SYDNEY, Australia — As a 21-year-old, Ric Johnstone drove 150 miles daily across the scorching vastness of the Australian outback to work. A motor mechanic in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), he spent 1956 servicing military vehicles in the Great Victorian Desert.
He lived with 300 other men in a tent town, eating dinners of bullied beef with the occasional vegetable. Johnstone described his first six months as similar to being a prisoner in a chain gang: “There was no church, no women, no entertainment, nothing.”
But half a year later, Johnstone’s problems were very different.
Even though he remained a motor mechanic, his responsibilities had changed: Instead of solely repairing vehicles he was ferrying British scientists around as they monitored nuclear explosions. Johnstone, along with 8,000 other Australian army personnel, was working at Maralinga for the now infamous British nuclear-testing program.
After accompanying the science team to yet another detonation site one week, Johnstone fell ill: “I was vomiting, had diarrhea and was constantly feeling awful. I would have to wear these full body suits in the heat. It was very uncomfortable.”
His colleague put it down to food poisoning, but the symptoms persisted. “I went to a doctor, he told me I have classic signs of radiation sickness,” Johnstone added.
In 1946, due to threats of the Cold War escalating, Britain was determined to be part of the elite group of nations that owned nuclear weapons. Scotland was briefly considered for the location of the tests, but in the end the barren desert of Australia was the chosen destination.
By 1953, under the government of Clement Attlee, a testing program was initiated. The first trials took place at the Montebello Islands, off the coast of Western Australia, then in Emu Fields in South Australia, but eventually a larger, more remote area was deemed necessary. In 1955, the British government announced a permanent site for the tests: Maralinga. The name was assigned by anthropologists to mean thunderstorm and the area was the size of Greater London.
While the Maralinga Tjarutja people, native to the region, were removed, many continued to wander the land visiting their sacred areas, even after seven major and 550 minor "experiments" were carried out. The tests churned through several tons of uranium and 44 pounds of plutonium. Native tribes complained of birth deformities in the decade that followed.
Johnstone’s generation was also not spared. Members of the Australian military believe they were not adequately warned of the danger, and entered contaminated zones wearing shorts and T-shirts. Their British counterparts wore protective suits. Some have developed cancers and thyroid problems since, and complain that the Australian government has done very little to compensate them. Just 2,000 of the 8,000 remain alive today. Johnstone, who now heads the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, attributes this to the effects of the testing.
Now, Aboriginal groups and veterans affected by the blasts plan to have their day in court. A group, so far consisting of 250 people, are suing the British Ministry of Defense for the range of cancers, deformities and trauma that has been caused by radiation exposure.
They are represented, ironically, by London firm Hickman and Rose and the barrister — or Queen's Counsel — for the case will be Cherie Booth, the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Their claim is spearheaded by a class action, lodged by former British servicemen, who were given the green light last year to sue the British government.
Those seeking compensation will include families of the "Womera babies" — 60 infants, born within a decade of the testing who died shortly after birth. And there will be 150 veterans like Johnstone.
“We have been appealing to the government to do something about the veterans for a long time,” said Johnstone. “Now all our mates are dead, our widows don’t have the pensions they should and we have offspring with genetic problems. The Australian government doesn’t seem to be interested.”
In 1993, under the Paul Keating administration the Australian government received 20 million British pounds ex-gratia to settle all future compensation claims — a sum that is worth roughly $98 million today.
Veterans say they have not seen any of it.
“I can’t get any sense from the government,” said Tom Goudkamp the lawyer representing the Australian veterans. “No one can explain why none of this has gone to the veterans. It’s as if the Australian government has just pulled the shutters down.”
Australia's Minister for Veterans' Affairs Alan Griffin recently told an Australian newspaper that the British money was used for site rehabilitation, and that the compensation status of nuclear veterans remains under review.
Maralinga’s rehabilitation was a monumental $97-million project.
Starting in 1993, the efforts involved burying the top layer of contaminated soil in 16-foot trenches, and plutonium-related apparatuses further underground, in 50-foot trenches. The trenches make up the one-seventh of the Maralinga land that is uninhabitable.
The rest of the 1,197-square-mile parcel of land was ceremoniously returned to the Maralinga Tjarutja people in December 2009.
Maralinga is still littered with relics from the testing: concrete slabs, fuel tanks and aluminium sheds. There are rumors the new Aboriginal owners will build a museum for tourists in the area or turn it into an ecological site. But Sue Packer, general manager of the Maralinga Tjarutja Council, says that those plans are distant. “For now the traditional owners are not looking to do much more than reconnect with their land.”