For many Australians, nuclear weapons are not a distant, abstract threat, but a lived reality – a persistent source of pain and suffering, of contamination and dislocation. Indigenous communities, long marginalised and mistreated in Australia, bear the brunt of this ongoing scourge.
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 West Australian coast. 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. 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 off limits.
Yankunytjatjara elder and nuclear test survivor
Yami Lester was 10 years old when the “Totem 1” nuclear test was conducted near his home in 1953. His eyes stung as a result, and four years later he lost all sight. Since the 1980s he has been a leading advocate on behalf of communities affected by the tests.
“It was in the morning, around seven. I was just playing with the other kids. That’s when the bomb went off. I remember the noise, it was a strange noise, not loud, not like anything I’d ever heard before. The earth shook at the same time; we could feel the whole place move. We didn’t see anything, though. Us kids had no idea what it was. I just kept playing. It wasn’t long after that a black smoke came through. A strange black smoke, it was shiny and oily. A few hours later we all got crook, every one of us. We were all vomiting; we had diarrhoea, skin rashes and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for two or three weeks. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all of the sickness. The closest clinic was 400 miles away.”
Whistleblower and nuclear test veteran
Avon Hudson was a serviceman at Maralinga during some of the disastrous “minor trials” of 1958 to 1962. With his intimate first-hand knowledge of the effects of radiation on human health, he is now a passionate campaigner for a nuclear-weapon-free world.
“We were innocent – lambs to the slaughter – and have been treated with contempt by Australian governments of both political persuasions trying to sweep their tarnished history under the carpet. We have suffered; for many of our friends, life was cruelly taken away or changed forever by an unseen and largely unknown foe – ionising radiation. We were naive and trusting of our government. Now they are waiting for us to die. This is an uncomfortable history for many a politician, because it cannot be spoken of in the abstract – families are still suffering. At the time of the tests, the Australian public was deliberately and ruthlessly kept in the dark concerning the real effects of the atomic bomb explosions and the so-called ‘minor trials’.”
Kokatha-Mula woman and nuclear test survivor
Sue Coleman-Haseldine was born in 1951 at the Koonibba mission near Maralinga, a site of British nuclear testing. She won the South Australian premier’s award for excellence in Indigenous leadership in 2007 for her work as an activist, cultural teacher and environmental defender.
“I was about three when it happened. The old people used to talk about the Nullarbor dust storm, which really wasn’t a dust storm at all. It must have been the fallout from Maralinga. We’ve had thyroid problems in the family, and it’s not just us, it’s the whole of the west coast of South Australia. We’ve had quite a lot of problems like that, health-wise. And when someone says somebody’s just died, you ask what from and it’s always cancer, cancer, cancer. But as we all know, nobody can prove that the radiation caused the cancer. People have put in for compensation, but because there’s no proof that the illnesses stem from the explosions, there is none.”
Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner
Yvonne Margarula’s tireless work to protect her country is world renowned. In the 1990s she led the successful campaign to stop a second uranium mine, Jabiluka, from being built on Mirarr land. Australian uranium has been used to produce British and US nuclear weapons, and the Australian government continues to export uranium to nuclear-armed nations, contributing to global proliferation dangers.
Yvonne’s late father, Toby Gangale, outlined his concerns about the Ranger uranium mine in 1978: “I don’t like the mine you see. Very dangerous. What if they make an atom bomb or something? Very dangerous: the same thing as they did in Japan. Flat. All the big houses, all the big buildings. Very dangerous. That’s why we’re worried.” The Ranger mine continues to operate today, despite Mirarr concerns.
“My name is Yvonne Margarula. I am the Senior Traditional Owner of Mirarr country in Kakadu, Australia. In the 1970s the government and mining company came here and forced the Ranger uranium mine on us. All Bininj were against the mine, but we could not stop it. Our land has suffered. We lost billabongs and rivers. Often we are worried because of the mine. We use the water for fishing, swimming and drinking. In my heart I feel that things would be better if there were no mining here. But we Mirarr are strong and will use the opportunities to create a better future.”
Artist, author and atomic bomb survivor
Junko Morimoto is a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She migrated to Australia from Japan in 1982. Her picture books are widely read by schoolchildren throughout the world and include the autobiographical My Hiroshima.
“My life was quite peaceful before the atomic bombing. I was living happily. I enjoyed day-to-day life, doing things like learning to dance and playing with my friends. At the time, I believed my life would continue like this forever. I was 13 years old. While talking to my sister, I heard a loud boom! and we were surrounded by an incredible light and heatwave. In the moments soon after, we were hit with an earth-shattering roar. It got really, really dark as if day had suddenly turned into night. We were in a pile of rubble that had once been our home. Surrounded by screams, it was as if I were in hell. There was a child screaming, trying to wake her dead mother.”
ICAN’s Black Mist publication (also in Japanese) presents the testimonies of remarkable Australians whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the bomb, and who have fought courageously to free our world from this ultimate menace.