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The nuclear fight: then and now



On Sunday 24th May, the ABC showed the documentary Maralinga Tjarutja produced and directed by lawyer, academic, filmmaker and Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman Larissa Berendt. It was wonderful to see the Traditional Owners including the women given a current national voice as survivors of the British nuclear tests on their lands. Mima Smart OAM former long-term chairperson of Yalata Community was co-presenter with the chair of Maralinga Tjarutja, Jeremy Lebois; Mima’s Maralinga art, painted in collaboration with other Yalata minyma tjuta — women artists, becoming an integral background story — sometimes even in animation.

Main image: the Maralinga Painting, by artists Mima Smart, Tjunkuna Rita Bryant and others. Used with permission.

In the early 80s, after a monumental effort by the Aboriginal peoples of South Australia’s Far North West and their supporters, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunyjatjara Anangu gained their Land title. The Yalata people to the south at the time, I remember, had been discouraged by their then Community Advisor to take part. As a result, when the Yalata people’s will finally had their way, it meant that they had to make their own path.

In response, the South Australian Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement called together previous supporters. I recall at this first meeting, various priests/pastors/church workers standing together in a circle declaring that they could see that the Pitjantjatjara (in those days the Yankunyjatjara were not named) had really deserved their title as they had remained on their land and kept their ceremonies.

What an extraordinary thing that it had to be pointed out to most of them that surely the Maralinga Tjarutja People had been doubly disadvantaged. Surely their forced removal from their traditional lands, then ‘blocked off’ (as they named it) for 30 years, made their cry for their title and their return just as, or even more, worthy.

As in the previous campaign, Yalata Anangu travelled to the capital city — this time the 1000 kms from SA’s Far West Coast. The struggle through the South Australian Parliament made harder this second time around as parliamentarians, having learned from the first Land Rights granted, were determined to force even more concessions.

But the 18th December 1984 victory celebration is a wonderful scene in the film. On site, on the Maralinga Lands, the nominated Elders Mr Queama and Mr Baker brought in by younger family to receive — at last — from Premier Bannon the so long awaited Land Title named the ‘Maralinga Land Rights’. Tjilpi kutjara, both Old Men, triumphantly flourishing the document and the faces of so many women and men, young people and kids reflecting this same glorious exultation. At last, after an incredible 30 years of exile — they could officially return to their lands — the real red soft earth of their heritage.


'No, they didn’t know what they were doing then in the 1950s/60s and they certainly don’t know what they’re doing now. Here’s the question: will the truth of some of this 21st century nuclear plan be allowed to emerge in the coming public hearings of the present Parliamentary Inquiry?'


But of course the land is poisoned.

And not only the land.

Even I know off by heart the supercilious tones of the Chief Scientist of the British nuclear tests, Ernest Titterton’s on-screen completely false declaration: ‘No Aboriginal people were harmed.’  The discovery of Edie Milpuddie and family as they camped on the edge of the Marcoo bomb crater was dramatic exposure of that cruel fiction. It is extraordinary to see the actual footage of this moment in the film; and so sobering to hear again the terrible repercussions among her descendants.

‘No Aboriginal people were harmed.’ Add into that mix, English and Australian servicemen and the various pastoral landholders; and from the strong desert winds including across the APY Lands, we will never know the results of the further fallout across the state and nation.

This is our Australian history; remarkable that it has continued to be so well hidden. Maralinga Tjarutja, now on ABC iView, gives all Australians the opportunity to come to terms with an arrogant deception and to witness the courage of the people surviving back on country.  

Wind forward another 30 years again and the well being of another almost neighbouring group of Aboriginal people is threatened with nuclear repercussions: this time by the plan for the nation’s nuclear waste ‘stored’ (dumped) on their Country. Again as Traditional Owners, the Barngarla denied a say on their own Country, while a few white ‘latecomers’ were given theirs.

As with the British nuclear tests, obviously not only Aboriginal people are at risk of harm — and saying so. There are farmers concerned for their livelihood, family members concerned for their present and future generations and many South Australians concerned at the dangers of transporting intermediate long lived radioactive waste toxic across 1700 kms of our vast nation. No long term plan at all for a scientific resolution to the storage of this waste, toxic for an unimaginable 10,000 years. 

There are the same bland assurances from successive ministers, the local MP and government bureaucrats that all will be well, nothing will go wrong; fears for lands and waters and the reputation of our state’s food, fibre and tourism brushed aside. Again a strong media secrecy, intended or otherwise, from all, save a few local regional outlets.

Again as with the British nuclear tests — 60 years later the determination of a federal government intent on maintaining secrecy of the real; this time hiding behind the false insistence of nuclear medicine at risk and careful assurances that radiation from bomb fallout was a completely different risk. 

