By Neena Bhandari*
SYDNEY (IDN) - Sue Coleman-Haseldine, a Kokatha-Mula Indigenous woman, was about three years old when the United Kingdom began conducting Nuclear weapons tests in Australia’s Monte Bello Islands, off the Western Australian coast, and Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia.
The 12 major tests, conducted between 1952 and 1963, contaminated a huge area, including Koonibba, the place where Sue’s family and larger community lived.
“There were Aboriginal people living in the region when the tests started. Many people died and became sick in the immediate test areas. The first atomic bomb called ‘Totem 1’ spread far and wide and there are stories about the ‘black mist’ it created which killed, blinded and made people very sick,” says Sue, who remembers elders in the community telling her about the healthy life of hunting for wild game and collecting bush fruits prior to the tests.
“Older people in our community talked about the Nullarbor dust storms, but it was the fallout from the Maralinga tests. We weren’t on ground zero, but the dust didn’t stay in one place. It went wherever the winds took it. People were dying of cancer, something that was new to us,” recalls Sue, who learnt about the radiation fallout while attending a meeting of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA).
Aboriginal people formed ANFA, formerly the Alliance Against Uranium, in 1997. They were joined by some NGOs concerned about existing or proposed nuclear developments in Australia, particularly on Indigenous homelands.
For Aboriginal people, the land is the basis of their culture. Sue was devastated to learn that the bush foods were possibly contaminated. “It is our supermarket for food and our pharmacy for medicines, and looking after it is our religion. It doesn’t matter if you are Aboriginal or not, everyone in this part of the country has a sad story about premature sickness and death in their families. Cancer is the big one, but it is also common for people to suffer from thyroid conditions,” she tells IDN.
Fertility problems, still births, birth defects became more common at the time of the testing, but even today people like Sue wonder if their health issues are related to the ongoing radiation in the area or genetic changes passed down through generations. She wants nuclear weapons permanently banned and the uranium that can create them left in the ground.
Last year, governments, United Nations agencies and civil society members met in Oslo (Norway) for the first ever Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. This was followed with the Mexican Government hosting 146 countries in February 2014 to build on the evidence. In October 2014, 155 out of 193 member state governments supported the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons presented to the UN General Assembly. The Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in Vienna (Austria) on December 8-9, heard Sue’s shattering testimony.
The momentum to begin negotiations on a binding international treaty to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons has grown manifold, according to observers. There has been a renewed global effort especially to raise awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and to ensure that they are never used again.
Today, estimated 17,000 warheads remain in existence, despite a significant decrease in the stockpiles of the United States and the Russian nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War.
Australia Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Tim Wright said, “It’s time for Australia to join the overwhelming majority of nations that have pledged their support for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.”
ICAN Australia has created a Youtube video `Don't Want Your Nuclear Umbrella’ to drive home the message for all "umbrella states" to stop tolerating the bomb and reject nuclear weapons in their defence policy. The video has attracted almost 16,000 hits. “We wanted to open a discussion about extended nuclear deterrence in a comical and accessible way, especially for young people who haven't experienced the Cold War,” Gem Romuld, Outreach Coordinator at ICAN Australia, told IDN.
80 percent Australians favour ban nukes treaty
A recent Red Cross survey has found that 8 out of 10 Australians support a legally binding treaty to ban the use of nuclear weapons. As many as 88 per cent said there would be no winners in a nuclear war given the devastating humanitarian consequences that would result.
The International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement has consistently voiced its deep humanitarian concerns about nuclear weapons, since they were first used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are not limited to space and time. Radiation affects health, agriculture and natural resources over a wide area and for generations to come.
Rosemary Lester, who was born in Adelaide (South Australia) in 1970, recalls how one day her father, who was in bed sick, was listening to Sir Ernest Titterton (nuclear physicist) being interviewed about Maralinga on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio.
“I remember hearing dad swear out aloud. I went into the room and asked him what was wrong. He said it was something that had happened a long time ago before I was born. In fact, when he was a boy. It was when I first heard of Maralinga atomic testing”, Rosemary, Director on the Alinytjara Wilurara (North West) Natural Resource Management Board, told IDN.
She has had firsthand experience of her father, both her grandparents and other family members suffering from ailments as a consequence of the nuclear tests. She herself was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease called Scleroderma in 2005.
“There was no awareness then about Uranium mining and its damage to the environment and what it was being used for. I now understand why my dad and my grandparents became strong advocates and felt the need to actively protest, speak, educate and advocate against the Nuclear Industry and protect “nganampa nguru” (our country)”, said Rosemary, who wants oral histories of the time recorded and provided in both English and Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara languages for future generations.
In 1984, the Australian Government established the Maralinga Royal Commission to probe the nuclear tests in response to growing community concern regarding measures being taken to protect people from the exposure to radiation, and the disposal of radioactive substances and toxic materials.
“The secret files did not become available until 2003, 50 years after the Atomic tests. It is well known that Plutonium 239 remains openly exposed in that region. The poison is in the soil, dust blows in all directions and people are breathing it in. Even that bush tucker you eat is contaminated”, says Rosemary, who is appalled that some people are saying that despite the contamination, the area is safe and want to promote it for tourism.
The responsibility for cleaning up the former test site rests with the Federal Government. Nuclear engineer and former Government supervisor of the Maralinga clean-up, Allan Parkinson, told the ABC that contamination remains widespread.
“There's over 100 square kilometers that is still contaminated above the clean-up criteria . . . Its plutonium 239 and in 24,000 years' time half of it will still be there,” Parkinson told the ABC in June 2014.
Rosemary wants authorities to take responsibility for the severe impact of the legacy of the nuclear testing. “Many people died immediately, but others are living with chronic health issues, cancers and disabilities. Not to mention depression, the painful loss and trauma suffered mentally, the psychological and social damage, and watching loved ones’ lives diminish. It has eroded our culture and further marginalised our people”, she said.
Advocates for nuclear abolition want governments to acknowledge their role in this disaster and stop mining uranium. A recent ANFA meeting heard that around 40,000 rounds of depleted uranium weapons have been deployed in Australian military training exercises. It recognised the intergenerational health impacts from nuclear weapons testing as well as the documented use and impacts of depleted uranium weapons.
“The Government must provide funding for research on the Environmental damage to the Atomic Zone and Fallout area; apologise to First Nations People (Aboriginals); compensate individuals that are affected; and review the Piling Trust to help those that are sick”, Rosemary told IDN.
The Maralinga Piling Trust was set up to manage compensation monies granted by the Australian Government to the Maralinga and Spinifex Country Traditional Owners as a result of the loss of access to lands due to the nuclear tests.
Observers are of the view that the Vienna Conference has given a fresh impetus to the survivors’ fight for justice as they aspire for a future free of nuclear weapons.
*Neena Bhandari is a Sydney-based foreign correspondent, writing for international news agencies IPS-Inter Press Service and IDN-InDepthNews as well as other national and international publications. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 9, 2014]
Photo: Nuclear test survivor Sue Coleman-Haseldine | Credit: Jessie Boylan