Seventy years on, Indigenous victims of UK’s nuclear tests in South Australia still await justice

First the earth shook, then came the roar of an explosion and, finally, the poisonous 'black mist'.

First the earth shook, then came the roar of an explosion and, finally, the poisonous 'black mist'. Photo: AEON

Seventy years ago Yami Lester was playing outside with his friends at Wallatinna Station in remote South Australia when the ground shook beneath their little feet.

Then a strange black mist quietly rolled in.

On that day, October 15, 1953, the British government conducted its first nuclear test on the Australian mainland, at Emu Field, 170km from Wallatinna.

Mr Lester, a Yankunytjatjara man, was blinded by the fallout.

Before he died in 2017, he shared his memories of the explosion with ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons.

“It wasn’t long after that a black smoke came through, a strange black smoke, it was shiny and oily,” he said.

“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.”

Between 1952 and 1963, the British government, with the active participation of the Australian government, conducted 12 major nuclear test explosions and up to 600 ‘minor’ trials in remote South Australia and off the coast of Western Australia.

The ‘minor trials’ dispersed 24.4 kg of plutonium in 50,000 fragments, 101kg of beryllium and 8 tonnes of uranium.

Radioactive contamination from the tests was detected across much of the continent. For decades the authorities denied, ignored and covered up the consequences.

Legacy of trauma

Australia held a royal commission into the tests, which handed down its final report in 1985. In the UK, former service personnel are still fighting with the government for access to records.
Karina Lester says little was done to protect Aboriginal communities during nuclear tests, the ones at Emu Field were known as Totem 1 and Totem 2.

Little was done to protect the 16,000-or-so test-site workers, and even less to protect nearby Aboriginal communities, as Karina Lester, Yami’s daughter, explained.

“The country is still wearing the scars and the people are still wearing those scars as well,” Ms Lester told AAP.

“One of the things I’ve been concerned about as a second generation survivor is that there has been no clean-up at Emu Field in 70 years, so we still don’t know if it’s safe for us to hunt and gather and collect food on or to even visit.

“And so it’s a difficult time for the family but also a time for us to remember and remind our fellow Australians of exactly what happened 70 years ago at Totem 1 and Totem 2 at Emu Field.”

Ms Lester said it was poignant that the referendum on a First Nations voice was the day before the anniversary.

“This is a big part of our truth telling, that’s the story of what happened to Anangu (people) in our traditional lands,” she said.

“The whole of Australia needs to know that our country was contaminated but also our people were damaged as well and the generations that follow are still impacted.”

Masks, protective gear and warning signs protected test-program workers, but nobody gave a thought to Indigenous communities. Photo: Museum of Australia

Associate Professor Elizabeth Tynan, who has written books on the British atomic testing program, says the UK, under Winston Churchill, undertook Operation Totem at Emu Field under cover of extreme remoteness and secrecy, a ‘shroud of mystery’ that continues to this day.

Writing in The Conversation, Assoc Prof Tynan described the Emu Field tests as an “uncontrolled experiment on human populations unleashing a particularly mysterious and dangerous phenomenon – known as ‘black mist'”.

“Operation Totem involved two mushroom cloud tests, held 12 days apart, which sought to compare the differences in performance between varying proportions of isotopes of plutonium,” she said.

“The tests were not safe, despite assurances given at the time.

“The black mist directly harmed Aṉangu people. Because no data was collected at the time, it is impossible to quantify precisely, however, the anecdotal evidence suggests death and sickness occured.”

Survivors, including Yami Lester, gathered at Wallatinna and Marla Bore in 1985 and testified to the Royal Commission into the British Atomic Tests in Australia.

‘Out of mind, out of sight’

“The Australian Government certainly didn’t make it clear that it was Anangu land and that Anangu were still living their lives using those lands,” Ms Lester said.

“Governments of the day, both British and Australian, thought it was a perfect location away from highly populated areas such as the east coast, that’s out of mind, out of sight and plenty of country.

“‘Let’s come and test at Emu Field and let’s release two atom bombs and see the damage that these two weapons can do on country’ and that’s exactly what they did without even putting into consideration that people may still be living in those areas.”

Ms Lester is an ICAN ambassador, dedicated to sharing the stories of the harms nuclear weapons caused her family and people and working towards a ban.

“We still need to talk about environmental remediation and victim assistance as well as a coordinated approach and with First Nations peoples who have been impacted by these tests, whether at Emu or at Maralinga,” she said.

“We need to be pushing the Australian government to sign the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.”

Ms Lester said First Nations people need to be involved in any decisions made by policy-makers regarding remediation of their country.

“It’s 70 years since Dad and his people right here at Wallatinna felt the ground shake and the black mist roll over this community where I’m sitting,”  she said.

“We want to be part of the solution as we go forward to make our environment safe.”


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