But — nuclear radiation is nuclear radiation

And as Mima Smart has said on the sands of Yalata Community, on the steps of Parliament house — ‘Enough is Enough.‘

No, they didn’t know what they were doing then in the 1950s/60s and they certainly don’t know what they’re doing now. Here’s the question: will the truth of some of this 21st century nuclear plan be allowed to emerge in the coming public hearings of the present Parliamentary Inquiry?

And if so, be heeded?



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: the Maralinga Painting, by artists Mima Smart, Tjunkuna Rita Bryant and others. Used with permission.

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunyjatjara, South Australia, Maralinga Tjarutja



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Existing comments

As a climatologist, I realized more than 40 years ago that we as children growing up in the Riverina in the 1950's were exposed to the radioactive clouds released by the Atomic bomb tests at Maralinga . I sometimes wonder what impact that exposure and consumption of food grown in the M.I.A., where I grew up, had on us and our children. The British authorities have never come clean about the impact and most likely never will, a disgrace. I really feel very sad for the Indigenous people of the area, as they have suffered and continue to suffer so much from the deception of our former colonial master.

Gavin O'Brien | 04 June 2020  

I saw only part of this program about the nuclear tests in SA in the 1950s and plan to watch it again on ABC iView. It was certainly an arrogant and thoughtless decision to allow the tests at all. An example of treating the First Peoples of this land with, I believe, contempt. It was heart-rending seeing the footage from that time sixty years ago. The Aboriginal people so much a part of their land, their entire beings part of their country. Your dedication over many years, Michele, thank you.

Pam | 04 June 2020  

I am ready to support any action against this horrific intentions!

Larissa Landinez | 04 June 2020  

Thank you Michele for bringing forward this truly terrible story, and the others. The ongoing refusal of the dominant culture to face the facts and their effects is deeply troubling. The more distant past of colonists and Indigenous peoples is bad enough, but that the same attitudes prevail today indicates how far we have to go. Keep writing Michele - thank you for being such a voice.

Susan Connelly | 04 June 2020  

Michele, congratulations on providing us with some important reflections on the reality of the danger of nuclear waste. That ABC film ought surely alert us all to the need to continue to oppose anything to do with harmful high-level nuclear waste. Our country's moratorium against nuclear energy ought remain permanently too. [Liz]

Sister Elizabeth Morris | 04 June 2020  

Thank you Michele for reminding us, yet again, of our lack of respect for Country and our First People's. It is embarrassing, that as Australians, we neglect to give them a voice.

Maryellen Thomas | 05 June 2020  

There are several conflated issues in your article, Sister Michele. These include whether Australia should have allowed an atomic test at all, then, given tests were to be done, there is the issue of sidelining of aboriginal people (and the Australian public at large, for that matter), and another is the danger or otherwise of intermediate level waste as proposed, and another is whether those behind the proposal can be trusted to keep us safe, and indeed whether they know what they are doing. The first one is debatable; regarding the second, what happened was grossly reprehensible. As to the others, your cause is not helped by using sweeping general statements that are misinformed. "Nuclear radiation is nuclear radiation" implies that all forms and quanta of nuclear radiation are equally dangerous. It is far, far from true. The proposal to store "intermediate" waste (and I am not endorsing it here) is a quantum leap away from fallout from those nuclear tests and is routine throughout the world. I am not at all saying we do not need to take great care, but great care is taken these days. Please inform yourself .Read the many reputable reports on each nuclear incident.

Dennis | 05 June 2020  

Excellent insight into this indigenous tragedy, indeed tragedy for Australia. Also. by the way, a rare mention of the shameful role of Ernest Titterton in all this. That man's disgraceful behaviour over many years should be exposed. For another Titterton deception - he managed to stop the testing of rain for radioactive fallout over Australia's East coast, during the French nuclear tests in the 1970's and 1980s

Noel Wauchope | 06 June 2020  

Thank you Michele. Mima’s Maralinga’s art painted in collaboration with other Yalata minima tjuta -women artists recalled a previous article you wrote that on 26th January 1988, a Maori guest speaker prophesised “It will be your artists... they will be the ones to lead the changes” In 2013-2014 “Melbourne NOW” exhibition 2013- 2014 Yhonnie Scarce, Kokatha and Nukunu woman exhibited BLOOD ON THE WATTLE (ELLISTON SOUTH AUSTRALIA 1849). The glass yams are seen as ”fragile, shiny and precious organic metaphors of Aboriginal peoples” subject to the effects of radiation. IN ABSENCE: BY YHONNIE SCARCE AND EDITION OFFICE was installed at NGV last year inviting us to better understand the fallacy of the premise of Terra Nullius. A Magnificent work of art ...you can physically sit inside a 9 metre high timber tower and be enlightened. The light on the 1600 glass blown yams glitter in the shafts of sunlight. Maralinga Tjarutja is an artistic documentary thus transformative. YHONNIE SCARCE is a highly appreciated artist who witnesses to the beauty of Aboriginal Peoples and their understanding of our interdependence, interconnectedness and inter –relatedness with Earth. There is hope if we listen and learn. The truth will set us free!

