House debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006; Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2006

Second Reading

10:47 am

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak in the debate on the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006. Before I outline Labor’s response to the bill and raise a few concerns that I have, I would like to engage in a brief outline of the British atomic tests in Australia.

At 8 am on 2 October 1952, Britain exploded its first atomic bomb in Australian territory under the codename Operation Hurricane. The bomb was exploded aboard the HMS Plym approximately 120 kilometres off Australia’s north-west coast at the Montebello Islands. Nick Richardson, in an article in the Herald Sun commemorating the 50th anniversary of this test, gave an account of the test. He wrote:

The scientists gave the deserted warship a final once over before heading down below. 

There, packed securely in the hold below the water line, was a 25 kilotonne atomic bomb.

The men set the bomb’s arming switch by connecting the firing circuits to an electricity supply, and quickly left the ship. 

Once they were safely away from ground zero, the order to detonate was given.

Within seconds, a blinding blue flash streaked across the water. The frigate HMS Plym was vaporised, gouging a saucer shaped crater 6m deep and 300m wide in the seabed.

A vast cloud of mud, spray and steam was released followed by a huge mushroom cloud of smoke which billowed 4500m into the air.

Local fallout began about one minute after firing. Much of it dropped as contaminated rain, as well as solid particles from the crater and parts of the Plym.

Later contamination in rainwater was detected as far away as Rockhampton and Brisbane.

A young sailor on board the nearby Royal Navy vessel, HMS Tracker, later recalled being ordered up on deck and told to turn his back and place the backs of his hands over his shut eyes.

He was dressed only in shorts, sandals and a sun hat.

“We knew it was going to be an explosion. We were never told it was going to be an atom bomb, though it had come through the grapevine,” the seaman said.

“They started the countdown and there was this flash and I could see right through my hands, even though my eyes were shut”.

“Then there was like a roar, rumble then a bang. And then we turned around and opened our eyes and just after there was this hot wind and you could feel it like grit hitting your body”.

“The ship rocked slightly and that was it”.

With this explosion Britain become the world’s third nuclear power behind the United States and the Soviet Union. This test was at a time of heightened insecurity during the formative stages of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had already developed the atomic bomb and were at the start of what would be a decades-long arms race. The Korean War was in its third year and the world was coming to grips with the perceived threats from communist regimes.

Despite its alliances, the United States secretly guarded its new-found technology and was unwilling to share it with Britain. Having discovered the atom bomb, the United States wanted to go it alone, and the British involvement in the development of a nuclear capability with the Americans ended with the collapse of the Anglo-American atomic partnership in 1946. The British, however, remained desperate to obtain this technology in order to secure their power and role in the post-World War II international system. Once Britain was locked out of the United States atomic program, it began its own. The British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, expressed his determination in 1946 when he said, ‘We have got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We have got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it.’

The British—short on space to test—quickly turned to their dominions for assistance, and none was quicker to offer testing space than the Australian government led by Sir Robert Menzies. The Montebello test was the beginning of a program that would see the Australian government collaborating with the British in their pursuit of a nuclear capability. Tests involving Australians were conducted on the mainland from October 1952 to October 1957. These tests were conducted at the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. There were also British tests out to 1963, involving hydrogen bombs, at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and Malden Island in the Pacific Ocean. In what is an often unknown and little understood event in our history, the Menzies government had given permission for a foreign government to develop and test nuclear weapons on our soil. Australia did not gain access to any of the technology that was being tested. The Menzies government was happy to accept no price, and demand no access to the technology, for the conduct of these tests.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Australian government’s involvement was the lack of transparency and accountability by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. A high level of secrecy clouded the first test in Australia and was covered by a strict need-to-know agreement between Menzies and his British counterpart, Clement Attlee. In September 1950, Menzies had been asked by the British High Commission in Canberra whether Montebello could be surveyed as a possible test site. Menzies agreed. The survey concluded that Montebello was a suitable site for tests but that the atmospheric conditions of the island meant that the test would have to be held in October.

