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Cabinet papers: Fallout continues from British atomic tests

A warning sign erected at the former nuclear bomb testing site in the north-west of South Australia. Photo: Bryan Charlton The British conducted a number of nuclear blasts at the Maralinga test site in the 1950s. Photo: Peter Solness

The atomic weapon test site in Taranaki, Maralinga, South Australia. Photo: Mayu Kanamori

The cabinet papers reveal how ignorant various Australian governments had remained about contamination at the British atomic test sites in Maralinga in South Australia.

They also erroneously believed that British clean-up operations were effective in removing plutonium contamination.

In October 1990 the cabinet was advised of the delicacy of approaching the government of Britain for a contribution to the final rehabilitation of the sites where atomic tests took place between 1956 and 1963.

In a submission, Energy Minister John Kerin said the question of British liability could be argued on legal grounds, although arguments based on moral or political responsibility might be more persuasive.

“The legal argument would be based on two intergovernmental agreements. Under a 1956 Memorandum of Arrangements Britain … accepts liability for such corrective measures as may be practicable in the event of radioactive contamination resulting from tests on the site,” he told the cabinet.

“In a 1968 Memorandum, Australia agreed to release the UK from liabilities and responsibilities under the 1956 Memorandum.

“There are grounds for Australia not regarding itself as bound by the 1968 release based on the doctrine of error. The error being Australia’s incomplete knowledge of the extent of plutonium contamination at Taranaki and belief that the (Operation) BRUMBY clean-up had been effective.”

Mr Kerin said Britain expected Australia to seek discussions on British liability.

“This is best done at head of government level rather than with my contact minister in the UK Defence portfolio, Lord Arran. An approach to Mrs Thatcher will indicate the importance Australia attaches to the issue. It may lead to a diluted role by the UK Ministry of Defence which because of its responsibility for the tests has difficulty in viewing the issue,” he said.

The cost of such works was calculated at $93 million, of which the British might be asked to pay $64 million. Anticipating the response that “the relatively recent growth of Aboriginal land rights movements was something which could not have been envisaged … and for which [the UK] has no responsibility”, the cabinet agreed that a moral approach might be more effective.

By 1993 an ex gratia payment of about $44 million was accepted from the British government as a “significant contribution” to enable the Maralinga Tjurutja people to return to all but 120 square kilometres of their traditional lands.

The following week, on October 15, the cabinet also agreed to the payment of $609,876 as the final settlement of 19 Aboriginal personal compensation claims arising from the British atomic tests.

Mr Kerin and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robert Tickner, told the cabinet that the Commonwealth would plead the Statute of Limitations if any Aboriginal initiated a common law action against Canberra.

Further, the ministers stipulated that if Yami Lester, a Yankunytjatjara man blinded by a “black mist from the south in the 1950s”, rejected the offer and proceeded with his common law action the Commonwealth should also plead the Statute of Limitations.

In a coda, Bob Hawke told journalists attending a National Archives briefing on the cabinet papers last month that Australia should take the world’s nuclear waste as a way to raise new revenue as an alternative to raising the GST or reducing expenditure.

“This is what my Chinese friends would call a win-win situation. The world would pay a great deal of money for us to taker nuclear waste. In the process we can transform our fiscal situation,” Mr Hawke said.

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the Archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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