Civilians exposed to atomic bomb test radiation


ROBIN Craig had an unenviable task during his seven months as an SA police officer stationed at Maralinga for the British atomic tests in the 1950s.

Before each of three bombs exploded during the series codenamed Operation Antler, the 23-year-old constable had to assemble the civilian population of the Maralinga Village at its community oval.

Mr Craig, 67, of Athelstone, was ordered by British military officers to conduct roll calls to ensure up to 400 people, from bankers to postal clerks, were accounted for before the devices were detonated.

He has told The Advertiser the civilians would gather on the oval, with the instructions they could not leave until after the bombs exploded on towers less than 40km away, between September 14 and October 9, 1957.

"Everyone had to go to the oval about an hour before the bombs went off so they could be accounted for. We could see the towers from where we were," he said.

"When there was 10 minutes left to go, nobody could go anywhere. If they had to go to the toilet or anything, they had to do it in their pants.

"Instructions would come across from the British that we had to stand with our backs turned to the bombs and put our hands over our eyes.

"When they went off there would be this almighty flash which could blind you and it was like a hot towel was being put on the back of your neck.

"After that we were actually told it was all right to turn around to look at them. The last one was hotter than the other two, that's how close we were."

Soon after the explosions, the Maralinga Village was hit by strong wind gusts which coated buildings and equipment with contaminated radioactive dust.

Mr Craig was sent to Maralinga on May 15, 1957, where he was issued with a BSA Gold Flash motorcycle and sidecar, which he regularly rode through areas contaminated by tests during Operation Buffalo the previous year.

On one occasion, soon after his arrival, Mr Craig was told by a guard that "it was okay to go into the forward zone (where a bomb had exploded the year before) if I stayed between the yellow tapes on either side of the track". "The forward zones were really busy places, with a couple of thousand of civilians staying in camps doing building work, excavating and building roads." he said.

Mr Craig said he was never issued with protective clothing during his time at Maralinga – instead wearing khaki shirts and pants through highly contaminated areas.

The only protection he had was a "small, sticky radioactive badge which got all sweaty and dusty and was bloody useless, if you ask me".

"Nobody ever told me to shower or anything. I would bring my dirty clothes home and wash them," he said.

"I never saw any white radiation suits where I went."

Mr Craig, who is still fit and healthy, said many of the people he knew at Maralinga had since died from cancers and other illnesses, many of them when they were relatively young men in their 30s and 40s.

"There's a whole heap of blokes I knew who have died," Mr Craig said. "In fact, I'm one of the last left from the group I got to know."

Mr Craig was among 8907 civilians named last week by the Federal Government as being participants of the atomic tests held in Australia between 1952 and 1957.

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