Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2856


Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK(12.02) —I want to comment upon a number of matters arising out of discussions on the estimates for the Department of Resources and Energy. Let me start with the matter of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963. Actually, my questions on this matter started the day before the Estimates Committee E hearing, when we had before this chamber a statement by the Government on its response to the Royal Commission's report. In that response the Government referred to a phenomenon which it called `the black mist'. I then asked the Government to answer a series of questions, foreshadowing that I would ask them in the Estimates committee hearing. Those questions were, in precis: Was there any scientific proof that there was a black mist? If so, what was the nature of that black mist? Was it caused by natural disturbances, by dust or by other particulate matter in the atmosphere? Was it caused by radioactive materials? If it was caused by radioactive materials, was the radioactive intensity of such a nature that it would have adverse effects on people, either in terms of morbidity or death?

The important point was that a statement had been made by the Government and the matter had been represented to the people as though the black mist actually existed. The purpose of that was to represent to the people that they could take it for granted that such a phenomenon had existed, the inference being that it had a radioactive background and that it therefore could have caused morbidity or death, and people could act upon that. The Government had taken an action which I applaud: It had arranged that civilians other than those who had been in Commonwealth employ could in future make an approach to the Commonwealth Office of the Commissioner for Employees Compensation. I acknowledge that that is sensible. I also acknowledge that that body has a gentle onus of proof; that is, it does not have to have before it specific proof that a particular illness or death was in fact caused by radioactivity. The Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) was good enough to answer those questions and I want to respond to those answers. First of all, what the Minister quite clearly said was that the only proof the Government had was in terms of a scientific study. He said:

All I can really do is summarise, essentially, the evidence as it is discussed in chapter 6.4 of the Royal Commission report. The key to it, I suppose, is the scientific study which was conducted by Roche and Vallis and which was issued by the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. This concluded that there could have been a fallout cloud from the Totem 1 test on 15 October 1953 at Emu similar to that which is described in the anecdotal evidence. This is based on mathematical modelling of available data on the meteorology and debris cloud from the test. That study concluded, however, that the highest possible radiation doses that could be deduced from the models could not have resulted in short term adverse health effects on persons in the area concerned and that the possibility of long term carcinogenic effects was negligible compared with the probability of natural incidence. The only non-anecdotal evidence of the existence of the black mist is a report of a meeting 10 days after the Totem 1 test, which in paragraph 14 referred to the site of the cloud. I have that particular extract. I assume that it is a publicly available document if you want to look at it.

Later, under further questioning, the Minister said:

That is the only available scientific evidence to us.

I want to make the point that the Minister has a duty not simply to refer to the black mist as though it were an established phenomenon but to say to the people of Australia that facts came out in the evidence to the effect that, if there were such a radioactive cloud, the only scientific evidence is that its nature and intensity was such that in fact it could not have done harm in terms of illness or death. That is fundamental to the understanding of this matter by people outside. The ordinary people in the community, whether Aboriginal or otherwise, are entitled to know whether there was such a phenomenon, whether they could have been affected by that phenomenon and, indeed, if they were to go to common law, what kind of compensation they could get. I stress-the Minister made this point and I acknowledge it-that people do not need hard evidence if they are going to the Office of the Commissioner for Employees Compensation. The important point I want to establish, though, is this: A lot of anecdotal evidence has been created as a result of the British atomic tests. I think it is the duty of a government as well as an opposition to try to establish what is fact and what is simply anecdotal. I repeat: The only scientific evidence reinforced by the Minister is to the effect that, if there were that cloud, that cloud could not have in fact done any appreciable damage to the health of people. It is fair for that to be known so that people, in that knowledge, if they wish, may embark upon legal activity at their cost or, on appraising the situation, may decide not to do so.

It is common knowledge that, in terms of morbidity and mortality, the incidence of neoplasms, the cancers of this world, will come to something like one in four or more people in this community in the ordinary course of living, from the ordinary effects of cosmic rays, of the rocks around us, of our own bones and of the foods we ingest. One in four people will develop neoplasms. So the existence of neoplasms in a person is not necessarily any proof at all that the existence of a phenomenon around that person caused it. It may be that these would occur during the ordinary journey through life. An authoritative publication of the World Health Organisation stated that there were 100 times more chances of contracting cancer from all other matters than from radioactivity. That is not to say that that study had in mind this sort of deliberate explosion, and large doses of radioactivity.

I wanted to make it clear that the Government, in its response, when it referred to the black mist, was not referring to a phenomenon that it accepted as being a phenomenon caused by radioactivity, that it was not accepted by the Government that such a phenomenon was of an intensity that could have caused physical harm, and that it used the term in an anecdotal fashion and in no other way. I will seek in a moment to draw from the Minister such confirmation, which is derived from answers he has given. The fact is that during the period a number of epidemics of measles and german measles occurred in Aboriginal communities throughout the area and throughout Australia. There is considerable medical evidence that there was health damage and, indeed, death, because tragically, Aborigines are very susceptible to white people's diseases. Indeed, there is evidence that a loss of eyesight or a diminution of eyesight had been caused by such matters.

I want, and have always wanted, every detail of the British atomic tests to be sought out, found and proven. If, as I have repeated many times in the Senate, there is evidence that any single person was affected by any of the radioactivity, that person should be compensated. Equally, it is absolutely important, now we have had a royal commission-sadly, a royal commission that indulged more in melodrama than in fact-for us to get to the facts, and let us use a common language when we discuss it in the Parliament and when the Government refers to it with the people. I ask the Minister: Will he take note of this evidence? Will he reinforce the fact that, as he said, the only scientific evidence is that evidence to which I have referred? Will he make it clear to the public that this is the only evidence and that, indeed, there are legal recourses open to people if they wish to act and if they have any further evidence?

I remind the Committee of the health study which I authorised some years ago, which involved 15,600 Commonwealth employees who were inside that area. All health records, all dosimeters-that is, the radioactive badges they carried-and all death certificates were examined so that we could see what kind of an impact the radioactivity had made. I remind people-it is worth reminding them-that 10,000 people, from memory, were located, offered health checks and recourse to compensation, and 1,500 death certificates were examined. The epidemiological study concluded-and I believe the Royal Commission accepted-that there was no evidence that the radioactivity fallout from the British tests had damaged people's health.

Having said that, I do not want to appear to be closing the door. I want to say, as the Minister has said, that the door of the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Commissioner is open, both to Commonwealth employees and, as I understand it, in future-and I welcome it-to other associated people. The onus upon people is much less heavy. Anybody who feels that he has been aggrieved should avail himself of this opportunity. I remind people also that there is the availability of common law. I point out that the number of people who have sought to avail themselves of common law has been very small-a handful of people over a period of years. Some of them, undoubtedly, waited for the results of the Royal Commission and also the Commonwealth's response to it. I point out that no one as yet has succeeded in common law. I urge that, in all of these matters, in fairness to the people of Australia, we tell the facts precisely, neither underestimating nor exaggerating them. I do not reflect on the Minister. I simply make a plea that when we use a phrase such as `black mist' we identify what we mean by it. I invite the Minister to respond.