With progress occurring, Menzies had to begin to brief senior public servants on preparatory work for the tests to occur. The level of secrecy that Menzies was maintaining was so strict that it meant that the head of the Department of Supply was briefed on aspects of the tests, but not the Minister for Supply, Howard Beale. Because of this, Beale unknowingly misled parliament in October 1951 when he said that rumours of atomic tests were ‘a product of the fevered imagination of some London journalist’.

Even after his own minister had misled parliament, Menzies refused to inform him or the public about the proposed tests. Amazingly, it was not until the story appeared in American newspapers in mid-February 1952 that a joint statement was issued announcing that Britain would detonate its own bomb on Australian soil some time that year. Australians were not informed at this time that secret work had been conducted since 1950 towards this aim. In commenting on these events, the 1985 report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, established by the then Hawke Labor government, concluded:

... it would be unthinkable for any foreign government to tell an Australian Prime Minister which of his Ministers and officials might be given certain information.

Yet this was exactly what they found had occurred. Menzies had agreed to allow a foreign government to explode nuclear weapons on our soil, and he did it under a cloak of secrecy where decisions were hidden not only from the public but also from his own ministers. However, when his ministers were finally informed they quickly fell into line. For example, supply minister Beale, who had earlier unknowingly misled parliament, declared in a press statement in 1955:

... England has the bomb and the know-how. We have the open spaces, much technical skill and great willingness to help the motherland.

Geopolitical considerations and a misinformed strategic outlook had led the Menzies government to believe that it was acting in Australia’s national interests, but in reality Australia was to gain little or no strategic benefit from the tests. Instead, the Menzies government allowed Australian servicemen, civilians and Indigenous Australians to be treated as guinea pigs and allowed the destruction of large tracts of our natural environment, all in the name of a foreign government’s ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons.

A secret memo revealed by Dr Roger Cross in his book Fallout exposes further the disregard that the Menzies government had for the safety and wellbeing of its own citizens. The document shows that the Minister for Supply, Howard Beale, instructed the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee that, whatever the level of fallout, in relation to tests at Maralinga the public was to be told that there was no risk. This meant that the safety committee that was set up to warn the public of any problems was unable to fulfil its role, due to the government’s direction. A staggering indifference was also shown to the Indigenous Australians who inhabited the test area. Dr Roger Cross in his book Fallout reveals:

... before the tests took place an Australian scientist asked the British about the safety of Aborigines. The reply was that a dying race couldn’t influence the defence of Western civilisation.

The point here is that another country’s strategic ambitions were given priority over the safety and wellbeing of people that the Australian government should have been protecting. The Menzies government’s deceptive and secretive actions can be described as nothing more than shameful.

It was only in 1957, when the Australian scientist Mr Hedley Marston raised enough public pressure due to his fears of the effects of fallout on participants in the test and surrounding communities, that the tests were moved off the Australian mainland and Australian participation was reduced. In the decades that followed, subsequent Australian governments of whatever political flavour adopted the attitude that the file was best left closed on the whole issue of the tests at Maralinga, Emu Field and the Montebello Islands, and pretended that no-one had been harmed and that the sites had been cleaned up to everyone’s satisfaction.

The McClelland royal commission completely demolished these excuses. I applaud those who fought for the royal commission and congratulate the Hawke Labor government for making it happen. The royal commission, however, did not satisfactorily resolve all of the issues surrounding the British atomic tests. Since then we have had a number of other reviews. The two most important have been the Clarke review and the health study done under the current government. I will be commenting on them shortly.

I would like to address some of the provisions that are contained within the bills. The two bills we are debating today will give effect to the government’s long overdue decision to provide non-liability treatment of, and testing for, cancer for eligible Australian participants in the British atomic tests in Australia. Labor is supporting both of these bills.

Through the bills, Australian participants in the British nuclear tests will be able to receive treatment and testing for cancer through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. This is to be welcomed. The decision of the government to extend this scheme to all participants in the British nuclear tests is a sensible decision. It means that civilians will also be able to access the non-liability treatment offered by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I think it is the least we can do for these people to repay them for their service.

