Radiac – A Trail of Evidence by Paul Langley
I joined the Army in 1971. After basic and corp training, I was posted to the Radiac Calibration Centre, 4 Base Workshop, RAEME, Bandiana, Victoria.
The role of the Radiac Calibration Centre was to maintain and repair military and civil defence radiation detection equipment. The military term for this equipment is “Radiac”.
The Centre’s senior staff had spent time receiving training in the US. The Australian military and civil defence had thousands of radiation detection instruments. These instruments were used for training in the then current Cold War environment. It is reasonable to say that Australia had a high level of radiation monitoring capability.
At the time the French were conducting H bomb tests in the South Pacific and Australia issued public documents detailing the measurements of fallout from these tests as it arrived in Australia.
I was a technical clerk/storeman, one of two Corporals assigned to Radiac. We both received formal training in Radiological Safety.
It would be part of our duties to safely work in an environment in which radioactive sources were present. These were used to check the accuracy of the radiation detection instruments sent to the Centre for calibration and repair.
To ensure safety, it was my role to monitor the building for Alpha radiation. I also charged and recorded dosimeter readings. . Every morning I would charge everyone’s dosimeter. I would take an Alpha detector and check the work surfaces and floors for contamination. I would enter the readings into a log.
A constant task was the typing of Radiological health notes.
These notes were authored by senior stafff. They were comprehensive and were used as the basis of our instruction. Instruction usually took place in the afternoons.
In addition to the four military staff, two female calibration assistants were initially employed at Radiac. This was later reduced to one. There are a number of different types of radiation detection instruments, or Radical instruments as they are called in the Army. The widely recognized “Geiger counter” is one type. Other types include Alpha detectors. Shipments of these – dozens at a time – would periodically arrive and I would unpack them as required.
Among the training films we were shown during training, one stands out. The film showed Australian military personnel at Marlinga. During the film we received instruction which Highlighted the unsafe procedures at Marlinga, and risks of contamination and exposure shown in the film were pointed out.
Given the number of instruments used by Australian Civil Defense and military units at the time, and the publication of monitoring results of French fallout by the government, it can be implied that Australia used these resources to monitor the Australian atomic sites and their environments as well.
In my view it would be irresponsible not to monitor the atomic test sites.
The testing of atomic weapons involves the study of both immediate and long term effects. Extensive radiation monitoring data relating to the test sites over many years since 1952 may exist. . It is public knowledge that the Australian Government was involved in large scale testing of human bone until 1978. This study had commenced in the 1950’s to monitor the uptake of fallout fission products from the atomic tests. To this end, bone samples were taken from the bodies of dead Australians and studied for Caesium and Strontium uptake.
There are obvious reasons why, in a time of war, governments tell half truths and distortions. People sacrifice themselves for the good of future generations. In the case of the British Atomic Tests in Australia, there are in my opinion indications that the true impact of the tests has not been told.
At the time I commenced working at Radiac, the local Albury TV station ran a story of a South Australian man. Living in Plympton, SA, he was dying of stomach cancer. His daughter appeared on TV to plead for government help. The man was a veteran of the Maralinga atomic tests.
In the years since, the government hasconsistently denied that any risk or harm came to the atomic test participants or the population at large.
The whole concept of risk in regard to inhalant sized radio-nuclides relates to individual experience – being in a contaminated place and ingesting and inhaling the particles.
The ability to externally monitor such internal contamination is very limited and impossible with routine equipment such as dosimeters and film badges. These are useful for external gamma exposure – such as occurs when an A bomb detonates.
But the lingering danger from residual fuel and fission fallout particles -those which emit Alpha and Beta radiation – exist long after the explosion. Alpha is are not detected very accurately by film badges or dosimeters. For this, specialised Alpha detectors are needed.
Although the scientists conducting the atomic tests in Australia at the time knew of these dangers, they chose to concentrate upon the dangers of exposure to Gamma radiation. That is, they were more interested in the immediate effects of the Gamma radiation burst at the time of atomic detonations.
Films such as “Backs to the Blast” (1981) show troops entering atomic blast areas and monitoring residual radiation.
The levels of Alpha radiation in particular was probably calculated indirectly from a knowledge of the characteristics of the fission products and the level of Gamma detected.
No attempt was made at the time to ascertain internal contamination of individual soldiers or civilians.
