UK Admits Military Personnel Deliberately Exposed to Nuclear Tests

By Jim Green, Ph.D.

SYDNEY, Australia, May 18, 2001 (ENS) - The British government has admitted that British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel were used in radiation experiments during the nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga in South Australia in the 1950s, but claims that clothing was being tested, not humans.

Confirming statements made repeatedly by veterans over the years, the British Ministry of Defence acknowledged on May 11 that it used military personnel from Britain, Australia and New Zealand in various experiments.


Geoffrey Hoon is Secretary of State for Defence of the United Kingdom. (Photo courtesy UK Ministry of Defence)
A statement released by the British government said that military personnel were "transported to or walked in various uniforms to an area of low-level fallout."

The admission followed publicity surrounding a document found in the Australian National Archive in February by Sue Rabbitt Roff, a senior research fellow from Scotland's Dundee University.

The October 12, 1956, document on an "Australian Military Forces - Central Command" letterhead refers to the Buffalo series of four atmospheric nuclear tests conducted at Maralinga in September and October, 1956. The document names 70 Australian military personnel and one civilian, plus five New Zealand officers, all listed as exposed to radiation following a September 27 nuclear test.

"As far as can be determined the individual dose for round one was received over a period of two to three hours while the various indoctrinee groups were touring the target response area. ... Certain people were exposed to radiation on dates other than 28 and 29 Sep, during clothing trials or for a limited number during a tour of the contaminated area after round two," the document says.

At least 26 of the 76 people named as being exposed to radiation from tests in 1956 received a dose greater than the "maximum permissible exposure" of 0.3 roentgens in a week; the highest exposure was 0.66 roentgens in a few hours, the central command document reveals.


During Operation Buffalo in October 1956, two 49 Squadron Valiants dropped Britain's first atomic bombs on Maralinga range, Australia. (Photo courtesy UK Ministry of Defence)
Some men were chosen for "clothing trials" from an "indoctrinee force" of British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel. The men walked, crawled and were driven through a fallout zone three days after a nuclear test at Maralinga.

Roff dismisses the British government's claim that it was testing clothing, not humans, and says that thousands of Commonwealth military personnel not directly involved in the nuclear tests at Maralinga were required to be outdoors to observe the detonations.

Roff said the central command document contradicts claims by the British government in the European Court of Human Rights in 1997 that no humans were used in experiments in nuclear weapons trials; a claim which enabled the British government to successfully defeat compensation claims.

"I was in the court in 1997 when the government denied using humans [in] studies of the effects of radiation," Roff said. "In fact the government said it would be 'an act of indefensible callousness to have done so.'"

The European Court of Human Rights was presented with a 1953 memo issued by the British "Defense Research Policy Sub-Committee of the Chiefs of Staff Committee." The memo, titled "Atomic Weapons Trials" and marked "Top Secret," stated, "The army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosions on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection."

Veterans of the Maralinga tests have described trucks speeding past to raise dust to make sure military personnel "got a bit of the fallout over the top of us," and being ordered to uncover equipment shelters located 100-150 meters (325-490 feet) from ground zero about one hour after a test, without protective clothing.

Men have described being ordered to roll in the dust about five kilometers (three miles) from ground zero after a test; ship and ground crews washing down equipment and themselves with irradiated water; and drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated food.

Ric Johnstone, national president of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, referred to the military personnel at Maralinga in a July 2000 statement. "They were provided with little or no protective clothing and seldom badged while some badges and dosimeters were falsified or not recorded because of high readings. In spite of this long lived dangerous level of radioactivity, the Australian Government expect us to believe that the test participants were exposed to only minimal non-hazardous levels of radiation."

Thirty Australian veterans are seeking compensation from the federal government as a result of weapons tests at Maralinga and on the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Buck-passing between successive British and Australian governments has for many years been a familiar ploy to avoid responsibility for the nuclear tests. Another ploy has been to stall for time in the expectation that the political controversy will fade away as veterans die. A large majority of the people involved in weapons tests in Australia have already died.


