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70th anniversary of Emu Field A-Bomb tests approaches

Written by: Nick G. on 22 September 2023


As a kid growing up in the western suburbs of Adelaide, a hand-painted slogan on the old bridge over the railway line on Henley Beach Rd (where the underpass is now) is firmly imprinted on my memory. I suspect it was done by CPA members in the late 50s.  It read “Ban all A- and H-Bomb Tests”.  It was unmistakable and lasted there for years.

A similar slogan had been painted on the wall of Government House in 1957 and a young member of the Moulders Union convicted and ordered to remove the slogan. 

The CPA paper Tribune gave regular coverage to atomic and hydrogen bomb tests on Monto Bello Island and at Emu Field and Maralinga. These were carried out by British imperialism and its local servants in violation of Australian independence and sovereignty, and against the wishes of the people.

Even before the tests, the CPA had begun a campaign against the creation of the Rocket Range on Mt Eba pastoral station. A town, later known as Woomera, was built to service the testing of rockets. Alf Watt, SA State Secretary of the CPA, published a booklet in the late 1940s titled Rocket Range Threatens Australia which first raised the issue of threats to First Peoples from the weapons tests.

The Central Australian Aborigine Reserve is to be violated. Across its 65,000 square miles there will pass a rocket range 200 miles wide. Falling missiles, some fitted with war-heads (including atomic war-heads) will endanger both the lives and food supply of the natives. With observation posts placed at I00 mile intervals along the range, the Reserve will be opened to white men, with disastrous effects upon the aborigines and their tribal organisation. 

Another crime is to be added to the long list by which the aborigines chiefly know us. It is the fashion of governments to proclaim New Deals for the natives. But practice, without exception, has been to destroy the aborigines as a race, and turn the survivors into virtual chattel slaves for the white exploiters.

The following drawing illustrated the passage above:

When the first tests of atom bombs on Australian soil were announced in 1953, Tribune again exposed the dangers to First Peoples:

Truth (October 4) said that “nomadic tribes of Aborigines have been rounded up…It is impossible to round up these tribes, impossible to stop them returning to their hunting grounds…Even if the atom blast does not kill and mutilate a number of Aborigines, it will devastate their hunting grounds, destroy their water holes, and devastate tribal territory that is sacred to them, and to which they believe their spirits will return after death. The inevitable result will be disastrous to the tribes.

Tragically, the scenario painted by the Tribune materialised with the first A-Bomb test at Emu Field on October 15, 1953. A second A-Bomb was detonated on October 27, 1953. The effect of these explosions was to render Emu Field contaminated by nuclear radiation, so the test site was moved to Maralinga where further tests were held in 1956.

Aboriginal people did die as a result of nuclear explosions on their lands. Yankunytjatjara man Yami Lester later became well-known for having suffered blindness from the black mist which blew across his family in the aftermath of a test. He became a much-admired activist against nuclear energy and for the rights of First Peoples. Paul Kelly’ song Maralinga references Yami Lester.

On September 21, 2023, the Adelaide Advertiser revealed that for nearly 70 years, the British imperialists have kept hidden from nuclear veterans and First Peoples the results of their blood tests taken between 1956 and 1960. The blood tests would have benefitted doctors treating people exposed to radiation from the bomb tests, but would have significantly assisted those tested in lodging claims for compensation from the British and Australian governments. Keeping these blood tests secret for all these years is a crime against the people concerned. Yami Lester’s daughter Karina has called for the records to be made public. 

During the time that atomic and hydrogen bombs were tested on Australia soil, the Communist Party encouraged unions and peace committees and the Union of Australian Women to condemn the tests and demand their cancellation. 

This was a strong campaign, but ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its objectives.

As the 70th anniversary of the Emu Field tests approaches, we must redouble our efforts against the contemporary abominations of the AUKUS arrangements, the preparations for fighting the US war against China, and the push to create an Australian nuclear energy industry.

Please seek out Emu Field commemorative activities and take part in them.


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