Measurements of population wide internal contamination began with the Project Sunshine Human Bone Strontium 90 survey (57-78).
Dose estimates excluded those most at risk – rural, remote, particularly Indigenous Australians and test veterans. The degree of their exposures and the implications of that exposure is still hotly contested by government.
I know that during my time at Radiac, the radiation exposure the staff were generally exposed to inside the building was less than the measured normal background outside the building.
Our work environment experienced less than normal background levels of radiation. In the course of our work, the external dose was from time to time higher. For example, to test a Geiger instrument’s accuracy, a radio active source of known Curie output was measured by the instrument. This in turn enabled the instrument’s accuracy to be gauged. To ensure accuracy at all radiation levels, various levels of radiation were aimed at the instruments. At Radiac this procedure was carried out in the Calibration Room by means of a Calibration trough. The trough was made of lead, and had a hinged lead top. It was about 6 feet long. At one end of the tough there was fitted a lead box which could be opened at the back. Through this means, a radio isotope was loaded into the calibration trough. To allow a beam of gamma radiation to travel down the calibration trough from the radioactive source, the front of the box had an aperture cut into it which aimed down the trough. To allow differing amounts of radiation to be emitted down the trough, three sliding lead gates were placed in front of the aperture. These gates were operated when the probe of a radiation detection instrument
–Radiac instrument, commonly a Geiger counter type
instrument – was placed in the end of the calibration tough, the lid closed and radioactive source loaded. Low level beams,
intermediate level beams and beams of radiation capable of
causing full scale deflection on the instruments
meter were then created. The instrument’s accuracy was then
checked through its range of measurement.
During calibration, the building was secured. Noone but
operational staff were permitted in the Calibration room.
The Radiac Centre was equipped with highly filtered air
conditioning, to prevent the escape of particulate
contamination. In case of contamination, the building had a
decontamination shower and held oxygen breathing equipment.
The radiation check sources were held in a gas
proof vault. The room occupied by the Captain and Warrant
Officer was fitted with a mass spectrometer.
Isotopes and suspect samples could thus be identified.
New isotopes were periodically obtained from the Lucas
Heights nuclear facility. Some spent isotopes were disposed of
by sending them to Melbourne.
I can recall discussions during training which related to the
urgent need in 1971 for a National Radioactive Waste
Depository. It was in the early 1970s that soil in suburban
houses near the Lucas Heights Atomic reactor was found to be
contaminated with radioactive isotopes. This soil from about 11 backyards was stored at Lucas Heights. In the 1990s these
backyards were then trucked to the Woomera Rocket Range for
interim storage. In the meantime, politicians bemoaned and
belittled Australians “Not in my backyard” attitudes to the
proposed Nuclear Waste dump. That’s right, not in back yards.
That’s why it was moved in the first place.
The then new ALP Federal Government ceased Australia’s
involvement in the Vietnam War, and wanted to prune the size
of the Australian Army. Anyone who wanted to leave the Army
was free to do so. I elected to leave and was discharged in
December 1973. My experiences at Radiac form an indelible memory. It was a very interesting period of my life.
I recall that the Canberra Times reported that the Radiac Centre closed in 1975. In the years since I followed with interest the struggles of Australia’s Nuclear Veterans. In 1976 I formally asked the Army Censor at Keswick Barracks for permission to publicly speak on the issue of radiation exposure. I was told to “keep my mouth shut or face the consequences”. I followed the McClelland Royal Commission with disappointment. I was amazed when politicians of all types expressed surprise at learning that Maralinga remained highly contaminated following John Bannon’s visit to the site. The army has monitoring documents dating from the 1950’s to 1985 stored in National Archives. With such radiological expertise available, it is my view that the test sites have been regularly monitored.
Over the years the patent lies and denials of politicians over the Atomic Test disaster have filled books, caused despair and resulted in the social isolation of a fair proportion of one generation’s service personnel and civilians.The Maralinga site was left contaminated to blow in the wind, yet photographs dating from the 1980s of ground zero sites show wind and water monitoring equipment had been installed. And the bodies of deceased Australians furtively dismembered to monitor Strontium 90 uptake ceased as late as 1978.
In1985 Australia’s Radiac program was vastly reduced.
According to the ABC, thousands of Radiac instruments were taken out of service and stored in Tasmania. The ABC tried to get to the bottom of the story but couldn’t. Why take these instruments out of service if they were in use in case of nuclear attack? At the time the Cold War was ongoing.
