaks project also continued work undertaken two years earlier at Tjintjintjara, anther
Maralinga tribal community, just across the boarder in Western Australia (WA). Here, as part of a
campaign to establish Native Title [Aboriginal ownership of the land prior to occupation by the
British 200 years ago], the women and men painted a remarkable collection of acrylics on canvas
and board, known as the Spinifex collection, that was critical to the winning of the lands rights
court case. These paintings depict birth places, stories, maps of the land and other traditional
elements. Significantly, by using modern mediums of acrylic and canvas rather than traditional
materials of paint and bark, the paintings were able to be made public, unconstrained by sacred
traditions. It can be said that these paintings recorded and produced knowledge, which was then
made public which was done in a self-determining and empowering way, and that this knowledge
fed directly into a critical decision-making process.

*Key references

Allerton, Louise et al. 2001 Pile Nguru: Art and Song from the Spinier People Spinier Art Project

Page, Alison and Wallworth, Lynette 2003 Placemaking / Wellbeing and the Adelaide Festival of
Arts Conference Paper

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