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Australian victims of nuclear testing sue U.K.

Aborigines and servicemen join class action, represented by Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister.

Hughie Winlass (L) and Barka Bryant, representatives of the Australian Aborigines who inhabited the Maralinga lands in South Australia, attend a press conference on Oct. 8, 1991 in London where they described their efforts to have the British government clean up the nuclear waste left behind during atomic tests in the 1950's. (Andre Camara/Reuters)

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.