WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains names of deceased persons.
A delegation of Australian nuclear test survivors and their relatives is visiting the nation’s capital, Canberra, this week to urge the government to sign the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Adopted in 2017 with the backing of 122 countries, the United Nations agreement includes ground-breaking provisions to assist victims of past nuclear tests and take steps to remediate contaminated lands.
“These delegates know intimately the personal impacts of nuclear weapons testing, on physical health, mental health, and on country,” said Gem Romuld, the director of ICAN Australia, noting that some had travelled thousands of kilometres to have their voices heard by decision-makers. “They have brought their expertise and experience to speak with parliamentarians about recognition, respect, and repair.”
From 1952 to 1963, the British government, with the active participation of the Australian government, conducted 12 major nuclear test explosions and up to 600 so-called “minor trials” in the South Australian outback and off the coast of Western Australia. Radioactive contamination from the tests was detected across much of the continent.
At the time, and for decades after, the authorities denied, ignored, and covered up the health dangers. Little was done to protect the 16,000 or so test site workers, and even less to protect nearby Indigenous communities, who have borne the brunt of this ongoing scourge.
Today, survivors suffer from higher rates of cancer than the general population due to their exposure to radiation. Only a few have ever been compensated. Much of the traditional land used for the blasts remains radioactive and off-limits to this day.
Karina Lester, a Yankunytjatjara Anangu woman who works as a linguist, is part of the delegation coordinated by ICAN. Her late father, Yami Lester, was blinded by the tests at Emu Field in South Australia. “Our mob were not informed of those tests that were about to take place on our traditional lands. Consent was never given by Anangu,” she said.
“We’ve lived with what these weapons have done to our families. Our loved ones died, our loved ones suffered, and we are the generations that continue to share those stories.”
June Lennon, the director of the Yankunytjatjara Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, is also in Canberra this week. A Yankunytjatjara, Antikarinya, and Pitjantjatjara woman, she was four months old when the Totem 1 nuclear bomb was detonated at Emu Field. “After the bomb went off, the black mist came over and settled on all the trees and everything else, so that effectively took away our supermarket,” she said, referring to her community’s dependence on the land for food.
Another member of the delegation, Douglas Brooks, was 18 years old when he took part in the nuclear test programme at the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia as a member of the Australian navy in 1956. He was exposed to the effects of a 98-kiloton atomic bomb. “I experienced an enormous flash of intense burning bright light. I could see the bones of my hands as I covered my eyes – as if they were being X-rayed,” he said.
“A great sheet of heat burnt the backs of our necks. The bang from the detonation was that loud my eardrums felt like they had been perforated – followed by a shock wave that travelled across the sea shaking the ship, causing me to lose my footing on the deck.”
Maxine Goodwin’s father, Max Ward, also participated in the testing programme. “My father serviced planes that were contaminated while patrolling the West Australian coast,” she said. “He was also on board one of the planes that was directed to fly through the radioactive cloud. He became ill when I was a child and passed away at the age of 49 from lymphoma. My mother, a widow at 44, applied to the Australian government for compensation, but her claim was denied.”
Speaking truth to power
Upon their arrival at parliament house in Canberra, the delegation held a press conference with the co-chairs of a cross-party parliamentary friendship group for the TPNW: Josh Wilson MP of the Labor Party, Jordon Steele-John of the Greens, and Russell Broadbent of the Liberal Party. They outlined their expectations for the government to acknowledge and address the harms caused by past nuclear tests, and made a direct plea to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to sign the TPNW.
Later in the day, they met with the foreign minister, Penny Wong, who hails from the state of South Australia, where most of the nuclear test explosions and associated experiments were conducted. Earlier this year, she said that the TPNW has “substantial normative value”, but declined to offer a timeline for Australia’s signature. The government has said that it “will consider the TPNW systematically and methodically” and “engage closely with our international partners – including the United States – as part of this process”.
The Australian Labor Party, which has been in power since May 2022, adopted a resolution in 2018 committing it to sign and ratify the TPNW in government. It was moved by Anthony Albanese. He said at the time: “Our commitment to sign and ratify the nuclear weapon ban treaty in government is Labor at its best.” The party reaffirmed this position in 2021 and is expected to do so again at its national conference this August.
But supporters of the TPNW are growing frustrated by the Albanese government’s lack of action towards fulfilling Labor’s longstanding commitment to sign and ratify the treaty. With plans afoot to acquire nuclear attack submarines and strengthen military ties with the United States and United Kingdom under the AUKUS partnership, questions are being raised about Australia’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.
“Acquiring nuclear-powered submarines using highly-enriched uranium is both a major proliferation risk and could be seen as a precursor to Australia acquiring nuclear weapons,” said Gem Romuld. “The clearest signal that Australia could send to our region that this is not our intention would be to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
“Australia’s experience with nuclear weapons testing is a powerful motivation to join the treaty,” she added. “It will help prevent more people and land from suffering, as well as address historic harms. It’s about the past, the present, and the future.”