Therese Quinn | 06 June 2020  

Michelle, an insightful poignant article. The risk of the neighbouring Barngarla denied a say on their own Country as to the long term storage of Nuclear Waste is too dangerous to even contemplate. The fact that the politicians mouth the same inane, thoughtless, reckless assurances that echo the Maralinga assurances should tell us something. Political "promises and pie crusts are made to be broken!" Dean Swift.

Francis Armstrong | 10 June 2020  

Thank you Michele. Your article is a very timely reminder of the criminally irresponsible nuclear tests undertaken by the British at Maralinga in the 1950s. They were given approval to use the Maralinga lands for the tests by the then PM Robert Menzies without even bothering to consult his cabinet. Of course, it did not occur to him that he should consult with the Aboriginal people on whose lands the British were soon to unleash their nuclear contamination. And now in the case of the proposed nuclear dump at Kimba in SA, the politicians of the same political party as Robert Menzies decided to choose this site for their dump and excluded the Barngarla traditional owners from having a say.in the public consultation. This is totally unacceptable. The Aboriginal people at Maralinga suffered greatly from those tests as did many members of the armed forces who worked them. British and Australian servicemen were purposely exposed to fallout from the blasts, to study radiological effects and local Aboriginal people suffered health ptoblems. In addition there were long term effects too. Before the British government was forced to carry out a thorough decontamination of the area, there were concerns for the children who attended the Aboriginal school at Emu Plains. Many of the lessons were held outside with the kids sitting on the ground. Public health experts had great concerns because there were small pieces of plutonium -about the size of a pin head - left in the dust. If any of these were inhaled by any students, they would quickly develop lung cancer. The father of a friend if mine was a CSIRO scientist who worked in the CSIRO laboratories in Adelaide. During the Maralinga tests, he took air samples and analysed them and found that Adelaide's radioactive levels rose significantly each time a test was carried out! He went public with his findings and was sacked. A zoologist also elicited the ire of politicians and the British scientists when he studied the levels of nuclear substances of in the tissues of stock animals. Three books that gove good background of the tests and more details of their effects are: * No Conceivable Injury by Robert Milliken about the Royal Commission into the tests headed by former judge and ALP politician - "Diamond" Jim McCelland * Maralinga - British A-Bomb Australian Legacy by Adrian Tame and FPI Robotham * Maralinga : the chilling exposé of our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country (Hachette Australia, 2014) by Frank Walker A good film about the tests is Backs to the Blast which us actually a documentary about the nuclear industry in Australia. The title comes from the order that service personnel were given before the explosions occurred. The film also highlights Sir Ernest Titterton - the dishonest safety officer for the tests and later professor of nuclear physics at the ANU - who Michele refers to.in her article. I saw him in action once at a seminar I attended at an international conference. A Canadian physicist spoke about the tests and lampooned Titterton without realising he was in attendance. Ut was a very lively session!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 14 June 2020  

Thanks to all correspondents – much later replying to Dennis. ‘whether Australia should have allowed an atomic test at all’ - Many Australians including myself see this as far from ‘debatable: the Maralinga people of Yalata/Oak Valley, APY, Coober Pedy Aboriginal people, service personel, and pastoralists who gave testimony and many who weren’t able to, at the Royal Commission into the British nuclear tests - many of whom I have met and heard over the past 30 years. As well – many other Australians astounded that Australia’s sovereignity counted so little that our country- lands, groundwaters, air, not to mention people and animals- could be purposely poisoned. Of course a bomb fallout and a transport accident of intermediate long-lived waste are not exactly the same. But whether nuclear radiation will remain for the 240,000 years as in the plutonium ‘minor trials’ in South Australia or the 10,000 years of the long lived intermediate level waste from Lucas Heights – a moot point when both mean for every generation to come. Sadly with all the ‘great care...these days' -in dealing with nuclear radiation, accidents happen; several at ARPANSA’s Lucas Heights facility in the past few years. Thankfully where the nuclear and safety experts are.

Michele Madigan | 15 June 2020  

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