A mushroom cloud forms at Maralinga, South Australia.
Image captionA British nuclear test at Maralinga, in the South Australian outback

Indigenous Australians who were exposed to radiation from British nuclear tests will receive upgraded healthcare, the Australian government has announced.

From 1952 to 1963, Britain detonated bombs at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia, and the Montebello Islands off Western Australia.

Although the sites were remote, many Aboriginal people were forced to move.

Those who remained were exposed to high levels of radiation, which was later linked to significant health problems.

They will now be eligible for a war veterans’ Gold Card, which covers most medical costs, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said.

“The measure will provide Gold Cards to indigenous people present at or near Maralinga, Emu Field or the Montebello Islands at the time of the British nuclear tests in the 1950s or 1960s,” he said.

Image captionSoldiers turn their their backs on a nuclear test at Maralinga

It follows a royal commission – Australia’s highest form of inquiry – in the 1980s, and decades of campaigning by survivors and advocates.

The nuclear tests were conducted with support from the Australian government.

The new healthcare subsidy will form part of a A$133m ( £76m, $98m) investment in Australia’s federal budget, which will be unveiled on Tuesday.

  • Lingering impact of British nuclear tests in the Australian outback

    • 31 December 2014
    A sign marking the explosion stands in the test site
    Image captionA concrete marker stands on the exact spot where the atomic bombs were dropped

    It seems remarkable today but less than 60 years ago, Britain was exploding nuclear bombs in the middle of Australia.

    In the mid-1950s, seven bombs were tested at Maralinga in the south-west Australian outback.

    The combined force of the weapons doubled that of the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War Two.

    In archive video footage, British and Australian soldiers can be seen looking on, wearing short sleeves and shorts and doing little to protect themselves other than turning their backs and covering their eyes with their hands.

    Some reported the flashes of the blasts being so bright that they could see the bones of their fingers, like x-rays as they pressed against their faces.

    A drifting mushroom cloud hangs over the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia, after Britain's first atomic bomb is testedImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Image captionA cloud hangs over Australia’s Monte Bello Islands after Britain tested its first atomic bomb

    Much has been written about the health problems suffered by the servicemen as a result of radiation poisoning.

    Far less well-documented is the plight of the Aboriginal people who were living close to Maralinga at the time.

    ‘It was like a cancer’

    “Every night I cry for them,” Hilary Williams tells me as she sits around a campfire for an impromptu picnic of kangaroo tails laid on for our visit.

    Her mother and grandparents all witnessed at least one of the explosions from just a few kilometres away.

    Ms Williams said all three of them died young after suffering lung problems.

    “It’s so sad. They’re not here anymore,” she said, adding that she had heart problems she believes were also linked to the bombs.

    Unions NT representatives at Muckaty Station turnoffImage copyrightBEYOND NUCLEAR INITIATIVE
    Image captionIn June, Australia dropped plans for its first nuclear waste dump on Aborigine land
    Hilary Williams and Mima Smart
    Image captionLocals like Hilary Williams (left) and Mima Smart shared their fears about the area’s dark nuclear history

    Locals around Maralinga spoke about a black mist of radioactive dust over their communities following the explosions.

    “A lot of people got sick and died,” said Mima Smart, an aboriginal community leader.

    “It was like a cancer on them. People were having lung disease, liver problems, and kidney problems. A lot of them died,” she said, adding that communities around Maralinga have been paid little by way of compensation.

    Robin Matthews, caretaker of the Maralinga Nuclear Test Site, stands beside a sign
    Image captionCaretaker Robin Matthews stands at the entrance of the Maralinga nuclear site
    Aerial view of the Torrens river and Adelaide city centre in Australia
    Image captionAdelaide, the nearest city to Maralinga, is a 10-hour drive away

    ‘Not in our backyard’

    Maralinga was chosen for its remoteness.

    It’s a ten hour drive to the nearest big city, Adelaide. But people here say that the Australian government was wrong to let the tests go ahead and that Britain acted irresponsibly.

    “They didn’t want to do it in their own back yard because their back yard wasn’t big enough,” said Robin Matthews, caretaker of the Maralinga Nuclear Test Site.

    “They thought they’d pick a supposedly uninhabited spot out in the Australian desert. Only they got it wrong. There were people here.”

