Woomera: Nuclear danger zone

By Ken Eastwood 10 May 2010
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One-eighth of SA is a no-go zone; a place of secret military testing, nuclear explosions and a heck of a lot of sheep.

THUNDER RUMBLES OVER FLAT saltbush country half an hour’s drive out of Coober Pedy. Dark clouds on the horizon don’t bode well. Out here, 25 mm of rain turns the clay into a quagmire, impassable even by a 4WD.

Coober Pedy’s clustered mullock heaps are sparser here and small rises seem like major geographical features. Off to the west a steel drill rig, 11 m high, stands straight against the blackened sky. Easily the highest thing around, it’s just begging for a lightning strike. At its base, in the increasing rain, opal miner Philip Lewis – the only bloke around for miles – is sorting through the dirt from his latest investigation hole. He doesn’t like what he sees.

This new opal field, Opal Ridge, was ‘discovered’ just two weeks ago, in the largest opal region in the world. Other miners have called it quits for the day, but Phil’s still going. “On a good field you’ll get a lot of consistency; here every drill is different,” Phil says, pawing through the small heap.

Twenty years back, not far from here, Phil lost one of his legs in an opal-mining accident. He was more than 20 m underground, in front of a tunnelling machine, when his partner accidentally hit the start button. The drill caught his boot and dragged him under the machine, twisting and mangling one ankle, and shredding the other leg. He tied a torniquet around the worst leg – knowing it was a goner – and sang Welsh hymns to himself for an hour in the dark while waiting to be rescued.

But the accident didn’t bleed the opal from his veins. “This is my hobby,” Phil says, lowering the rig for the day. “I’m so happy to be alive.” He gestures out at the emptiness behind him. “I just like the space. And it’s exciting – you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Woomera Prohibited Area Map

Occupying 127,000 sq. km of SA, the WPA is mainly pastoral country that’s used for weapons tests, rocket launches and other experimental programs.  View Large Map

Opal Ridge is in the north-east of the mysterious Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA). Most of the WPA is off limits to all without multiple permits. Phil, for example, has a permit from the Department of Defence to mine in this area that’s home to secret military testing, joint defence projects, sheep stations, a controversial detention centre, more than 4000 rocket launches and nine devastating atomic-bomb trials. A growl of thunder off to the west reminds me of this explosive past.

to hint at the almost unbelievable history of the WPA. Cloud formations and car-high myall trees take on the shape of nuclear mushroom clouds. Beautiful stretches of tarred road in the middle of nowhere identify where rocket-tracking cameras stood. Around station homesteads, rocket pieces stand like gnomes. Each of the homesteads also has its own bomb shelter, although most have rarely been used according to grazier Wayne Rankin, of 4350 sq. km The Twins station – one of 23 huge sheep runs in the WPA. “Everyone was meant to go in them for every rocket launch,” he says. “I’d prefer to be outside – you might as well see it coming.”

In the post–WWII era of Cold War paranoia, Prime Minister Ben Chifley set aside most of the north of SA for the “testing of war materials”, including British long-range weapons. Another area was set aside in the Pilbara, wa. Points inside the two areas were conveniently the same distance apart as London and Moscow.

The WPA was reduced to about half its size in 1972, but at 127,000 sq. km – that’s twice as big as Tasmania – there’s still plenty of room to swing a cattle truck. It’s a mix of scrubby country, from mallee and red sandhills, to spinifex country, open mulga woodland, gleaming white saltpans, shrublands on red gibber, and grasslands of woollybutt, white tip and kerosene grass. Along the dog fence, which runs through the area, skulls of dingoes and foxes lie among yellow everlastings and wild geraniums.

The average summer temperature out here is 35.5°C, but the station owners will tell you they’ve clocked at least 52°C. The air is thick with flies ready to crawl into your mouth: perhaps this is the cauldron in which the great bush drawl was forged, with lips opening no more than absolutely necessary. Apart from the flies, the wildlife isn’t that visible – there’s the odd sleepy lizard, magpie, charm of zit-zitting zebra finches, western brown snake, kangaroo or the volcano-like mounds of dreaded inch ants. Flocks of white-browed babblers and beautiful Major Mitchell cockatoos become highlights.

In among the black bluebush, saltbush and paper daisies lie innumerable indications of the area’s long human history. Serrated cutting stones, piri points, scrapers and other artefacts lie everywhere, for those with a sharpened sense of what to look for. “You can virtually walk off the Stuart Highway and find artefacts out in the middle of nowhere,” says Andrew Starkey, indigenous liaison officer for the area, pointing out another stone chip. “Look, someone’s dropped their pocketknife here.”