One aspect of the bills that is pleasing to me is the provision of travelling expenses for participants who will need to travel to access treatment. This has been a very important issue for the veterans community, as the availability of specialists to treat them has been steadily falling. Recently the Department of Veterans’ Affairs conceded that 388 specialists had written to them to say that they would no longer treat veterans under the gold card scheme. This has meant that veterans from around the country have been exposed to often long and arduous trips to receive their treatment. I have welcomed the government’s recent announcement that it will allocate more funding to address this problem, and I will be following this up with the department to make sure the extra money is actually addressing these issues.

Those people that are eligible for the treatment under this scheme are getting older. Therefore I call upon the minister to ensure that the scheme is implemented as quickly as possible and with as little hassle for the participants as possible. The government’s development of a nominal roll should provide the department with all of the information they need to enact this scheme. I will be monitoring the scheme to ensure that all participants are afforded quick access to a scheme they richly deserve. However, the government needs to make sure that anybody who was not placed on the nominal roll, for whatever reason, is not unnecessarily excluded or burdened by excessive administrative requirements.

I would now like to comment on the health studies into Australian participants in British nuclear tests, which have provided the government with its rationale for this scheme. The health studies found that there were no conclusive links between participation in the tests and the onset of cancers. Therefore the government has refused to accept liability for these cancers. However, the study did find that among those surveyed the rate of some cancers was indeed higher than in the general population. The reasons for this were unable to be determined by the study.

I have a great deal of respect for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and those that conduct these health studies, in what are often extremely complex areas. Given the importance of these health studies to the government’s decision not to accept liability, I would like today to point out that a number of errors have been uncovered in the published government health studies on the Australian participants in the British nuclear tests in Australia.

Paul Malone, writing in the Canberra Times on 14 September 2006, made a startling revelation. He wrote:

A number of errors, including a table that does not add up, have been uncovered in the published government study on the deaths and cancers suffered by Australian participants in the nuclear tests in Australia.

British Medical Education researcher Sue Roff discovered the discrepancies in the Australian report when comparing death rates for British and Australian nuclear test veterans.

The government has been quietly changing the numbers on the website without making any public announcement of the corrections.

He went on in his article to identify the errors:

In the original published report a table showed the number of observed cancer deaths at 525, a completely erroneous figure. But the same table on the website now states the correct number of deaths at 1465. Of the specific types of cancer, nine now have different numbers of observed deaths than was originally reported.

The changes are not due to the updating as a result of recent deaths.  The study cut-off date was 4½ years ago, in December 2001. The study was completed in May this year, allowing ample time for the data to be finalised. Ms Roff said she found it perturbing that the researchers had not indicated that they had revised the report in the web version, much less issued a statement to alert people working from the printed versions.

Further on he writes:

Government statements, even on the precise number of participants in the tests are not consistent.

In his press statement on the publication of the study in June this year, the Minister for Veterans Affairs Bruce Billson said “more than 11,000” participants were involved in the health study. The report itself says the study population comprised 10,983 subjects.

The point here is not that mistakes were made. I can accept that mistakes can occur in studies as complex as these—indeed, it is arguable that these mistakes were quite minor in their nature and had no effect on the study’s conclusions with regard to liability. What I find more disturbing is that the minister was found secretly correcting these mistakes and has failed to allow for any transparency in their correction by not making any public announcement or explanation of these corrections.

This displays an amazing degree of insensitivity to the participants of the atomic tests and their families. To them these tests and their findings were extraordinarily important. These studies represent a chance for participants in the tests to understand the implications of their own or their relatives’ service during the British atomic tests. They represent a culmination of a lifetime of anxiety and stress related to uncertainty about their own or their families’ health. Therefore, you can only imagine how they feel when they learn that the results that were published and provided to them in the government’s study are now secretly being changed. This is of major concern to me, and I am amazed that the minister failed to implement any sort of transparency once these errors where identified.

I have also had other people contact my office to raise further concerns about the results of the health studies. Alan Batchelor, both a nuclear veteran and a military engineer, contacted me to say that he has written to the government numerous times to highlight what he perceives as anomalies, poor assumptions and discrepancies in the tests, especially relating to assumptions that were made with regard to the dose rates. Mr Batchelor has offered to supply the minister with documentation that supports his claims. To his frustration he has told me that the minister has never addressed his concerns. Similarly, Dr Jack Lonergan, a qualified nuclear physicist who is helping the nuclear veterans in their campaign, has been outspoken in his complaints that the radiation doses the studies used were very much underestimates. He too has been frustrated with the lack of response from the minister’s office on this issue.

