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Jessie Boylan: Maralinga 60 Years On
by Jessie Boylan – July 2012
It is the nature of bombs to be indiscriminate
- Howard Zinn, quoted in Elin o’Hara Slavick (2007) Bomb After Bomb
Australia’s atomic testing ground
We arrive at Maralinga late afternoon on the 9th of November 2011. It’s nearly a full moon; sort of eerie, just strange mostly. Using the old phone box at the gate, we call the caretaker Robin and his partner Della who eventually come down and let us in through the gates. We follow his truck along the old Maralinga road, turn left at the junction < Village – Forward Area > and into the remnants of the Maralinga village, once host to over 10,000 servicemen over eleven years.
Travelling to Maralinga for the first time after hearing so much about the effects the British nuclear blasts had on Indigenous people and Australian and British personnel, I didn’t really know what to expect. I think I imagined I would find some sort of overwhelming obvious physical evidence of the blasts, but what finally appeared for me was a space full of so much remnant history and memory.
Between 1952 and 1963, the British government tested twelve atomic bombs and hundreds of smaller ‘minor trials’ at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia and on Monte Bello Island, off the Coast of Western Australia. The reason for this is that after the end of WWII, Britain, Australia’s ‘mother country’, was losing power and was eager to become part of the global nuclear arms race. Australia of course complied readily, with the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies pushing it through without even consulting the cabinet.
I walk up on top of the old swimming pool, now one of the many pits scattered around the Maralinga village. You can see from here, just west, I think, west, just through the Mallee scrub. “This is not nowhere,” Dave, didn’t you say that – was it about Jabiluka? Could have been, or was it for the proposed nuclear waste dump? I think so, you said, “this…this is not nowhere, this is not no one…” It sure is faraway, but so is England, don’t you think? I make a phone call to my partner. You see, I’m addicted to her knowing my geographical and psychological space in this world.
“Babe, this place is weird,” I said, “I’m standing on an old swimming pool, that is now used for waste, of all kinds, but I don’t think it’s radioactive anymore.” We did use a Geiger counter on it later to confirm that it wasn’t. I was worried though, about the contamination; I think a part of me grew up a bit more over the past couple of years, grew up to worry about my health, whereas maybe before this point in my life I wouldn’t have worried too much. Something about being in a relationship that I wanna be around for, you know, for my future kids and all that.
So with this worry deep inside of me, the wind blows stronger and stronger – making sure any particle of radioactive dust can firmly lodge itself in my bone marrow – but I gotta stop thinking like this.
I travelled to Maralinga with Australian nuclear veteran Avon Hudson and Mick Broderick from Murdoch University, who are both hugely influential and important to my understanding and vision of the events that took place there; and ways to undertake a project about Maralinga.
Avon’s name is synonymous with Maralinga. He worked there during the bomb tests and, from the 1970s onwards, has done more than anyone to lift the lid on the scandals that took place. His reward has been forty years of abuse. Mick is an academic whose research interests include ‘Nuclearism and Apocalypse as a Cultural Phenomenon’.
We’d waited for six months to get permission to enter the Maralinga-Tjarutja lands, in particular the Maralinga village and testing sites. The village and surrounding sites were handed back to the Maralinga-Tjarutja people in 2009, though many areas remain radioactive. The ‘clean up’ in the late 1990s − the fourth but probably not the last − was sharply criticised by scientists-turned-whistleblowers.
There are only two people living in the Maralinga village: caretaker couple Robin and Della. They’d been there for about five years already and didn’t seem in a rush to leave either. They live in the old hospital; a really big tin shed, with showers for visitors, a laundry, a kitchen, a lounge room, air conditioning, tea, sugar, coffee. With memorabilia on the walls, photographs of each of the blasts, one, two, three, four… and photographs of the craters they made in the earth.
We’d sleep in a donga tonight, but tomorrow would have to set up camp to make way for other veterans who were arriving for an 11.11.11 ceremony. Avon said it was the last time he was ever going to visit Maralinga, and I felt lucky to have the opportunity to hear about it from his perspective. We’d driven across from Adelaide the day before, and set up camp next to an old railway somewhere between here and there, which is 900 or so kilometers.
Over the drive, we spoke about everything from Communism to the space project. He told us about how the Russians defeated the Germans in WWII with their cunning, wit and foresight, their capacity to build a thousand tanks and march with Stalin through Red Square, the others thinking the Germans were coming. No, really, they beat them down, he said - but we in the west choose to rewrite our history and choose to believe what suits us best.
We hide our own atrocities, here, on Australian soils; he’s talking about Woomera, Maralinga, Emu Field. He’s talking of those who flew Lincolns through the fallout only to loose their voices, throats, later. So we looked up and watched a satellite pass overhead, out there under the stars. Being November, the night was warm, but the wind, you know, it was strong, blowing its 60thousandth blow.