That was only part of the reason for the instruments being used. Another use was probably to monitor the radiological contamination in Australia from the fallout from the British Bomb Tests. There was definate monitoring of French fallout arriving in Austrlia in the 1970s.
In 1994 I watched yet another Australian Atomic Veteran fight through the Federal Court on TV. I thought that I had to do something. I couldn’t keep quiet forever. The Cold War was over. The only reason the Australian government wasn’t being honest was to keep up appearances. There was no Communist enemy. The only people being hurt were innocent Australians.
I found the address of the Australian Atomic ExServicemens’ Association after ringing around some Government departments. I was told that there were no Atomic Veterans in South Australia. Eventually I was given the address of the National Secretary of the Association, Mr Terry Toon. I wrote and told him of my military service and asked if I was eligible to join the Association. Terry wrote back saying that I was eligible, even though I am not a test vetaran.
In 1995 Terry wrote and asked me to research reportedly high levels of fallout readings in SA water storages in the 1970s. The research this request started has culminated in many hundreds of pages of writing. I commenced my research into the issue by writing to the SA Health Commission (as it was known then). Ms Jill Fitch, Director, Radiation Protection Branch of the (then) SA Health Commission was unable to provide me with the information I sought because they “do not have the resources to search the records of the 1970s to obtain the detailed information that you request…” Ms Fitch did however cite AIRAC reports which confirm that radiological monitoring of SA water storages did occur. (Ms Fitch was Assistant Commissioner at the McClelland Royal Commission.)
Ms Fitch’s letter to me was dated 3.2.95. I advised Terry Toon that I was unable to obtain the information he needed. I believed that the time was not right for further immediate approaches to government.
Although Dr Helen Caldicott had sought and eventually obtained water monitoring data years before in relation to fallout from French nuclear testing in the Pacific, Terry was after a specific secret report.
The State government privatised the E&;WS Department – the SA Water supply – by selling it to a joint UK and French consortium. On 2 November 1995 I wrote to the then Minister for Infrastructure, Mr John Olsen. I asked him for the Radiological Monitoring data for all SA Water storages from the 50s to the current time.
I asked Mr Olsen if he thought it reasonable that UK/French interests should be privy to the data I sought while SA citizens were denied it. I also questioned the wisdom of entrusting UK/French interests with the responsibility of ongoing radiological monitoring of SA Water supplies. This responsibility smacked of conflict of interest as the UK and France were the parties responsible in main for the need to monitor fallout fission products in the water supply.
On 7.11.95 I received a reply from Mr Olsen’s office. I was glad of a reply so quickly. The letter advised me my request was under consideration.
On 16.2.96 I received a letter from Mr E. J. Phipps, Chief Executive of SA Water. Attached to the letter were the radiological monitoring data sheets of all SA Water Supplies for the period 1966 to 1995. Missing were the sheets for the period 1952 to 1965.
The missing period corresponds with the period of UK atomic testing (including weapons safety tests, the “minor trials”).
I wrote to SA Water in regard to the missing data and on
15.5.96 I received a reply from Mr Phipps which states “All existing radiological data…was forwarded in February…” So SA Water was unaware of any earlier monitoring.
Yet we know earlier monitoring did occur because Prof. Titterton, the head of the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee, mentioned a few results of it in scientific articles in the early 1960s.Without access to the data how can Titterton’s assertions be peer reviewed?
So Terry and I felt that we were being denied information in a manner which prevented us from lodging an appropriate appeal.
On the 4th of August 1999 I wrote to the SA Department of Human Services seeking access to documents relating to the health effects of Atomic testing on Indigenous Australians. I knew these documents existed due to Commonwealth Parliamentary Hansard entries relating to the “Black Mist Incident”. Initially the designated Freedom of Information Officer, Mr Jim Dadds, refused my request totally. However, after negotiating by phone, Mr Dadds released some documents which had already been made public in the 1980’s by the then State Minister of Health.
Information was still being blocked nearly fifty years after the commencement of the Atomic Tests in Australia.
I continued researching the issues, staying in touch with Terry Toon, and spending time going through Commonwealth Parliamentary Hansard. By mid 2001 I had completed a web based CD Rom entitled the “Maralinga Files”.