I am no scientist and I cannot comment on the veracity and accuracy of Mr Batchelor’s or Dr Lonergan’s criticisms. What concerns me is the government’s constant refusal to address concerns about the health study and their failure to respond to their repeated correspondence. That is what a health study is meant to achieve. If the government want to restore faith in their own study they should address all concerns about the study, especially now that the minister has been caught out secretly correcting errors that were contained in the study.

Therefore, I call on the minister to be more open in his communication with the veterans community over these issues. He should engage with people like Mr Batchelor and Dr Lonergan, who are qualified in this field and are raising concerns about the study. I respectfully suggest that he address these concerns so that fears of inaccuracies in this important study can be removed. The minister should also publicly explain why, and apologise to the veterans community for trying to secretly correct errors that were contained in the health studies.

The bills under debate today address the issue of non-liability treatment for all participants in the British nuclear tests, both military and civilian. As the Labor shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, I want to focus the remainder of my comments today on the treatment of Australian servicemen who participated in the British atomic tests. While Labor supports these bills, it should be noted that they do little to address the longstanding issues of recognition and compensation for the ill-effects that have been claimed to have been suffered by the nuclear test participants.

The issues of recognition and compensation are especially pertinent to the Australian servicemen who participated in the tests. These servicemen have argued for a long time that their service should be classified as ‘non-warlike hazardous’ under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. They argue that a declaration of non-warlike hazardous service is justified because the testing of atomic test weapons was hazardous and exposed individuals to ionising radiation and toxic chemicals and other risks beyond normal peacetime duties, causing high levels of disease and death amongst participants; the tests were conducted in undue haste with immature technology, inadequate understanding of the science and poor planning and management; the tests were conducted with inadequate safety provisions in place and insufficient knowledge of the risks involved; health physics teams were inexpert, and the various test management and safety committees, including the Australian safety committee, were ill-informed and negligent; Australian members of the armed services were used as guinea pigs in the tests—that is, they were deliberately exposed to radiation, or at the very least those in charge had little regard for their safety, especially if test outcomes were likely to be jeopardised; participants have suffered chromosomal damage as a result of their exposure to ionising radiation and there have been second and third generation effects; the nature of the tests, the extent of radiation exposures and the shortcomings in safety management of the tests have been deliberately hidden from the Australian public; the whole Australian population was at risk of some level of exposure through fallout; and the service was in the context of the Cold War.

The decision to grant hazardous non-warlike service for any conflict or group can often be very controversial. Therefore, it is no surprise that the government asked the Clarke review to examine the standing of the Australian servicemen in respect of the VEA. The 2003 Clarke review examined this issue. Their conclusions were:

The Committee believes that the British atomic test series was a unique, extraordinary event in Australia’s history. Atomic devices were exploded in Australia, with Australian forces potentially exposed to levels of radiation beyond what would today be considered safe levels. By common sense and by any reasonable measure, service in the test operations must be regarded as involving hazards beyond those of normal peacetime duties.

There is evidence that members of Australia’s armed services were placed in danger from ionising radiation and other toxic materials used in the test program, and natural justice for these members is long overdue. The Commonwealth Government should provide these members of Australia’s armed services with compensation coverage under the VEA.

The Committee considers that service with the British atomic tests should be assessed as non-warlike hazardous service for the purposes of the VEA. A declaration of non-warlike hazardous service would provide the ADF personnel who participated in the testing program with, at least, immediate and free health care for all cancers and for posttraumatic stress disorder whilst claims for compensation are made and determined under the VEA.

The Committee notes the development of a nominal roll of Australian atomic test participants. While it appears that many of the people whose names are on the preliminary roll may have left test sites prior to any tests being undertaken, the Committee also notes advice from DVA that the Department is aware of concerns about the accuracy of the roll and that work is continuing to refine it further. The Committee also notes that a proposal for reconstruction of dosage estimates is being considered. These matters need to proceed quickly and Government should assist with additional resources if necessary. The Government should also consider thoroughly addressing the concerns of the atomic test participants about access to records.

