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Atomic-test deaths.

Before john Philip Burke died of cancer last spring, at 63, he told Australian officials and the press a startling story. As a Royal Air Force technician assigned to the British atomic tests conducted in the South Australian desert in 1963, Burke discovered the bodies of four Aborigines in a bomb crater after one in a series of three nuclear tests at the Maralinga test site. He believed that the people had died of radiation poisoning. The detonation area was marked only by a barbed wire fence patrolled by a single police officer.

For years Aboriginal have charged that some of their people died of radiation sickness caused by British nuclear tests conducted from 1952 to 1967. The Australian government recently decided to allow those who had been removed from the Maralinga site for the tests to return to their homeland, and Burke told reporters he had spoken out because he feared the returness might become contaminated from radioactive wasters buried there. His fears were well founded according to a recently declassified 1967 British government document known as the Pearce report, which describes how plutonium wastes were plowed into the desert during the post-test "cleanup." Quantities of cobalt 60, used in "dirty" (enhanced radiation) bombs, were buried in lead pots. That means the British were experimenting with a neutron bomb as early as 1963.

The Pearce report explains that the 1963 tests were "minor trials" of conventional chemical explosions designed to rain plutonium over a wide area. In response to official Australian queries, the British have said they have "no evidence available" that anyone was killed during the Maralinga tests. London claims the plutonium dispersal was confined to an area of a few hundred square meters.

Unsatisfied, the Australians have set up an investigative commission. John Hutton, a former lance corporal who was stationed in Maralinga at the time, told the commission that after one test in 1957, soldiers discovered a family of four that had spent two nights in a bomb crater. Found to be contaminated, they were given showers and released. Hutton says a British officer threatened him with thirty years in jail if he spoke of the incident to anyone.

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Title Annotation:Dispatches
Author:Bird, Kai; Holland, Max
Publication:The Nation
Date:Dec 29, 1984
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