After The Fallout
Article courtesy of The Sun-Herald – TERRY SMYTH
February 7, 2010
Australian soldiers who cleaned up after the British atomic tests at Maralinga have never received compensation, writes TERRY SMYTH.
There’s a radiation warning sign on Ric Johnstone’s front door. It’s a joke, an intro to Johnstone’s dark sense of humour. And in his living room, over the bar, is a framed colour photograph of a mushroom cloud. That’s no joke, however. For this former RAAF airman it is the blight of his life. Johnstone, 76, was one of some 8000 servicemen exposed to radioactive fallout during the British atomic tests at Maralinga in the South Australian desert. Four nuclear bombs were exploded in the year he spent at the test site and his work took him deep into the “hot zone”.
As president of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, he is leading a group of Australians joining 800 British ex-servicemen in a class action against the British government. In a landmark ruling, a British court has granted British Maralinga veterans the right to sue their government for compensation.
Australian veterans, denied recognition and compensation by successive Australian governments, have decided to join the action. Nuclear veterans, who were not told of the risks they were facing, have a high rate of cancer and other serious afflictions, with a high death rate to match.
All Johnstone’s Maralinga mates are dead and he considers himself lucky to be alive. He takes daily doses of morphine for chronic pain, has suffered two heart attacks, a blood disorder and melanomas. When he first showed symptoms of radiation sickness he was labelled psychotic and for decades has been debilitated by stress. His children were born with apparent genetic defects and he fears for future descendants of veterans.
In 1956, Leading Air Craftsman Ric Johnstone was a mechanic at RAAF Base Lapstone, near Penrith. He was 22 and had been in the service for about a year. “I was called up one day and told, ‘We want good mechanics at a place called Maralinga. We can’t tell you much about it because it’s top secret, but put all your stuff in storage and just take a toothbrush and a change of underwear.”‘
He travelled by train to RAAF Base Edinburgh, in South Australia, where he joined a group of about 60 servicemen. “We were told to sign the secrecy act and warned that if we talked to anybody about where we were going, took any photographs or made sketches, we could be ‘removed from society’. “A train came into the base, we were all issued with a cardboard carton with canned fruit, bully beef and biscuits, and away we went. For three days, the train shunted around all over the world, it seemed to us, and headed out to a siding in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain.”
From the siding, they headed north in a convoy of vehicles. “We drove over the desert for 43 miles [80 kilometres] to a large clearing called – guess what? – Camp 43.” There, a warrant officer announced: “The reason you’re here is because you’re establishing the site for Britain to test its atomic weapons.” Johnstone recalls: “Atomic bombs, we knew, had ended the Second World War but we knew and were told nothing about radiation or the long-term effects of exposure.” Johnstone’s job was servicing the vehicles at the camp but a few weeks later was told he was to be “the NRMA man”. That meant driving out into the desert to repair or salvage broken-down vehicles. In his travels, he came across no Aboriginal people. “I did run into signs of them but they’d all been evacuated – hopefully.”
Six months later, Camp 43 was abandoned. “The camp was at the base of the test tower where they were going to let off the first bomb, so we moved to what became the village of Maralinga. About September, my job was changed. They wanted a couple of good mechanics at the decontamination centre. So me and Corporal Paddy Hughes – an Irishman – went to the centre, which was a few kilometres out of Maralinga village, run by the Radiation Detection Unit of the Royal Canadian Engineers. After a detonation, their job was to go in and measure the radiation.
“Our job was to decontaminate the vehicles.We spent four or five hours a day in the hot zone after the bombs went off. We’d go over them with high pressure steam until there was no longer a Geiger counter reading on the vehicles. “In the beginning, we wore masks, which we now know had asbestos filters but in temperatures of around 45 degrees you can’t wear a rubber mask and expect to breathe through it. We had to pull the mask open to let the sweat pour out. So we gave up wearing the headgear and found we couldn’t work with gloves on.
