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Veterans mount legal challenge over atomic te -

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Veterans mount legal challenge over atomic testing legacy

Reporter: Suzanne Smith

SUZANNE SMITH: October 1952. Australian soldiers prepare for a cataclasmic blast. It is the start
of 11 years of British nuclear tests on Australian soil. The bomb was rigged in the hull of the
frigate HMS Plymm, in a lagoon off the Montebello Islands. The bomb is four times the size of the
one that devastated Hiroshima and radioactive dust particles spread as far as Brisbane and
Adelaide. RAAF pilots flew planes like this into the plume on sampling sorties, without any
protection or radiation monitoring devices. One week later divers spent four hours at Ground Zero
dropping a line into the lagoon to check for depth. Bill Fitzgerald was one of those men.

Were you wearing any protective clothing?

BILL FITZGERALD: No protective clothing, shorts only. I pulled the line up myself, hand over hand,
not realising at that stage that perhaps I could have been contaminated. Because there wasn't any
decontamination on that island for our crew until four or five weeks after the bomb.

SUZANNE SMITH: One month after detonation Bill Fitzgerald and his crew were again sent to the
Islands to test radiation levels. This time they wore protective clothing and were monitored.

BILL FITZGERALD: We were told not to switch our Geiger counters on until we were in a certain area,
but we did switch them on and we found that the Geiger counter went right off scale. That is
recorded in my papers, but all the other exposure is not recorded.

SUZANNE SMITH: Bill, like many other veterans, claim they were unaware of any risks to their

BILL FITZGERALD: I didn't even think about it. None of us did. Even though when Sir William Penny
took passage on our ship to the Montebellos, he did make a statement that some of us may be sterile
for a period of up to five years.

PROF GRANT SUTHERLAND: That amazes me, frankly.

SUZANNE SMITH: Geneticist, Professor Grant Sutherland, is the key scientific advisor to the
Department of Veterans Affairs' current investigation. He says there is no scientific basis for the
warning given by British Chief Scientist, Sir William Penny, seen here at the Emu Field test in
South Australia.

PROF GRANT SUTHERLAND: They may have been told that. I've got no idea of what the basis for that
information was. They would need to get far greater doses of radiation than I'm sure that anybody,
in other than an accident situation, would get for them to be sterilised by it.

SUZANNE SMITH: However Bill Fitzgerald believes the radiation did make him sterile for five years
and led to chronic illness for his granddaughter Phoebe. She was born with spina bifida.

BILL FITZGERALD: It's really upsetting me today because I'm going back over that life. I've got a
picture of her here. That's Phoebe in the wheelchair, and her shunt had malfunctioned. This was a
rather large deformity for this child. She was in a coma for 30 days.

PROF GRANT SUTHERLAND: The most likely event from small to moderate doses of radiation is that
there is a slight increase in the risk of leukemia and some cancers. The risks of increased
likelihood of having children with birth defects, though, has really never been shown. Spina bifida
is now recognised as being primarily due to a deficiency of folic acid very early in pregnancy.

SUZANNE SMITH: Such conclusions conflict with new research by two outspoken scientists in the UK.
The first is Dr Sue Rabitt-Roff.

DR SUE RABITT-ROFF: Work done at the laboratory level with mice and other creatures in the past 10
to 15 years, and work that was done in fact 50 years ago by scientists who won the Nobel Prize in
1947/1948, which was well known to the scientists who were developing the nuclear weapons tests,
shows that the damage can be transmitted through at least four to five generations of creatures.

SUZANNE SMITH: Dr Rabbitt-Roff also says that veterans' children in the UK are five times more
likely to suffer from spina bifida.

DR SUE RABITT-ROFF: The point about spina bifida is that it has been found in other populations and
other children where the parents have been involved in the radiation industry, whether it's the
weapons industry or the nuclear energy industry.

SUZANNE SMITH: However senior officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs say Rabbitt-Roff's
work has a gross recruitment bias. Her numbers come from the death certificates of vocal veterans
groups; their members are likely to be sicker than other vets. Unrepentant, Dr Rabbitt-Roff says
the opposition to her work, in Australia, is ironic.

DR SUE RABITT-ROFF: The irony is that in Australia veterans are paid compensation. I know of at
least a dozen cases where men have been compensated with one, 200, $A300,000 for injuries suffered
at nuclear weapons tests. But it's virtually a secret program, a closed program. The men are made
awards on the grounds that they don't discuss it with anybody for fear of losing the award. I think
the Government has a great fiscal interest in keeping this a very closed activity.

SUZANNE SMITH: The acknowledged radiation expert, Professor Yuri Debrova, studies irradiated
families living near the Chernobyl disaster and Soviet test sites. The fallout doubled the normal
rate of genetic mutation in families.

PROF YURI DEBROVA: When you irradiate people the mutation rate in their germ cells, eggs and
sperms, I would rather put it this way; sperms and eggs is elevated and therefore they pass more
mutations to their children than those families which have not seen exposure to radiation.

SUZANNE SMITH: While the 1985 Royal Commission found that one in four vets will contract some form
of radiation related disease, the Government contends smoking or service in the Korean and Vietnam
Wars might also influence cancer rates. The US Government, however, has a much more generous

The US Government compensates for 21 forms of cancer. In Australia we compensate for just two;
leukemia and multiple myeloma. Australian veterans are hoping a High Court action in the UK in June
will force a change in Government policy.

Bill Fitzgerald wants to make it clear that he has no gripes against the navy or the Department of
Veterans Affairs, but he wants the Australian Government to act.

BILL FITZGERALD: It's not about me, it's about all of the people that were involved, when
Marilinga, Montebellos, whatever. The air crews, the army guys, the navy fellows. A lot of people
were exposed to radiation.