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Bob Ellis and the other nuclear royal commission



The passing of Bob Ellis recalls his faithful accompanying of the 1984–1985 royal commission into the British nuclear tests conducted in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. He went 'to England and back' and, as he described it, 'to each black polis' of the royal commission hearings.

Edie MilpudieEllis' article on the Wallatina hearings (The National Times, 3–9 May 1985), described what he named as the commission's 'worst story of all' — Edie Milpudie's telling of herself and her family camping, in May 1957, on the Marcoo bomb crater.

She told of being 'captured by men in white uniforms ... forcibly and obscenely washed down, miscarrying twice and losing her husband who to prove to the soldiers he knew English, sang, "Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so."

'And how the soldiers shot their beloved irradiated dogs.'

'The bad parts of the story,' Ellis went on, 'the miscarriage and afterward, were communicated to Jim (Commissioner McClelland) in secret session, in the distance in the bush, with Edie's women friends giving her comfort, and prompting with giggles and nudges her reminiscence of a story they knew by heart, already an old legend.

'Jim called these women the best in the world, unstinting comforters, inextinguishable friends ... '

Five years later I had the privilege myself of meeting Edie Milpudie at her Oak Valley camp in the SA Maralinga lands. Many of the Yalata elders had prepared me in a way with the constant mantra: 'Milpudie — she went through the bomb.'

Re-reading the Ellis article the night before, I was surprised to find tears stinging my eyes. It's so good, I realised, when truth is recognised and held up for our freedom — in the recognition of the 'upsidedown-ness' of our lives and history. 'What has been hidden will be made known and shouted from the housetops.' 'The truth will set you free.'


"She told of being captured by men in white uniforms, forcibly and obscenely washed down, miscarrying twice ... And how the soldiers shot their beloved irradiated dogs."


At our meeting, nothing much happened. But after that personal encounter Edie's story became even more real to me. I knew her family in the following years and so am a witness, however many times removed, to the sufferings and terrible ill health which has afflicted them throughout the generations.

In July 2004, a six-year anti-nuclear campaign spearheaded by Aboriginal women, who themselves had suffered in the British nuclear tests, was successfully concluded with the federal government's announcement: 'No national radioactive dump for SA.'

But who could have imagined that just 11 years later, a new and far more dangerous plan would be launched by another royal commission, perhaps the first royal commission to plan a future scheme rather than examine one past.

Since this royal commission's 'tentative findings' in February for South Australia to import international high-level nuclear waste, which it actually names as radioactive for 'many hundreds of thousands of years', the scepticism among South Australians is growing.

Economists Richard Denniss, chief economist of the Australia Institute, and Professor Richard Blandy, of University of South Australia, point out that the economics quoted in the tentative findings are simply conjectures. Dr Jim Green, noting the commission's 'industry advocacy', points out that the projected 600 permanent jobs would increase the present number of employed Australians by just 0.005 per cent.

Key environmental groups point out that the commission fails to admit 'that there is a consensus or near consensus among qualified scientists that there is no threshold below which radiation is harmless'.

Only after the commission has finished in May will the process for finalising a site begin. As the Josephite national media release last month warned: 'Josephites fear that the proposed sites for the storage of this high-level waste are likely to be on Aboriginal lands.

'These are some of the most vulnerable and sacred lands in Australia, and the proposal is clearly in direct conflict with the interests of many Indigenous communities.' 

Nor are good manners during negotiations the answer. As the Josephite SA Reconciliation Circle Response to RC Tentative Findings points out, 'No amount of cultural protocol in negotiations as outlined in these detailed findings ... will have meaning when the aim is to undercut the very basis of culture: protection of land and kin including every future generation.'

The southern Pitjantjatjara were removed to Yalata in 1952 to make way for the nuclear tests.

The position of the Yalata leaders themselves was made clear, in a statement from Mima Smart, former longterm chairperson, and Russell Bryant, present chairperson of Yalata Community Inc:

'We are determined not to have this poison — this radioactive waste. We said "No" last year and we say "No" now. A lot of people died from that poison. We want to keep the young generations. Think about it! Not only white people live in Australia.'

Let's hope that there is no shortage of those who, like Ellis, will recognise the truth of this, and hold it up for all to see. 


Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Edie Milpudie photo by Michele Madigan. Published with permission of the family.

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, South Australia, nuclear waste, Bob Ellis, Edie Milpudie



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Existing comments

Keep up the struggle with these precious people for this precious land Michelle. Thank you for this article.

Anne Lanyon | 08 April 2016  

To hear this truth from one who has walked for so long with these people in the direct path of such careless experimentation, gives me hope that there will be no dumping of nuclear waste on this people"s land again.

