Recently I viewed the Black Mist Burnt Country exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. Launched on 27 September 2016, to mark the 60th anniversary of nuclear bomb testing at Maralinga in South Australia, the exhibition has already covered a lot of ground touring the eastern states.
This exhibition is a vivid and reflective collation that is raising awareness of the impact of nuclear testing in Australia. The cost for British and Australian army personnel and civilians was high. More so for Aboriginal people, who often weren’t even considered before the bombs went off.
Given re-emergence of interest in uranium mining and intent to construct waste dumps on Aboriginal lands, despite strong community opposition, this exhibition is also a stark reminder of how little some people have learnt from the past.
When British interest in nuclear testing became known, uranium deposits had only recently been discovered in Australia. Wishing to strengthen British protection post-war, newly-elected Prime Minister Menzies saw both security and economic opportunities in offering the British land for testing nuclear weaponry.
There was a lot of secrecy around these joint operations. Not only were citizens unaware of what was happening, in some cases even the Australian government was left in the dark by the British. Even now, many Australians are unaware of the historical background of British-led nuclear testing in Australia.
From 1956 to 1963, atomic bombs were set off in central South Australia, including at Maralinga. Prior to that, testing was conducted at Emu Field (SA, 1953) and Monte Bello Islands (WA, 1952 and 1956). The fallout from the last operation at Monte Bello Islands, off the Western Australian coast, reached Rockhampton on the Queensland coast.
Rockets were also tested in 1964. Detonated at the Woomera Protected Area (SA), the long-range path of the Blue Streak rockets moved across central SA to the Pilbara region (WA) and out to sea (between Broome and Port Hedland).
Aboriginal people were not consulted prior to any of these operations. They were often forcibly removed from the area or left to suffer the consequences of the fallout. There are no records of how many Aboriginal people became ill due to nuclear testing, or there has been no studies of the generational health impact. Too many voices remain unheard.
Maralinga, meaning thunder in Garik language, is probably the most known nuclear weapon testing site in Australia. It was also the site where the most damage to people and environment was experienced.
Due to leftover plutonium, the land around the Maralinga testing range has remained toxic for many decades. After the British signed off responsibility in 1968, the Australian government has maintained control of the site.
In more recent years, the British government made minimal compensations to the surviving service personnel. And as a result of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, some compensation was provided to Anangu people, and for clean-up operations.
The Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 provided freehold title to Anangu. Remaining parts of the land, which had been part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, were handed back by the Defence Department in 2014.
Despite not having been consulted by previous governments, Aboriginal people have always been pivotal to movements that advocate for socially and environmentally responsible management of uranium – from mining, to transportation, usage, and disposal of waste. One example is the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA), which celebrated twenty years of activism in 2017.
And Aboriginal voices were embedded in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). A recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, ICAN was instrumental in lobbying the United Nations to agree to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
One of the most known voices for the anti-nuclear movement was Yami Lester (1949 – 2017). Yami Lester OAM, respected Anangu elder, educator and activist, was blinded by the nuclear fallout as a child.
It was Yami who first described the explosion at Maralinga as black mist, which the exhibition has taken as a title. Yami was a pioneer of the anti-nuclear movement, and his image rightfully takes centre place in the Black Mist Burnt Ground exhibition.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Karina Lester is one of many representatives of First Peoples voices within ICAN. This campaign includes 400 international organisations, so Karina has exchanged personal/familial stories of nuclear testing and warfare with First Peoples from around the globe. Her sister Rose is also a strong advocate.
The British and Australian government nuclear weaponry testing is part of the truth-telling that many are now engaging in. Raising awareness of settler-colonial history helps people to better understand the impact of colonialisation on First Peoples. Sharing stories, such as those from Maralinga, can also inform current decision-making — to stop the past repeating.
If you’d like to learn more about nuclear testing at Maralinga, I recommend these four books.
Maralinga, the Anangu Story by Yalata and Oak Valley communities, with Christobel Mattingley
An illustrated children’s’ book, capturing community stories.
Mima Smart: “Our story is a very important story that needs to be heard by children and adults across our country.”
Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story by Elizabeth Tynan
Liz Tynan is an academic and former science journalist who has been researching British atomic tests in Australia for many years.
“In 1950 Australian prime minister Robert Menzies blithely agreed to atomic tests that offered no benefit to Australia and relinquished control over them – and left the public completely in the dark.”
Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story by Christobel Mattingley
This book features the recollections of Yvonne Edwards (1950 – 2012), artist and community leader, on the impact that the nuclear tests had on herself and family.
‘Grandfather and Grandmother telling lots of stories. They had to live at Yalata. Their home was bombed. That was their home where the bomb went off. They thought it was mamu tjuta, evil spirits, coming. Everyone was frightened, thinking about people back in the bush. Didn’t know what bomb was. Later told it was poison. Parents and grandparents really wanted to go home, used to talk all the time to get their land back.’ Yvonne Edwards.
Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert by Peter Johnson, Yuwali Nixon and Susan Davenport.
Through primary documents and personal recollections of Martu women, this book gives a behind the scenes look at rocket testing in the western desert in 1964. Patrols were instructed to track down a group of Martu women and children, who’d had no prior contact with settler-colonials, and remove them from their country.
Maralinga: the chilling expose of our secret by Frank Walker
An investigative journalist, Frank Walker’s book focuses on the impact that this testing had on scientists and British and Australian med forces personnel.
Karen Wyld is an author and freelance writer of Martu descent, living on Kaurna country in South Australia