Andrew’s people, the Kokatha, were a large nation of desert dwellers with lands from Coober Pedy to the coast. With water scarce (an average of just 175 mm rain a year and evaporation rates 20 times greater) the Kokotha tended to move around in small family groups, coming together for big events at large soaks, rockholes or sacred sites. “The old fellas would tell me that travelling through this country you’d suck the moisture out of anything – lizards, birds, little finches. They’d stone them and suck the guts out of them. I think I’d rather suck on that bottle of water,” he says, reaching into his 4wd.

Indigenous peoples followed songlines of totems such as the emu and sleepy lizard until white settlers brought massive changes from the late 19th century on. “Ooldea soak [near the south-west corner of the WPA] was the main soak in the area and the Kokatha boundary – they had a lot of interaction with other peoples there,” Andrew says. “But when the railway went in [1917] they pumped 70,000 gallons [318,000 L] out of there a week, and in two years they pumped it dry.”

When areas in the west of the WPA – now known as part of the Maralinga Tjarutja lands – were identified in the 1950s as a top spot for the British to do their next round of nuclear bomb testing, nobody checked if that was all right with the locals. In fact, many Aboriginals were fortunate to be found and moved out of the area before the nine full-scale blasts – some of which were as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. “There was one person in charge of moving people out of an area the size of some European countries,” Andrew says.

Sitting in the salmon-coloured dust outside the locked gates of Maralinga – the area where seven of the atomic blasts occurred – Hughie Windlass, community elder and chairperson of the Oak Valley Council, vividly remembers Army trucks moving Aboriginals out of the area before the nuclear testing. He was in his mid-20s. “In those days they don’t care about blackfellas. They say ‘get the hell out of it’.” Hughie says most of his people were moved to missions in sa or wa. “But people were still there, hidden out of the way. They were still there. I remember, I seen it, with my own eyes.” Hughie slows his speech and gestures gently with his hands. “Place here. A few people been laying out here. A fire here. Sleep beside. There were no blankets to keep you warm in those days. I seen the place.”

Hughie remembers after the blasts they caught kangaroos that they couldn’t eat because they were yellow inside. His people then avoided the Maralinga area. “We don’t live around it – we go through it,” he says, indicating the area behind him. “We don’t hang around there.”

The 2 m high locked gate at Maralinga is actually a ruse. If you walk 100 m, you could illegally go right around it. There’s no armed guard keeping people out of the nuclear-contaminated zone. But there are two lovely, perpetually beaming caretakers, Dianne and Leon Ashton. Ex-residents of Kalgoorlie, wa, they sold their home, bought a caravan, and set off around Australia, but got no further than Maralinga when the three-year contract for caretakers came up. “We’re having a ball,” Dianne says. “We love it out here.”

The area they look after is a 3125 sq. km area called Section 400, now separated from the rest of the WPA. Mainly a series of dunes snaking east–west, it includes nuclear blast sites and the whole ghost town of Maralinga.

“I love being involved in something unique,” Leon says. “How many people do you know who can put their hand up and say they were the manager of an atom-bomb site? It’s like owning your own cattle station without the cattle. If you go outside this area, it’s traditional hunting land. Where do the bush turkeys hide? They come and hide up here. I like the look, I love the desert. I love the solitude of it.”

Many of the 8000 military personnel who worked during and after the atomic testing don’t have such fond memories.

IN 1956, RIC JOHNSTONE, who lives on the NSW Central Coast, was a leading aircraftsman at Maralinga. He’s now head of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, a group trying to get recognition, medical services and compensation for those who worked at Maralinga. “I’m still alive to talk about it, but most of the blokes I went with aren’t,” he says. “How I survived, nobody knows.”

Ric’s jobs included driving into ‘hot’ areas days or even hours after the explosions, escorting scientists who took measurements. He would then remove vehicles and equipment left within the blast zone to areas where the explosions’ effects could be examined. “There might be a truck on its side and we’d go in and right it, and if it started, we’d drive it back out to the decontamination site,” he says. He’d then wash down and service the vehicles while wearing a variety of protective clothing that generally proved useless. “It was all experimental. Would this suit protect us? No, it didn’t. Can you wear these gloves to do this job? No, you can’t. Can you use another set of gloves, no you can’t… We couldn’t work with the breathing gear or with gloves. It was so bloody hot that you really didn’t want anything extra on – particularly on your face.

“There was a mask that fitted around your chin and every so often you had to pull it down and tip the sweat out or you’d drown in your own sweat. The stink of the rubber nearly made you spew anyway.”