Patricia Adams RSM | 08 April 2016  

Thank you for this moving article - makes me wonder; how would it be if every project undertaken in the name of government WELCOMES a group of Indigenous caretakers to give their view on the future of a project?

Liellie McLaughlin | 08 April 2016  

Thank you so much for this significant and important story Sister Michele. I'm wondering whether you still have a copy of the Bob Ellis story, and would love to catch up with you if you live in Adelaide these days, because I'm currently researching this very topic. In fact I knew a Sister Michele living in remote Western Australia many years ago (in the 1980s) when I was the Principal of an Aboriginal school in the Territory, although that short cv provided doesn't include W.A.The following link will provide you with some background about me: http://theconversation.com/dreamtime-and-the-dreaming-an- introduction-20833 Thank you again for an excellent - and globally significant - article. Yours sincerely,

Christine Judith Nicholls | 08 April 2016  


Peter Goers | 08 April 2016  

"To find tears stinging my eyes......when truth is recognized and held up for our freedom." Michelle ,blessings to you and those other beacons of light in our country, who do hold up the truth with fact and personal endeavor.. In the face of the lack of transparency and just plain common decency and fairness to all peoples of this country , not to mention to those seeking asylum here, it motivates and invigorates us when we hear the truth . Thank you . The age of the ping pong ball is very much with us as we deliberate about ways to increase individual and corporate wealth but overlook how to bring justice to the poor and, marginalized . Let's hope no more white man poison affects our indigenous brothers and sisters.

Celia | 08 April 2016  

Thank you Michele for this most enlightening article. As I wrote 'enlightening', I thought of "The Enlightenment", that so-called wondrous event which was going to make everything as plain as day, and save us all from the barbarity of the darkened mind. Will we find 'enlightenment' in any government report, or dare I say, any IPA paper about this? (See Elizabeth Farrelly's article in the Herald yesterday.) No, official papers about this and the rest of the assaults on our Aboriginal people, on our complicity concerning the Timorese people and the West Papuans, are best described in René Girard's words as 'texts of persecution'. They always exonerate those responsible for the suffering of the scapegoats, the victims of our dark-minded greed masquerading as 'national interest'. Keep up the great work, Michele et al.

Susan Connelly | 08 April 2016  

South Australian law is very clear about the illegality of spending public money on promoting activities involving nuclear waste. Scarce is in clear breach of s.13 of the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000. This is the clause that prevents public money being used to “encourage or finance any activity associated with the construction or operation of a nuclear waste storage facility in this State”. Stop the farce - dump Scarce. https://www.facebook.com/DumpKevinScarce/

Brett Stokes | 08 April 2016  

I just hope they can find a place to put it. It is poisonous, of course, but so is petrol. So are many things that we use, with appropriate safeguards. I think those ladies are misguided, but there's no way anyone will turn that around. We just can't store it in their country. I just hope the scientists and the authorities can find a place to put it.

Gavan | 08 April 2016  

Thank you Michelle for this illuminating article. I read this just after listening to an ABC FM radio interview with Bob Ellis recorded in 2002. Compelling listening. He would appreciate being commemorated in this way through your important article.

Denis Quinn | 08 April 2016  

We should not be importing another country's nuclear waste. If they can't manage the problem themselves then they should admit that there is a major problem with nuclear energy.

John Paterson | 08 April 2016  

Thank you Michelle. Pointing out a clear example of economic greed on the part of government apologists who bear no risk of exposure, figuratively or in proximity, to the abuse of others less able to object to the proposal, seems so typical of hypocrisy in the body politic in this country where, "not in my backyard but next door is Ok" seems to be the acceptable rational answer. White fellas need to get over this obsessive buck passing onto the black fellas of this country of all the 'too hard' solutions to white fellas problems.

Brian Larsson | 08 April 2016  

Thank you again Michele for all your work.All l can think is how spiritual are the many aboriginal cultures around this beautiful land, and how sad it is that we have trashed it so quickly, we need help to look after our mother .

Eve Anderson | 09 April 2016  

Palya. Thank you for the well written article, Michele. There are not many journalists who are supported to write the truth in the media industry.

Congratulations Michele | 13 April 2016  

Thank you for this article Sr Michele.I would really like to learn more about the Ellis article, could you please advise where I could find it. I greatly fear that the nuclear waste dump will go ahead and as planned during the Howard years with the construction of the rail line and subsequent massive port in Darwin. I suppose the rationalisation being that we export/ed so much uranium we are obliged to bear some responsibility for its disposal, not to mention the probable kickbacks for people in power. A sad day in the litany of abuse of our indigenous Australians. God help these poor people and this country.

Judith Hart | 12 July 2016  

Thank you for a life time of wonderful work. Who would have thought someone who taught me so many years ago would have done so much for so many. You are ninty pulka! Apoligies for the spelling.

Paul Rice | 27 October 2016