    During the 1960s and 70s, there were several large clean-up operations to try and decontaminate the site.

    All the test buildings and equipment were destroyed and buried. Large areas of the surface around the blast sites was also scraped up and buried.

    But Mr Matthews said the clean-up, as well as the tests themselves, were done very much behind closed doors with a high level of secrecy.

    “You’ve got to remember that this was during the height of the Cold War. The British were terrified that Russian spies might try and access the site,” he said.

    The indigenous communities say many locals involved in the clean-up operation also got sick.

    Dry earth
    Image captionSoil at the nuclear site grow so hot from the blast that it melted and turned to silicon

    ‘Sick land’

    Maralinga has long been declared safe. There are even plans to open up the site to tourism.

    But it was only a few months ago that the last of the land was finally handed back to the Aboriginal people. Most, though, say they have no desire to return there.

    Mima Smart told me she regards Maralinga as sick land.

    “I don’t want to go back. Too many bad memories.”

    And even almost 60 years on, the land still hasn’t recovered. Huge concrete plinths mark the spots where each of the bombs was detonated.

    Around each, the blast area would have stretched for several kilometres.

    The orangey red soil of the outback sparkles strangely green.

    Maralinga Nuclear Test Site Caretaker Robin Matthews
    Image captionRobin Matthews: “Even the birds and the kangaroos still stay clear of this area”
    Sunrise over Maralinga
    Image captionCould Maralinga be one of the darkest chapters in British Australian history?

    If you look closely, you can see the ground is covered with what looks like broken glass, where the soil got so hot it literally melted and turned to silicon.

    And even after all this time, the natural vegetation still won’t grow back.

    “The grass here only ever grows a few inches,” said Mr Matthews. “Even the birds and the kangaroos still stay clear of this area.”

    More than half a century on, most people here still regard Maralinga as a dark chapter in British Australian history

    How a child’s exhumation has distressed Aboriginal elders

    The Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara area, in South Australia's remote northImage copyrightABC/AUSTRALIAN STORY/KENT GORDON
    Image captionThe Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara area, in South Australia’s remote north

    The removal of a child’s remains from a cave in South Australia has prompted calls for an inquest, and government efforts to atone for culturally insensitive actions, reports Trevor Marshallsea.

    Long ago, according to a famous Aboriginal legend, a maku – the white moth larva also known as the witchetty grub – made its way across the remote South Australian outback, carving what’s now known as the Everard Ranges in its wake.

    In the 1950s and ’60s the British government, under agreement with Australia, exploded nine nuclear bombs near the region, as it developed its Cold War arsenal instituted under Winston Churchill. Two bombs were tested at Emu Field, just 180km (112 miles) across the flat, barren landscape from the Everards.

    At some point during those controversial 11 years of atomic testing, an indigenous couple of the area and their young daughter took ill. Present day tribal elders believe this was due to radiation. They were of the so-called Spinifex People, who roamed over hundreds of kilometres in a nomadic existence in the outback.

    The child died and her remains were interred in the customary manner for children, wrapped in hair and selected vegetation and placed in a high-up wall cavity in a cave. The parents soon also died, elsewhere in the region.

    A decade later, relatives looked for the child’s grave site, but with only scant details passed down from her parents, they were unsuccessful.

    For some 60 years the bones lay untouched – until last November.


    New land management staff on a routine inspection in the Sandy Bore Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) found the skeleton of the girl, thought to have been between three and six. Though indigenous people were present, they were not traditional owners of the area, and knew nothing of the girl’s interment six decades earlier, and so police from the nearby town of Mimili were informed of the find. Also informed was a senior Aboriginal elder of the region, Rex Tjami.

    Mr Tjami is director of administration in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) area. He also happens to be one of the relatives of the deceased family who searched fruitlessly for the girl’s remains in the Everards that day, saying he looked to the north of the maku’s trail, when the burial site was to the south.

    When Mr Tjami went to the cave, which is deemed a sacred site, some three weeks after being informed, he was horrified to find the bones had been removed.

    Mimili police had informed detectives in the state capital Adelaide, 1,400km to the south. A forensic pathologist and a forensic anthropologist had visited the site. The pathologist formed the view the bones might have been laid to rest within the past 10 years, and might even not be indigenous. As a result, he gained permission from the state coroner to take the bones and burial effects back to Adelaide for further examination.