Ric’s stint at Maralinga was less than 12 months. He left with diarrhoea, vomiting, the shakes and a white-blood-cell count that sent doctors reeling, and was discharged medically unfit for service. One of several doctors he saw in Sydney didn’t believe his story. “He actually rang the Defence Department to ask if there had been nuclear tests in Australia, and they said ‘no’. He thought I was schizophrenic. Actually I had radiation poisoning that left me with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The veterans association had 2000 members when Ric started it in 1972. There are now less than 500. “Most are dead from what we consider to be radiogenic diseases,” Ric says. “The reason the testing was top secret wasn’t to keep the information from the enemy, it was to keep it from the public. When they let that first bomb off, they really didn’t know what they were doing.

 “Basically we were all 20-year-old kids, we just did what we were told. We didn’t even know where we were going, then we were told we’d be testing nuclear bombs, and we thought, ‘Oh, all right’. When we were told we were going to Maralinga, we thought, ‘Great, we’re going overseas – Malaysia or somewhere’. And then we were taken secretly by train and dropped in the middle of the desert.

“See, we were soldiers. We were expendable.”

THERE HAVE BEEN EIGHT clean-up operations at Maralinga’s nuclear testing sites. During the most recent, extensive effort, which finished in 2000 and cost around $100 million, 350,000 cubic metres of contaminated topsoil was scraped from 225 ha by modified earth-moving equipment, then buried. Rabbits are now contentedly sheltering in the side of these massive pits.

In some areas where the topsoil wasn’t scraped and cleaned away, such as Emu, another nuclear test site in the north-west of the WPA, shiny ‘bomb glaze’, formed when sand fused together in the intense heat of the blast, lies scattered on the surface. Geiger-counter readings here are up to 100 times higher than surrounding levels. But according to scientists in charge of the clean-up, the biggest concern wasn’t this legacy of the nine full-scale atomic blasts, but the remains of the 550 “minor trials”, in which plutonium, beryllium and uranium were blown up. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, and is therefore considered dangerous for about a quarter of a million years. Just 1 mg of this stuff – perhaps inhaled during a dust storm, or while digging in the dirt – can be fatal. After the clean-up the risk of this happening to someone living in the area was estimated at less than 1 in 10,000: minimal enough for the government to declare the contaminated area safe for visits and hunting, but not habitation. It offered to hand over the management of the land to the Maralinga Tjarutja people (who requested millions of dollars to help them manage it, a matter still unresolved). “There is a low-level risk, but it is very low and within international guidelines,” says Keith Baldry, director of the Radiation Protection Division of the sa Environment Protection Authority. “The clean-up was done to a very high standard. There was a lot less plutonium than we expected.”

But not everyone is convinced. Alan Parkinson, who was one of the original leaders of the clean-up team before being removed from it, and has since been described as a whistleblower, describes the project as “botched”. “I was so disgusted with what had gone on,” he says. “They just dug up everything, and dropped it in a shallow bare hole in totally unsuitable  geology, and called that world’s best practice – that’s not even world’s best practice for disposal of human corpses.”

The clean-up team began using a process called ‘in situ vitrification’, in which contaminated equipment buried by the British in a former clean-up would be fused together by electricity. The resulting block would then be reburied. However, on the 13th melt, the vitrification machine and the pit it was on blew up. The vitrification contractor blamed explosives hidden in the pit, but an independent assessor disagreed. Either way, Alan believes the government adopted a she’ll-be-right approach, abandoning vitrification altogether. “It was only ever a partial clean-up. It was never a total clean-up,” he says.

Laid-back caretaker Leon is careful, but far from concerned. “I had to change a tyre out at Taranaki [one of the bomb sites],” he says. “I was scrounging around in the bulldust. I wasn’t overly concerned about it. You’d have more chance of injuring yourself out here with a tripping accident than you would from any sort of contamination.”

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the WPA, behind a series of locked gates and razor wire, a giant white golf ball sits hidden in a valley. The mournful cry of a solitary crow scratches across an abandoned tennis court. Three emus and two western grey kangaroos are the only things moving.

As a uni student in the ’80s, I’d protested against Nurrungar’s three giant golf balls and others like them around the country. Called radomes, each houses a 21 m diameter antenna dish – the key features of this joint us–Australian spy facility that became operational in 1970. The Woomera Heritage Centre states Nurrungar was used to pinpoint targets for the American bombing of Cambodia in 1973. At the facility’s peak, 220 people worked here on day shift alone.

Nurrungar is one of many projects that’s seen Woomera township wax and wane. Woomera was established in 1948 to house up to 6000 military personnel and others working in the WPA. In the 1970s, defence testing and rocket launches were being wound down, but the Americans brought new life, building a bowling alley and strong sporting leagues. When Nurrungar closed in October 1999, Woomera’s population of 1200 was doomed to plummet. But as the Americans were packing their bags, the controversial Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre was established, providing jobs for the town again. When it closed in 2003, the population fell to 160. Renewed interest in the range from commercial groups and the military has built the town back up to a stable 300.