Australian Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Bruce Scott (Photo courtesy government of Australia)
Bruce Scott, Minister for Veterans' Affairs, responded to Roff's release of Australian archives by saying that his office has contacted Roff in Scotland to ask her to forward the documents. But the documents are held in the national archive in Canberra, Australia, and Scott has access to further information which still remains classified.

In 1999, the federal government announced it would compile a "nominal roll" of veterans, Aborigines and others who may have been exposed to radiation from the Maralinga tests. The roll is expected to be complete in June or July 2001. A cancer incidence study is promised following compilation of the roll.

An offical from the Veterans' Affairs department said in a Senate hearing in May 2000 that the cancer incidence study would be complete by the end of 2000 - yet it has not even begun as at May 2001.

Ric Johnstone said in his July 2000 statement that the government's procrastination was "... just another stalling tactic as the government are now fully aware that time is on their side."

Scott says that issues raised by Roff in recent weeks will only be pursued if "there is any new material in these documents that hasn't been raised before in the context of the royal commission." The McClelland Royal Commission inquiry into the British weapons tests in Australia did raise the issue of clothing trials in its 1985 report, possibly basing its findings on the same document uncovered by Roff.


Ric Johnstone heads the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association (Photo courtesy ANVA)
Johnstone derided the government's claim that victims are being adequately dealt with under the Military Compensation Scheme. "The onus of proof is on the claimant and not on the government as it is under the Veterans Entitlement Act. So go ahead and prove it if you can, knowing full well that since all of the tests were done under maximum secrecy - some aspects of the tests will never be revealed - and that all records are held by the Australian or the British governments, it is going to be almost impossible for a claimant to prove the relationship between radiation exposure and illness, disease or death without their help, which has been constantly refused."

The government has consistently refused to provide funding for medical tests to assist in the determination of past radiation exposure.

The radioactive contamination remains at Maralinga - much of it from so-called minor trials which did not involve fission explosions but scattered about 24 kilograms (53 pounds) of plutonium nonetheless.

The last of four cleanups was completed last year, but a leaked email from Geoff Williams, a senior officer of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), complained about "a host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups."

ARPANSA chief executive officer Dr. John Loy describes the clean-up as "world's best practice." The radioactive materials were buried in unlined trenches. More thorough clean-up options were debated and discarded.


Trenches at Maralinga in which plutonium contaminated soil was buried. An American company, CH2M Hill, won the contract to ensure the cleanup meets appropriate health physics criteria. (Photo courtesy ARPANSA)
Alan Parkinson, a nuclear engineer with over 40 years experience and a former government adviser on the Maralinga clean-up, wrote in the April 16, 2000, Canberra Times, "Is Dr. Loy saying that a hole in the ground, without any treatment or lining is world best practice? That isn't even world best practice for disposal of household garbage, let alone a long-lived hazardous substance such as plutonium."

Parkinson said a temporary storage pit should have been dug and lined with concrete for use until a permanent storage technique would be devised to immobilize the plutonium.

The Aboriginal owners of the land have been adversely affected by the nuclear tests. The Menzies government did not seek permission from traditional owners before the tests. Some Aborigines in South Australia were given one way train tickets to Karlgoorlie; others were herded into a camp at Yalata, a mission station 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Ceduna. Others others remained in the testing range during the tests, a fact known to the Australian government at the time.

The McClelland Royal Commission concluded about the Buffalo series, "Overall, the attempts to ensure Aboriginal safety during the Buffalo series demonstrate ignorance, incompetence and cynicism on the part of those responsible for that safety."

A 1996 government report on the Maralinga cleanup said, "The project is aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination."

Having appropriated and polluted Aboriginal land, the federal government now wants to "reduce Commonwealth liability" by giving the land back to the traditional owners, the Tjarutja. The government's maneuvring to avoid future responsibility may continue for some months or years and will involve the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

The ongoing scandals surrounding the Maralinga project are of interest to the vast majority of South Australians who are opposed to the federal government's plan to build a national radioactive waste dump in South Australia. The same bureaucrats are involved, the same minister, the same regulatory agency. And the same game plan - dump the waste in unlined trenches while insisting that this is "world's best practice."