We drove on, through Ooldea, the place the old ladies and men talk about. It was a soak once, where many would come from far away far away to drink water and rest a while. It became a train stop, a place of supplies for Maralinga, and on to Watson, closer to the village, but far enough away.
A willy willy whirlwind kicks up dust in front of us and scurries off into the desert scrubland. Avon’s driving us towards the place that changed his life forever, he’s driving and reminiscing about the old road ahead, how many times he travelled along it…
I don’t know if I was really even listening on the way there, just trying to picture what was ahead, just trying to picture a picture I might make.
The first day we wake up here, in the donga, the sun is already sharp by 8 o’clock. I missed this morning for taking photographs, I thought. Walking around the village, the old dongas where the servicemen were once stationed, we meet another veteran who had come here in 1953 flying planes as a “Bristol Firefighter,” flying over the test zones in search of helicopters that had gone missing in the scrub.
The whole reason we were able to come to Maralinga this time was because a group of veterans were organizing a reunion for Remembrance Day in the village, and they had invited Avon, who had then invited me. The veterans came from all over the country to catch up and share stories. Most veterans have long since died however; the fact that many died as a result of their work on the nuclear blasts is the subject of endless controversy. A scientific study found clear evidence of an increased cancer rate among veterans. But for governments and nuclear apologists, science is overrated. They said it was coincidental; “they all smoked back then…”
I chatted with some vets who told me they weren’t impacted physically or psychologically from being a part of the tests, and that they had a pretty simple job of going to Watson (the closest rail-stop) and collecting supplies to bring back to the village. These veterans remember the benefits of living out at Maralinga: the cricket pitch, the football field, the swimming pool, the tennis court, cinema, bar and mess hall. However, as they know, the story is not the same for everyone.
A survey conducted back in 1985 had claimed that of the 12,500 people who were involved in the tests project, around 10,000 had died. By 2009 another 500 had died. Cancers related to radiation, like leukemia and thyroid cancer are what many of the veterans suffered or suffer from.
Home to the troops
We set about exploring the village areas, waiting another day to visit the Forward Area because the ground zero sites were prohibited unless accompanied by the caretaker.
Avon took us to the airfield, next to which is one of the many waste pits where there is still plutonium and cobalt60 buried; a place that Avon had blown the whistle about in the late 70s. To this day Avon wonders whether his whistle blowing changed anything at all around the issues at Maralinga. I want to tell him yes, of course, so many people know about that place and all that happened there because of you, but as to what’s changed politically, or on a larger social scale, I don’t know. The Labor Government is still pushing for the expansion of uranium mining at Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia to be the largest open-pit mine in the world; they have approved a new uranium mine in South Australia as well as hundreds of uranium exploration leases across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia. They approved the export of uranium to India, a country that has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. They are still trying to impose a national radioactive waste dump on traditional lands without traditional custodian agreement, and they continue to support nuclear power (in other countries) even after events such as what happened at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. So, I don’t know, not much I suppose.
On the morning of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year, members of the Oak Valley Aboriginal community arrived to participate in the Remembrance Day ceremony. Oak Valley is a community that was set up in 1985 for Anangu people who were displaced during the Maralinga nuclear tests; it lies about 100km north-west of the Maralinga Village (516kms NW of Ceduna).
After the ceremony we were privileged enough to sit down with some of the old ladies from Oak Valley Community, Margaret May and Aida Hart, and also Leena Taylor from Ceduna. They talk about their memories of being removed from Ooldea soak during the nuclear blasts and taken to Yalata Mission.
“We heard the sounds: one, two, three…” they say, referring to the first bombs at Emu Field, including the blast that blinded Yami Lester at the age of 10 at Walatinna Station, where he still lives today. ”People could feel it as far away as Yalata.”
They say they knew that something bad was happening because of all the whitefellas and trucks around.
Leena questions whether it’s really that safe for communities to live around here and go hunting; she prompts the government to explain. All around the forward area sites, as we see later, there are signs up that say “kuka palya, ngura wiya” –”the food is ok [to hunt/eat], no camping”.
Even after the hand-back of land to the Maralinga Tjarutja people, the area still isn’t being used. People think the land is poisoned and don’t want to be there. The land is still poisoned − that much we know from the scientists-turned-whistleblowers, and from Avon’s first-hand knowledge of the place. The Howard Government claimed the latest ‘clean up’ was ‘world’s best practice’. The Menzies Government claimed the bomb tests posed no risk to man nor beast. Governments lie. Then and now, paid hack scientists and so-called regulators parrot government lies; it’s just easier that way.