    That might sound like routine police work, but it has raised a huge storm of cultural controversy and calls for an official inquiry, having inflamed indigenous sensitivities on the issue of how Aboriginal Australians bury their dead.

    Grey line
    Grey line

    “Our elders are very upset,” Mr Tjami told the BBC. “Our culture has some special ways when it comes to burials. Babies and children are buried in a very special way. This was very disrespectful.”

    Mr Tjami is incensed he was not consulted before the bones were removed. Not only were they in an IPA, he could have told the pathologist about the deceased parents and the child.

    He said the removal of the bones was akin to “coming into someone’s backyard” and taking something away. The APY strongly believe that the dead should be left in peace, so that their spirit is undisturbed. While that’s similar to many cultures, indigenous Australians also have a strong connection to the land they are from, with a deep belief they must return to it when they die.

    “A lot of people are very upset, especially the women. They want this child to ‘come home’,” said Rosanne McInnes, a barrister and former magistrate representing the APY. “What they say is that ‘the mother is crying and calling for the child’. The women also regard this child as one of their own.”

    Ms McInnes is putting the case for a coronial inquest into why the remains were removed without proper processes respectful of the indigenous community. The case includes a sworn affidavit from Mr Tjami detailing his recollections about the deceased parents and child, including that they “came from the area where there was nuclear testing”.

    A concrete tablet marks a spot where nuclear testing took place in South Australia
    Image captionA concrete tablet marks a spot where nuclear testing took place in South Australia

    “We want protection for our heritage … not people from Adelaide digging up old graves and taking away the bodies of our people without telling us,” Mr Tjami says in his affidavit.

    Ms McInnes is also petitioning the federal government to enshrine tighter protection for the APY area. She says this is needed as some “younger people” in the poverty-stricken region, in the far north of the state, have suggested making the burial site a tourist attraction, since the case has made headlines across Australia.

    The episode again raises the issue of the battle to have Aboriginal remains returned to their place of origin, which continues to be fought internationally. Since 1990, the remains of 1,150 indigenous Australians have been returned to their homelands from abroad. But campaigners say 1,000 more are still held in museums around the world, mostly in the UK, Germany, France and the USA, and should be returned home for a proper burial.

    Ms McInnes said still more remained in Australian museums and warehouses.

    “They were found by road crews and railway crews and so forth and taken away and they’re still sitting in warehouses somewhere in the cities,” she told the BBC. “The indigenous people want to get their people back home, but how? They can’t afford it.”

    Coroner orders report

    The case of the Sandy Bore girl has at least prompted a swift response from authorities.

    Coroner Mark Johns has ordered a comprehensive report from police, which will likely determine if an inquest will be held. He told the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper he had asked for details on how the discovery was made and how the remains were removed, to see if “things should have been done differently”.

    He had also asked for a report on why the pathologist and anthropologist had formed the view the remains might not be historic.

    Ngarrindjeri elder Major Sumner calls for remains to be returned from Britain to Australia in 2003Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Image captionNgarrindjeri elder Major Sumner calls for remains to be returned from Britain to Australia in 2003

    The South Australian government has expressed its regret over what’s been called another indignity for a child assumed to have been killed by radiation sickness. State Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher has also called on the coroner to review policies about the removal of bones from sacred burial sites for examination “to avoid any future incident that may cause this type of distress”.

    While the coroner still awaits his report from police, he has ordered the remains to be released and returned to the cave within two weeks. Mr Maher said the government would cover the costs of reburying the remains, including a proper Aboriginal funeral.

    Britain detonated nine nuclear devices in the region between 1952 and 1963, seven in the Maralinga area and two in nearby Emu Field. Indigenous people plus UK servicemen, Australian soldiers and civilians were exposed to radiation, with various illnesses resulting. The site, of some 1,800 sq km, was officially closed to human habitation in 1967, but handed back between 2009 and 2014 after clean-up operations.

    In 1994, the Maralinga-Tjarutja people were paid A$13.5m (£8.2m; $10.3m) in compensation under a deal between Australia and Britain after a 1985 Royal Commission into the nuclear tests.