Parliamentary Friends of the TPNW speeches on atomic legacies
15.06.23: Mr Wilson (4:55pm) – On 15 October this year we will mark the 70th anniversary of the first onshore detonation of a nuclear weapon in Australia. That test, called Totem 1, at Emu Field in South Australia was a 10-kilotonne bomb. In the following years there were seven further nuclear detonations at Maralinga and two at the Montebello Islands, off the coast of Western Australia. Several of the atomic bombs that were effectively self-inflicted on Australian soil were more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. On 27 September 1956 a 15-kilotonne bomb of the type called Red Beard was exploded from the tower at Maralinga. The mushroom cloud rose 11,400 metres, and radiation was detected in the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland.
Those tests occurred without proper parliamentary consideration or approval. They occurred with callous disregard for the rights and wellbeing of Aboriginal people in the APY Lands. The truth about the damage and contamination they wreaked upon community and country was hidden from the Australian public. At the time, Prime Minister Robert Menzies told parliament:
… that no conceivable injury to life, limb or property could emerge from the test …
What a ridiculous and baseless thing to have said.
The truth is that today Maralinga is one of the most toxic places on planet Earth. In 2021 a Monash University study found that, despite numerous multimillion dollar clean-ups, the presence of residual hot particles dispersed in the soil mean that in 24,000 years time there will still be almost two Nagasaki bombs worth of plutonium spread around the test site.
A study in 1999 for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association found that 30 per cent of those involved in the British nuclear tests died of cancer, most in their 50s. The outcome for Australian veterans and affected civilians has been the same: high rates of cancer, bowel disease, hip and spine deformities, miscarriages, PTSD, crippling anxiety and depression. Karina Lester’s father, Yumi Lester, a Yankunytjatjara man, was blinded. He was 10 years old at the time of the Totem 1 test. Maxine Goodwin’s father, a Royal Australian Air Force servicemen tasked with flying through one of the mushroom clouds, died of cancer at the age of 49. Douglas Brooks, who was made to stand in the blinding flash and blast wave of one of the Montebello tests as an 18-year-old on HMS Alert, has an untreatable bone disease and PTSD to this day. June Lennon was just four months old when her sister hid her from the aftermath of a nuclear explosion under a tarpaulin as the black mist rolled through.
Karina, Maxine, Douglas and June, who are here, have been in the parliament these last couple of days as ICAN ambassadors and atomic survivors. Their message is a clear one: ‘Never again. Nuclear weapons are wrong and unacceptable. They shouldn’t exist. They shouldn’t be tested. They can never be used.’ But we can’t just say these words. We must keep finding ways to change the status quo, because the status quo is a drift towards the increasing likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used again. The sharp lesson of the British nuclear tests is that we should never accept the bland assurances that nuclear technology is safe.
As the convener of the Parliamentary Friends of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it was a privilege that we could host and hear from Karina, Maxine, Douglas and June this week. It takes incredible courage and fortitude to tell their stories, which are understandably drenched in pain. But they’re determined that Australians should understand the truth. We’ve already experienced the self-inflicted harm of nuclear weapons in this country, and of course we exist in a region that was wrongly and immorally used as a testing ground for other countries’ worst and darkest weapons.
There is strong support in the Australian community for signing and ratifying the nuclear weapons ban treaty, and there is strong support in this parliament. Indeed, 108 parliamentarians have signed the ICAN pledge. It was a remarkable achievement—against the grain, against the cynical status quo—to see the treaty come into force, and that occurred in no small part thanks to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, which began life here in Australia. Australia should sign and ratify the TPNW and join the 68 nations that are already state parties to the treaty.
Once upon a time, people doubted it would be possible to ban mining in Antarctica, but Australia believed it could be done, and that’s what happened. People questioned whether Australia could be part of a convention that bans cluster munitions, because of our alliance relationships, but we were one of the first countries to sign that treaty in 2008. If we can’t find the resolve to be part of new and even radical global cooperation to shift the dial on nuclear weapons, we can only expect that nothing will change. We simply cannot allow that to be the case.
14.06.23:: Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (13:18): Today is 28,457 days since the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon in a New Mexico desert. Since that day there have been no less than 2,058 detonations, as part of either testing or warfare, as was seen so clearly and horrifically in the case of Nagasaki and the bombing of Hiroshima. On average, that is a detonation every two weeks.
There are a lot of philosophical questions that can be asked about the type of society that brought into being the nuclear bomb, saw its effects and then continued to detonate such weapons over 2,000 times. There is no such philosophical question, however, about the dangers these weapons continue to have for our entire planet and everything that lives upon it. They are very practical, real dangers. We can make no mistake about it. The continued existence of these weapons poses a threat of the most urgent nature to the continuation of life upon this planet.
If we take the entirety of human history and look at it as one year, the human race invented the nuclear weapon just three hours ago. That’s how long these weapons have been with us. Yet in those three hours what terrible destruction they have wrought upon this planet and upon people, whether it be the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether it be the terrible disasters of Chernobyl, Fukushima or Three Mile Island, or whether it be the continual reality that every single person on this planet lives mere moments away from a decision, made and held overwhelmingly within the hands of a powerful man, to at the push of a button or at the issuance of a command end millions of lives and condemn millions more to death. The question is not whether these weapons will be used on people again. The fact is that while they exist it is guaranteed that they will be, by the active intent of an individual or individuals, through a miscalculation or the making of a mistake as to the intention of another, or in the case of an accident.
Instruments like the TPNW are an important first step not just in ridding the world of these weapons but also in showing that so many countries, like Australia, are indeed serious about disarmament and are prepared to be leaders that other nations can follow. This treaty, championed, created and collaborated upon by the fantastic ICAN campaign, is an incredible contribution to the world’s store of international law and humanitarian practice. It is something of which we as a country should be proud, particularly to see that that campaign was the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for their work. It is far past time for the government to sign and ratify the TPNW. There can be no more dither, there can be no more delay and there can be no hiding behind the absence of global unanimity when no UN treaty has ever achieved such unanimity.
There is a massive cost to the continuing existence of nuclear weapons, but it is not an economic cost. It’s not even an opportunity cost. The cost is created by the continuation of the risk—the reality that while these weapons exist everything is but moments from destruction. We cannot let a mushroom cloud be the symbol of our failure.