Avon reminisces: “The countdown was on … and then it went bang, and they had to have the wind blowing the right way, blowin’ it away from where we were working, they didn’t want to contaminate all the area, they’d have to abandon it otherwise.”
“The area became highly toxic as well as highly radioactive, but no-one ever told us. The scientists knew, but no-one told us Australians, and some of the English personnel that worked alongside us.”
On day three we visit the Forward Area, to see ground zero of some of the seven Maralinga nuclear blast sites, named One Tree, Marcoo, Kite, Breakaway, Tadje, Biak, and Taranaki.
Avon speaks a lot about Taranaki; he was ordered to work here not long after a blast had taken place. Some military personnel were ordered to roll around in ground zero dust shortly after nuclear blasts. The British later claimed they were testing the effects of radiation on clothing. This place was also used for so-called ‘minor trials’ or ‘safety tests ‘ which left a greater legacy of local contamination than the atomic tests which spread their pollution across Australia and beyond.
A plinth sits in every space where a bomb was exploded:
RADIATION LEVELS FOR A FEW HUNDRED METRES AROUND THIS POINT MAY BE ABOVE THOSE CONSIDERED SAFE FOR PERMANENT OCCUPATION
And on the other side (depending on the bomb):
A BRITISH ATOMIC WEAPON WAS TEST EXPLODED HERE ON 9 OCT 1957
Lunch is prepared for the veterans in the shelter of a large shed. The shed was the site for trucks to get washed down after the latest clean up attempt at Maralinga. It isn’t the place to be preparing and eating food.
Avon talks as we walk down and around the plinth. I can’t imagine what he’s thinking, to look back fifty years and see yourself as a young man, participating in a dark episode of Empire history. He feels betrayed. He was betrayed. Talking is cathartic for Avon; it releases a little anger and frustration, if only momentarily.
“Oh well, there are a lot of mixed emotions you know,” He says referring to how it feels coming back to Maralinga, “a lot of memories of the past, there are a lot of people who weren’t so lucky as I am, that died young, and died very serious, terrible deaths from radiation induced illnesses, ranging from cancer and leukemia and many other diseases that the government don’t recognize were caused by radiation. There’s not a lot we can do, I’ve fought them now since 1972 to get proper recognition and proper benefits through the Veterans Affairs and the government is still reneging, so they’re a bit cruel and hard-hearted and a bit nasty with it… it looks like we’re going to end up getting virtually nothing.”
Later that day I shower and I really imagine that I’m washing the dirt from those sites off my body, or out of my body, not least because of the idea of radioactive particles, but also because of the feeling of dirt, dirty history, dirty actions and dirty memories, standing here on the land that was occupied by so many who thought they were doing something amazing, but who really had no clue, or who really didn’t care what it really was for.
I watch the dirt wash down the drain of the shower in the old hospital and still can’t imagine how to show this place to others. What in my photographs will speak of this place and its histories? Of how these tests affected, and continue to affect so many lives in Australia and Britain, of how this is such a dark part of our already dark history and we’d rather believe it isn’t; or how so many people might not even have known that this happened here.
The last evening we spend at Maralinga the sky is purple and pink after a big rain that helped wash the dust away. I wander around the empty concrete slabs where buildings used to be, I listen to the birds chirping madly, living freely out here (just recently, swallow droppings around the Sellafield nuclear site in northern England have been found to be radioactive − apparently their mistake is eating radioactive mosquitoes). It gets dark and I head back to the dongas. Avon is there chatting away to Mick, I make a cup of tea on our camp stove and we make a toast to getting the hell out of here.
JESSIE BOYLAN was born 1986 in Sydney, Australia. She is a photomedia artist based in Melbourne, Australia and is currently doing her MFA in Photomedia at Monash University.
Jessie’s work looks at contemporary Australian cultural identity through personal interpretations of British-Australian colonial legacies. She focuses the ongoing impacts of mineral exploitation, displacement, conflict, trauma and violence; and is currently attempting to make work about the ongoing legacy of the nuclear age in Australia. She has exhibited in several solo and group shows in Australia and internationally. Jessie was a finalist in the Spirit of Youth Awards, 2009, the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award, 2007 & 2009, the Head On Alternative Portrait Awards, 2009 & 2010, and the Friends of the Earth International Photography Competition, 2009.
Jessie also produces a weekly half hour radio segment for 3CR 855am called ‘The Radioactive Show‘ – which covers nuclear issues in Australia and Internationally. Jessie is a member of the Atomic Photographers Guild which is made up of 26 members world-wide, who aim to render visible all aspects of the nuclear age. Jessie does multimedia work for the Mineral Policy Institute, who investigate the social and environmental impacts of mining in Australia and the Pacific. Jessie is currently represented by Obscura Photos.