Black Mist Memories: the Horrors of Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific

Left to right: Karina Lester, June Lennon, Douglas Brooks and Maxine Goodwin. (Photo: ICAN Australia)

In mid-June, four special people who know intimately the personal impacts of nuclear weapons testing, on physical health, mental health, and on the land, travelled to Parliament House in Canberra, Australia’s capital city.

The four were:

Karina Lester: Yankunytjatjara Anangu woman, senior Aboriginal language worker, ICAN Ambassador. Karina’s late father was blinded by the Totem 1 nuclear test at Emu Field.

June Lennon: Yankunytjatjara, Antikarinya and Pitjantjatjara woman who survived the Totem 1 nuclear test as a baby. Her mother, Lallie, and brother Bruce, were recipients of compensation due to their ill-health, caused by radioactive contamination.

Douglas Brooks: was stationed at Monte Bello Islands as a serving member of the Royal Australian Navy in 1956. He was aboard HMS Alert when a 98 kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated just ten miles away, exposing him and the rest of the crew to the full blast of the explosion.

Maxine Goodwin: is the daughter of an Australian nuclear veteran, who became ill as a result of his involvement in the first atomic test in Western Australia. He passed away at 49, leading Maxine to a lifelong search for the truth on how the tests have affected veterans and their families.

The delegates brought their expertise and personal testimonies to speak with parliamentarians about recognition, respect, and repair, and to urge Australia to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The delegates went from meetings, to phone interviews, to TV studios, to events and to more meetings. They criss-crossed the entire Parliament House. They met with the Foreign Minister and the office of the Prime Minister, Assistant Ministers and parliamentarians from across the political spectrum.

They spoke about the shock of witnessing a nuclear test, the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed, the oily black mist that coated and poisoned the land, the wide range of mental and physical health impacts, the loss of loved ones far too early, the lack of recognition of suffering, the lack of accountability, the impact of government lies and obfuscation.

They argued that Australia must join the ban to prevent such humanitarian harm from happening again, and also to fulfill its obligations under Articles 6 & 7 to provide assistance to victims and remediate impacted environments. It’s about the past, the present and the future.

Parliamentary Friends of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, co-chaired by Josh Wilson MP (Labor), Senator Jordon Steele-John (Greens) and Russell Broadbent MP (Liberal) hosted a press conference and event with the delegates, releasing this statementacknowledging their “bravery, fortitude, and advocacy” and affirming that “Australia’s timely signature and ratification of the Treaty would be a meaningful contribution to strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime at a time when that is urgently needed.”

Josh Wilson MP and Senator Jordon Steele-John both delivered powerful speeches in Parliament, respectively available here and here.

I have no doubt that the advocacy and real-life experiences of Karina, Maxine, June and Douglas have made a genuine impact on everyone they met in Canberra, fortifying the resolve of nuclear ban treaty supporters and opening the eyes of those yet to come on board. It is hard for any reasonable person to justify the legitimacy of nuclear weapons in any circumstances after truly listening to the pain and courage of nuclear survivors.

We don’t yet have clarity on when the government will follow through on Labor’s promise to sign and ratify the ban, but we won’t stop pushing until it’s done!

Further detail on the delegates’ meetings and media attention is in this blog post.

Gem Romuld is director the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Australia.