“For a town of 300 in outback Australia, you won’t find anywhere that has the amenities that we have,” says Garry Clarke, officially manager of corporate services and infrastructure at Woomera, and unofficially the town mayor. “We have tenpin bowling, squash courts, a pool, cinema, large hotel and a gymnasium better equipped than you’ll find in Sydney. The school facilities are incredible – it’s a school built for 1000 kids and it’s got 55.”

Strangely, Woomera – although open to the public to visit since 1982 – is a Defence-controlled town. No individuals own houses. “There are very strict rules on who lives here,” Garry says. “You have to support Defence in some way – you have to have a job. Everyone in Woomera knows that they can be evicted at any time. We can ask contractors to remove staff if they don’t fit what we’re after.”

Few know the changing fortunes of Woomera as well as Roger Henwood. The ultimate boy among big toys, he’s lived at Woomera since 1966, initially as a metal-trades apprentice, working on everything from military vehicles to rockets. There were 6800 people in the town then. Roger worked through the “time of rockets” in the late ’60s when there were 16 blast-offs each day. A walking encyclopaedia with a terry-towelling cover, he speaks knowledgeably about once-secret rocket programs – Black Knights, Dazzle, Blue Streak, Skylarks – and describes his favourite research programs, like when Alouette 7 ’copters would catch rocket payloads in nets as they dropped from the sky. He laughs at ufo sightings in the area, knowing that some of the ground–air missile testing has involved aircraft towing strange bouncing drogue targets on 8 km tethers. But he also knows that many things were tested in secret. “You find a whole lot of things sticking out of the ground that supposedly never got launched.”

Roger has seen huge amounts of stuff get blown up, both unintentionally when things go wrong, and in intentional blasts, such as getting rid of unexploded ordnance. “Up until a few years ago, we were still getting rid of WW II stuff,” he says. “Roxby [70 km away] shakes when we do it.”

Now the range activities manager, Roger is often the first point of contact for anyone wanting to use the WPA for military or commercial testing. In addition to being one of the largest such facilities in the world, the area boasts low ambient light, low electromagnetic interference and plenty of cloud-free days. There are about 50 proposed trials on its books this year, including unmanned air vehicles, night vision, explosive storehouses, pilot training, gps interference, rocket launches and experiments on vehicles in hot, dry conditions. The range staff have to keep track of the movements of trains, planes, automobiles and shearers while these activities are going on. “The trouble with some trials is they’re so unreliable – that many things can go wrong,” Roger says. “None of these things are proven – we had a missile fall 40 km short of its target last year.”

middle of the prohibited area, miners at Challenger goldmine have no idea they’re in an active weapons-testing area. “I thought we were just on a station,” says production engineer Luke Brammy, looking wide-eyed as Roger regales him with tales about rockets going over their heads and massive explosions. Like most of the stations, the mine, which opened in April 2002, is rarely affected by the trials.

Challenger is a fly-in, fly-out mine, with workers spending two weeks working 12-hour shifts, before getting a week off. In this shadeless furnace far from home, barriers to mateship dissolve in sweat and dust. Paul Androvich, the head geologist – a big bloke with a shaven head – is a Croat. Another miner is Serb. “We get on fine,” Paul says. “This is the outback, mate – we drink the same grog.”

Even at the height of the Cold War, when Woomera residents couldn’t keep a camera, binoculars or a transmitting radio for fear of spies, a community of tolerance thrived here. “We had every nationality you could think of,” Roger says. “A lot of Europeans.”

Yet Woomera in 2000 became a focus for national xenophobia as up to 1500 illegal immigrants and asylum seekers were held behind razor wire at the detention centre for months or years, sometimes stitching their lips together or rioting in protest. Some of the townsfolk who worked there still won’t talk about their experiences. More recently, Woomera was suggested as the nation’s dumping ground for nuclear waste – there’s already 10,000 drums of contaminated soil from CSIRO activities in Melbourne sitting in a warehouse near Woomera. “Most folks here didn’t have a problem with having the waste facility,” Roger Henwood says, “just the site they chose. It was in the middle of our [rocket-launching] range. I don’t know anybody who had a problem with having a radioactive dump in our backyard.” The Federal Government is now looking for a site in the NT.

Most people prophesy a hopeful future for Woomera and the WPA, as use of the area grows. Mining activity will probably increase in the area, and many people are pushing for more tours into the WPA – including to places such as the rocket-launching area and Nurrungar. Rocket scientist Dr Ian Tuohy, who’s worked at Woomera since 1969 and is now business manager for BAE Systems, the contractor that maintains all the infrastructure for Woomera and the rocket range, wants to blast Woomera into the next space age.  “Space tourism might still sound a bit far-fetched, but if it goes ahead, there’s a good chance that Woomera will be part of it.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 83 (Jul – Sep 2006)