The committee recommended that:

Participation by Australian Defence Force personnel in the British atomic tests be declared non-warlike hazardous and the legislation be amended to ensure that this declaration can have effect in extending VEA coverage; and

The Government move quickly to finalise the cancer and mortality study.

With the passage of these bills today the government appears to have ignored these recommendations—recommendations of its own taxpayer-funded independent review. Given this, I would like to say a few words on independent reviews.

Decision making in veterans’ affairs should be as free of politics as you can make it. That will not always be possible but it ought to be an objective we strive for. But independent reviews are rarely an answer in themselves. You have to be prepared to accept their recommendations or have good and clear reasons not to. If you find yourself regularly rejecting the results of independent reviews you have to examine whether or not you have set them up properly in the first place. At times governments have used independent reviews as a mechanism to divert criticism and to try to put a hold on things while they cool off politically. We have seen that occur with depressing regularity in veterans’ affairs—Clarke is clearly the biggest example and the most relevant to personnel involved in the atomic tests.

Let me be clear: there will be times independent reviews do not get it right, and there will almost always be legitimate differences of opinion about what should be the way forward to resolve outstanding matters. That is just the way it is. But if you are prepared to handpass an issue because it is politically too hot, because it really should not be decided by politicians or because the expertise you can bring to bear from an independent authority is a better way to go, you really have to go with it or have a good reason not to. That is about governments understanding the implications of the decisions they take and being prepared to wear the consequences—not just picking and choosing recommendations when they suit.

It has been a longstanding position of the Labor Party that in government we will reconsider the government’s refusal to recognise the service of the atomic test veterans as non-warlike hazardous. The Howard government and this minister have only offered excuses as to why they are refusing to implement this recommendation. I must admit I find the minister’s refusal to implement this recommendation a little surprising. The Clarke review received a number of submissions on this issue. I would now like to quote from one. It says:

Of all the individual cases and VEA ‘disappointments’ I have canvassed ... two distinct classes of claims seem unfairly treated.

I write in support of operational service such as mine clearing and nuclear veterans’ service being declared hazardous service under the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986.

Nuclear veterans’ service should be declared as hazardous service by the Review of Veterans’ Entitlements (Clarke Review), as Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel involved in the British atomic tests in Australia were placed in a life threatening environment. Only now are they and the community experiencing the true consequences of their service, in particular the devastating impact of exposure on the health and wellbeing of our veterans.

A high proportion of our veterans involved in the atomic tests have experienced conditions attributed to their exposure to radiation, with many losing their lives.

The author concludes:

Veterans involved in British atomic tests and mine clearance exercises deserve to be recognised as having carried out hazardous service. Although the battlefield may be less conventional, the threat to life and the danger to which our veterans were exposed amount to an active deployment into harm’s way.

The author of this submission to the Clarke review that argued for the atomic test veterans to be granted non-warlike hazardous service was none other than the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Bruce Billson MP. This raises the question of why the minister has dropped his support for the atomic test veterans. Why, when the minister finally had the chance to fix what he has called ‘unfair treatment’ and a ‘disappointment’, did he not take it?

Finally, I want to pose the question: is this just another example of the Howard government being strong on rhetoric when it comes to its treatment of the veteran community yet weak on action? This is a government that constantly wraps itself in the flag when it comes to the servicemen and servicewomen of this nation. It is a government that never refuses a photo with these great men and women. It is also a government that will quickly backflip on its earlier offers of support for veterans. Servicemen and servicewomen deserve to be treated as more than photo props. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect for their service.

Now, I hope I am wrong and the minister has not dropped his earlier convictions, in what would be a startling backflip. I call on the minister today to publicly clarify his position with respect to the Clarke review recommendations on the atomic test veterans. They are recommendations which he clearly endorsed in his submission to Clarke. I might add that in his submission there was no mention about waiting for any result from the health study, which he would have known, at that stage, was underway. He had the information at the time; he still came forward with a view to Clarke that action should be taken on the question of the classification of the service of these veterans. He has, since becoming minister, not acted upon the recommendation. Having said that, I commend the bills to the House and urge their speedy passage.


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