The vehicles had big air cleaners that you had to turn a wing nut to open up and at the bottom of the oil was the hottest part – full of radioactive dust. But we could only do it if we took our gloves off.” Out in the hot zone, ground zero was an eerie sight. “It completely wipes the top of the earth and turns it into pellets of glass. Green glass. It looks very strange, especially when you’re walking among vehicles that are turned on their backs and on fire, buildings you knew were there but aren’t there any more, and rows of dummies that aren’t there any more.” On return from the hot zone, decontamination meant a shower with coarse scrubbing brushes until given the all clear by a Geiger counter. “The main problem was your fingernails. More often than not, we had trouble with our hands and it was back to the showers and scrub, scrub, scrub.” Towards the end of his tour of duty, Johnstone experienced bouts of nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. “We had no doctor there but we had an aid post run by a medical orderly. He said ‘It’s the bloody food you’ve been eating.”‘
In November, 1956, Johnstone left Maralinga for Adelaide. “I got married in Adelaide but soon started getting attacks of nausea and diarrhoea again. I was posted back to my unit in NSW, where I reported to the air force doctor who took blood tests. Three days later, I was told to report to the hospital. “There, I saw a form that the same doctor had filled in, saying I had radiation sickness. I was there for about a week and never saw that doctor again.” He was kept in isolation. Through his window he saw a mate from Maralinga being brought in but wasn’t allowed to visit him, even though he was told the man had only a broken leg. “A couple of days later, an orderly told me the bloke had died.” Of a broken leg? “There were complications,” the orderly said.
Johnstone was told he was suffering from an anxiety disorder. “I asked if it had anything to do with Maralinga and was reminded that I’d signed the secrecy act. I was given tablets to take and sent home. I didn’t know what the tablets were, but I was getting around like a zombie. Finally, I decided to find out what these tablets were, so I took them to a chemist.” The tablets were chlorpromazine, a powerful anti-psychotic drug. Another attack of severe nausea landed him in a military hospital where, against his will, he was given insulin coma therapy, a dangerous treatment whereby people diagnosed with schizophrenia were injected with large doses of insulin to induce a coma and convulsions. The treatment has long since been discredited. “They did it to me several times, and I was weak like a rag doll and my memory was wiped. “Fortunately, there was a psychiatrist there who was one of the good guys. He said there was no reason for me to have that treatment and it was discontinued.”
Discharged from the service in 1958 as medically unfit, Johnstone worked as a mechanic in Gladesville. “It was at a garage called – believe it or not – Atomic Motors. But I started getting these attacks like bombs were going off again and I wanted to run but didn’t know where to run to. I thought ‘This is crazy! Maybe I am schizophrenic!’ ” Meanwhile, he had become the father of two boys. “Both were born with what was described at the time as slight genetically linked defects. One never grew any teeth or hair, and the other had a mild cleft palate.” In 1960, Johnstone admitted himself to a psychiatric clinic. He was told he was not schizophrenic but that he had “emotional problems” and was an admitted for a year. “Then I went home and never stepped outside my house for almost 12 years. I was agoraphobic but I continued to work from home. People brought their cars to me to service.”
In 1972, Johnstone and other veterans formed the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association. “It was founded in my living room and we held meetings there because I wouldn’t go out.” Lobbying by the association and other veterans’ groups pressured the Hawke government to set up the 1984 McClelland Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia. The commission found that the Maralinga site was still dangerously radioactive and, in 1993, the British government paid the Australian government $35 million towards the cost of a clean-up. In 1994, the Australian government paid $13.5 million to the indigenous inhabitants of the Maralinga area as compensation for the contamination of the land. But not a cent has even been paid to the victims of the tests for the damages to their health. Thus the move to join the British vets in suing the British government. Under the terms of the 1993 agreement, any compensation won by the class action would be paid by the Australian government.
So far, 100 Australians have joined the class action and it is hoped up to 200 more will join. The case is being led by Sydney legal firm Stacks/Goudkamp, on a no-win, no-fee basis. “I’ve met the bloke who’s running it, Tom Goudkamp, and he seems a good sort of bloke,” Johnstone says. “And I’ve met some of the Pommy lawyers when they came over here and they all seemed good blokes – for Poms, that is. “All we really ever asked for was recognition of our hazardous service and full entitlements, which would mean we can die with some dignity and get some protection for our offspring in the future. “But the government has played this game for 50 years.
Even if we win in court, all they have to do is keep stalling until we’re all dead.”
Maralinga veterans wishing to join the British court case can register at www.maralingaclassaction.com.au.