Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story

Mary Heath

atomic-thunder-smElizabeth Tynan; NewSouth Books, 2016; 373 pp; $34.99 (paperback)

Atomic Thunder is a compelling reading experience. Not because it is written in the incandescent prose of outrage: it is not. Maralinga was the site of many (but by no means all) of the British nuclear tests in Australia. The facts themselves, and that it has taken decades for those facts to have partially emerged, are shocking enough.

Maralinga occupies the conjunction of colonial relations within Australia and colonial relations between Britain and Australia. At the time of the nuclear tests, Indigenous Australians had not yet been recognised as citizens. They were lied to, lied about and moved around like cattle in order to enable nuclear testing. The health of personnel involved in the testing was treated as largely irrelevant. Indigenous health received even less consideration. These ‘tests’ also cast a harsh light on Australia’s military policies during the Cold War and the aftermath of the Second World War. Tynan offers ‘nuclear colonialism’ as a framework for understanding the way that nuclear testing escalated the process of dispossession and injury inflicted on Indigenous Australians. At the same time, it revealed Australia as a junior and subservient partner to Britain.

Much of the ground covered by Tynan has been addressed by earlier authors. They include Len Beadell’s tales of outback daring surveying sites, Frank Cain’s account of the organisations charged with keeping Australia’s security secrets, the scathing 1984 McLelland Royal Commission which resulted from the discovery that Britain’s account of the contamination left by the tests was inaccurate, and Robert Milliken’s 1986 analysis of the cover-up that followed the tests. Tynan’s accessible account summarises the tests, their context, scientific debate, media coverage and ongoing impact. It includes personal accounts from people who participated, although these are not particularly integrated into the narrative. Unlike earlier writers, Tynan brings the story forward to include new evidence that even McLelland’s damning findings did not contemplate — the full extent of British deception, and the level of contamination left behind.

The events of the 1950s and ’60s might seem to have little resonance today. However, this book arrives as South Australians are being consulted about their role in the nuclear cycle and options including a high level nuclear waste dump. Atomic Thunder is a timely reminder that South Australia is already the site of a nuclear waste dump that was clearly unsafe and insecure when it came into existence. It remains a dump created through deceit, with the willing co-operation of the Australian government of the time, largely paid for by the dispossession of Indigenous people, and from the funds of the Australian taxpayer.

Indigenous people were treated with disdain throughout the entirety of the tests and their aftermath despite being among those most profoundly affected, with least information and least choice. The discussions of the time are soaked with conviction about white superiority despite the reality that whites were those imposing unwarranted intervention into the lives of Indigenous people. Indigenous opposition to proposed sites for a new nuclear waste dump is an ongoing reality in South Australia.

Scientists appear as inconvenient sources of unwelcome information, ignored and sidelined despite the ramifications for health and safety. The loyalty of scientists was constantly questioned, and the predecessor of CSIRO was made vulnerable by governmental disapproval of their concerns. They were treated with the same disbelief and hostility to which Australian climate scientists have been subjected. As recently as 1993, scientists who attempted to reveal more of the story by bringing data from US nuclear testing together with limited British data from Maralinga, did so by reading that very partial data against the grain and without co-operation.

Politicians (Menzies central among them) appear to have been largely unconcerned with robust, scientifically supported and democratic decision-making, and the damage did not begin to come to light until the Whitlam period. Scepticism about the politicians of today will not be alleviated by reading this book.

The media of the time co-operated in keeping much of the information allowed them from the public. The secrecy must remind contemporary readers of the media silence being imposed on offshore detention today. The demonisation of asylum seekers is being used to justify secrecy now, and this itself is reminiscent of the way that the demonisation of communists was used to silence criticism and demands for information in the 1950s.

Atomic Thunder offers valuable insights into, and recent information about, the history of nuclear testing in Australia. More than that, however, it offers insight into some of the major institutions of Australian society and plenty of cause for reflection on the events and policies of the present.

MARY HEATH teaches law at Flinders University.

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 292
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