I had sent some copies of the disc to University libraries and had received encouraging acceptance. In August 2001 I became aware of Dr Roger Cross’s book “Fallout – Hedley Marston and the British Bomb Tests in Australia”. I immediately bought a copy of the book and read it avidly.
I wrote Dr Cross a letter and was surprised to receive a warm and encouraging reply dated 7.8.01. More correspondence followed this letter and I sent Dr Cross a copy of my CD Rom. On 11.7.02 Dr Cross and I met in Adelaide. Roger shared his experiences in trying to obtain early period radiological monitoring data of SA Water storages and requests for information relating to injury and deaths of Indigenous Australians due to the Black Mist Incident. These requests had resulted in the Department of Human Services Freedom of Information Officer refusing to supply the information. The nature and detail of the refusal were enlightening and shocking to me.
Whereas I had received refusals based upon both workload and denials the that the information existed, Dr Cross had received a much more detailed response. The basis of the refusals was stated as being the secrecy provisions of the South Australian Radiation Protection Act. Dr Cross’s appeal failed in August 2002.
Promised new legislation to overcome this dismal state of affairs would take some time to be implemented.
On the one hand I am glad that the detailed response will enable a focussed response in order to wrench information from the State Government. On the other I am appalled at the dishonest manner in which my earlier requests for the information were treated.
Roger and I further discussed the progress of his new book, based upon personal experiences of the tests and their consequences.
As it turned out Dr Cross was unsuccessful in obtaining the information I sought, he sought and the Veterans need. In August 2002 he advised me all of his objections to the FOI decision had been rejected. The Rann government had come to power but had not had time to introduce the promised new legislation which would enable a more open government.
In April 2003 the new legislation was put into effect. On 11.6.03 the Minister for Environment and Conservation wrote me a letter which explained the changes. I had previously written to express my frustration at the previous denials of information. Again, on 19.6.03, the Minister’s office replied to my latest request for the information I have sought since 1994.
It is in the interests of South Australia for the information to be known. There is a mutual interest between Nuclear Veterans and the South Australian community. . Experts of world standing – Pauling, Oliphant and Marston and more – found evidence that atomic weapons tests were far more dangerous than their expert proponents – Teller, Titterton and others – maintained. The effects were minimized. Knowledge was ignored.
It still angers me that issues such as those raised by Dr. Cutter and recorded in Federal Parliamentary Hansard – in his case relating to the deaths of Aborigines due to atomic fallout – remain hidden. Researchers such as Dr. Cross and the Atomic ExServicemens’ Association and the ANVA remain blocked in their attempts to wrench the truth from government.
The very weapons which were purported to render Democracy safe from Communism provide the cover for lies and neglect.
On 9 May 1973, much concern was expressed about nuclear fallout from the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. On this date, the Leader of the Opposition in the Commonwealth Parliament told the House of Representatives : ” There is evidence available from several sources that the nuclear tests which France has carried out in French Polynesia, and which it now proposes to continue, have added to the radioactive fallout to which people in this region are exposed.
The fact that the level of additional fallout might be small cannot make the tests acceptable…Australia, as a result of the French tests …could have one case of thyroid cancer per year due to the isotope iodine 131 and 1 to 4 other cancer cases per year due to strontium 90, caesium 137 and carbon 14….” (Commwealth Parliamentary Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, 1973, House of Representatives, page 1886).
At the time these words were spoken, the veterans of Britain’s atomic testing in Australia were once again ignored. The appalling death and illness rates, the social exclusion due to pressure to remain silent and the grief of high rates of birth defects in their children took their toll. Noone in authority has ever released the combined dose to affected Australians of the fallout from British bombs plus the fallout from French bombs.
In the 1970s milk in Queensland was being thrown out due to contamination by French fallout (I131).
Fifty years after the first British atomic bomb was detonated upon Australia, nothing has changed. In 1973 Mr Sneddon admitted the danger and damage caused by atomic testing. Yet this perception of danger and damage has never been officially recognised in the case of Australia’s atomic veterans. The British tests remain officially “harmless”.
Repeated attempts to obtain documents which may establish actual harms continue to be blocked. The oral history of the people who suffered actual consequences are ignored. Thus there is a continuing erosion of our trust in government. If fifty years after the event we can’t find out the truth about the tests from government, then on what basis can we rely on any assurances of safety regarding the use of nuclear energy?
So far, the rule of thumb seems to be “If you can’t see it, smell it or feel it, don’t trust the bastards with it”.