The ongoing threat of nuclear destroying our homelands
By Sue Coleman- Haseldine, Kokatha Mula
My name is Sue Coleman-Haseldine I am Kokatha Mula elder. I was born on Koonibba Aboriginal Mission in 1951 which is about 40 km west of Ceduna in South Australia. I now live just out of Ceduna with my husband. For those that do not know, we are on the edge of the Nullarbor where the desert meets the sea. Our country takes in one of the last stunted mallee tree regions (rare and critically endangered ecosystem) regions that is still in pristine condition. We still carry on looking after our country as our people did even though we do not live out there now. I remember the good life of hunting for wild game and collecting bush fruits. Life was healthy. We still do all this today. I teach the young ones about the land and all the life it gives.
I am a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. My second great-grandson was born recently. And now I am out on this tour ‘Four Cities, in Four Days,’ speaking about past and present day problems and what we want for the future. I am fighting for all my grannies and all the children of the world to keep the dream alive of a clean, safe future where there is no nuclear fear hanging over our heads. And like I tell the children, I’m fighting for the animals too. We are all connected, a world without animals would not be a world at all.
I was two years old when the first atomic bomb tests began in the desert areas north-west of my mallee country in 1953. A full scale atomic bomb was detonated on 15 October 1953 at Emu Fields. It was labelled ‘Totem 1’ and it caused a death cloud known by many as the ‘Black Mist’. It killed people, blinded others and made people very sick. Its effects are still being felt today. I was not on ground zero but the black mist went all over. And who knows where the radiation went for the many the tests that followed. I remember older people talking about Nullarbor dust storms. It was the fallout from the Maralinga tests. The dust did not stay in one place.
Our district is full now of cancer. My 86-year-old Aunty once told me, “that minga – that cancer sickness was never here before those bombs”. Cancer is the big one, but it is also common for people to suffer from thyroid conditions or stomach and bowel problems. This is the case for myself and some of my grandchildren. Fertility problems, stillbirths, birth defects became more common from the time of the testing. Woomera Cemetery is full of babies who started dying around this time. We still wonder and worry about the effects of the ongoing radiation and the long-term genetics issues that could be passed down through generations.
Like all people, the giving of life and raising children is so important to us and it is our human rights to be able to continue raising our family and sharing our culture forever. There are lots of Aboriginal groups in Australia. We are all different. But for all of us our land is the basis of our culture – it is our church, our grocery shop, our schools, our chemist. But living a life and practising culture out in the desert was not recognised as worthy by governments back then and still today. In fact, we still have to work hard to have all the life, all the plants, all the animals and the underground water out in the desert recognised and protected.
This is one reason why Emu Fields and then Maralinga were picked for testing. The English and Australian governments did not think that land was valuable – they called it a wasteland. But Aboriginal people were still looking after and living their culture on the land that supported them. Aboriginal people were still present in the testing area when the bombs went off. The government was no good at ensuring everyone was safe. They had one patrol officer and some signs in English that people could not read.
Australia was even more racist then. People have to remember this was before Aboriginal people had the right to vote. I believe the government really did not care about what happened to Aboriginal people or their land. The bomb tests continued for many years right until 1967; big atomic tests that the British and Australian governments were proud of and then a whole lot of secret tests that the British did with plutonium. These tests contaminated a huge area and everything in it, but people 100 kilometres away were also impacted including my family and the broader community where I live.
It is good more people are learning about the bombs in Australia. I want more people to think about the ongoing impacts. Especially in my region because it does not matter if you are black, white or brindle, everyone has a sad story about premature sickness and death in their families.
I grew up hearing about the bombs but I did not necessarily know about how the sickness passed down through the generations. When mining companies started eyeing off areas of my country I started to look more into it and I went to an Australian Nuclear Free Alliance meeting to learn about fighting mining companies and radiation fall out. What I learnt devastated me. To find out that our bush foods were possibly contaminated was a real blow to me.
It was at these meetings I also learnt about other nuclear bombs, about other places where tests happened and about Japan during the war. I also learnt that uranium mined in Australia was used in these weapons of destruction. To learn that uranium from our country was devastating other countries and people broke my heart. I decided to fight any kind of mining then. There are too many illnesses and cancer deaths in our country.
What has changed to cause this? I believe it is caused from radiation contamination, but I cannot prove it. I think any kind of mining in our area would be digging up contaminated earth and sending it back to us on the north, north-west winds.
The bomb tests destroyed a beautiful part of Australia and despite several attempts, it will never be safe or clean. There are many Aboriginal people who cannot go back to their ancestral lands and their children and their children’s children and so on will never know the special, religious places it contains.
Having whole displaced communities has also created confusion and conflict for other Aboriginal groups. These are ongoing issues which cause stress and heartbreak.
We have been poisoned and we do not need the threat of being poisoned again by a nuclear waste dump – whether it is Australia’s waste or waste from around the world. We do not need this stress hanging over our heads. It is not our right to condemn our children to the risk of leakages and ongoing damage. This is condemning them to a life of fear. It is about time people see the desert and arid regions as places full of life instead of wastelands for dangerous activities. Aboriginal people have worked really hard to have their culture and their land understood. We do not need governments telling us we do not understand or are too emotional about these things. We do understand the risks and we do not want them.
But more than that, people all over the world do not want all these problems. The uranium should stay in the ground. We need to stop making waste. And it is not just the physical impacts of the nuclear industry I worry about. To have a nuclear waste dump back on the cards has already caused a lot of anxiety in our region. Aboriginal people in particular have a lot of issues to deal with. There is still a lot of poverty, issues with education and job opportunities and self-medicating through drugs and alcohol. We are still being made refugees in our own country because if the government or mining companies want something they take it which also causes a lot of anxiety and mental problems.
I worry there is no security for the future. It is a different kind of black mist hanging over us now. The original blast brought a black mist and nobody knew what it was. Now people are a lot wiser but we still cannot see through to the future. There is no guarantee that any nuclear facility – whether a mine, a reactor or waste dump will be properly looked after.
And I want you to know I do not want people today to shoulder the blame of the past and to feel responsible for all the wrongs that have happened. I am talking to you now because I think we need to join forces and make better future for future generations, all over the world.
A site at the foot of the Flinders Ranges has recently been shortlisted as of today and that I’m ready to go down there and stand with them. The government cannot be trusted to keep this at low level waste and we must stand together. Always remember, the future forever belongs to the next generation!
[Speech delivered at Drill Hall, Melbourne on 5 April 2016]