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WorldMystery as Australia nuclear weapons tests files withdrawn

07:40  11 january  2019
07:40  11 january  2019 Source:   cnn.com

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The United Kingdom conducted 12 major nuclear weapons tests in Australia between 1952 and 1957. These explosions occurred at the Montebello Islands, Emu Field and Maralinga. Several books have been written about nuclear weapons testing in Australia .

Nuclear weapons tests are experiments carried out to determine the effectiveness, yield, and explosive capability of nuclear weapons .

Mystery as Australia nuclear weapons tests files withdrawn© Fairfax Media/Getty Images A typical mushroom cloud rises over the atomic testing range at Maralinga in South Australia in 1956. Many Aboriginal people who lived near the site knew nothing of the tests or their dangers.

More than 65 years since the UK began conducting secret nuclear weapons testing in the Australian Outback, scores of files about the program have been withdrawn from the country's National Archives without explanation.

The unannounced move came as a shock to many researchers and historians who rely on the files and have been campaigning to unseal the small number which remain classified.

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British nuclear tests at Maralinga occurred between 1956 and 1963 at the Maralinga site, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia and about 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide. A total of seven nuclear tests were performed

"Many relevant UK documents have remained secret since the time of the tests, well past the conventional 30 years that government documents are normally withheld," said expert Elizabeth Tynan, author of "Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story".

"To now withdraw previously available documents is extremely unfortunate and hints at an attempted cover-up."

Withdrawal of the files was first noted in late December. Access to them has remained closed in the new year.

Dark legacy

The UK conducted 12 nuclear weapons tests in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in the sparsely populated Outback of South Australia.

Information about the tests remained a tightly held secret for decades. It wasn't until a Royal Commission was formed in 1984 -- in the wake of several damning press reports -- that the damage done to indigenous people and the Australian servicemen and women who worked on the testing grounds became widely known.

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A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission (fission bomb) or from a combination of fission and fusion reactions (thermonuclear bomb).

Nuclear weapons testing is defined in treaty language by specifying a space and time requirement. This definition is inclusive of "zero yield" safety tests of warheads, whether the test is successful

Indigenous people living nearby had long complained of the effects they suffered, including after a "black mist" settled over one camp near Maralinga in the wake of the Totem I test in October 1953. The mist caused stinging eyes and skin rashes. Others vomited and suffered from diarrhea.

These claims were dismissed and ridiculed by officials for decades -- until, in the wake of the Royal Commission report, the UK agreed to pay the Australian government and the traditional owners of the Maralinga lands about AU$46 million ($30 million). The Australian authorities also paid indigenous Maralinga communities a settlement of AU$13.5 million ($9 million).

While the damage done to indigenous communities was acknowledged, much about the Totem I test -- and other tests at Maralinga and later at Emu Field -- remained secret, even before the recent withdrawal of archive documents.

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Australia does not possess weapons of mass destruction, although it has participated in extensive research into nuclear , biological and chemical weapons in the past. Australia chairs the Australia Group

The mysterious event might have been lost to history except for the interest of Government investigators in Australia and the United The fear was that the terrorists had acquired nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction and had been testing them that night in the Australian wilds.

"The British atomic tests in Australia did considerable harm to indigenous populations, to military and other personnel and to large parts of the country's territory. This country has every right to know exactly what the tests entailed," Tynan said. "Mysteries remain about the British nuclear tests in Australia, and these mysteries have become harder to bring to light with the closure of files by the British government."

Mystery as Australia nuclear weapons tests files withdrawn© National Archives of Australia A man in protective clothing at Maralinga with a camera also protected by a plastic cover.

Unclear motives

Responding to a request for comment from CNN, a spokeswoman for the National Archives said the withdrawal of the Australian nuclear test files was done at the request of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which has ultimate responsibility over them.

The NDA said that "a collection of records has been temporarily withdrawn from general access via The National Archive at Kew as part of a review process."

"It is unclear, at this time, how long the review will take, however NDA anticipates that many of the documents will be restored to the public archive in due course," a spokeswoman said.

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The nuclear weapons tests of the United States were performed between 1945 and 1992 as part of the nuclear arms race. The United States conducted around 1,054 nuclear tests by official count, including 216 atmospheric, underwater, and space tests .

These weapons were tested at several facilities most often at "Rebirth Island" (Vozrozhdeniya) in the Aral Sea by firing the weapons into ^ a b c Russian Mystery Submarine Likely Deployment Vehicle for New Nuclear Torpedo. Nuclear Files .org Current information on nuclear stockpiles in Russia.

Jon Agar, a professor of science and technology at University College London, said the withdrawal "is not just several records but two whole classes of files, many of which had previously been open to researchers at the National Archives."

"These files are essential to any historian of the UK nuclear projects -- which of course included tests in Australia. They have been closed without proper communication or consultation," he added.

Agar shared correspondence he had with the NDA in which a spokeswoman said some files would be moved to a new archive -- Nucleus -- in the far north of Scotland. However the Nucleus archives focus on the British civil nuclear industry, and it is unclear why files on military testing would be moved there, or why those files would need to be withdrawn to do so.

Nucleus also does not offer the type of online access to its records as the National Archives does.

"Why not just copy the files if the nuclear industry needs them at Nucleus for administrative reasons? Why take them all out of public view?" Agar wrote on Twitter.

Mystery as Australia nuclear weapons tests files withdrawn© Australia National Archives A prohibited area sign seen near the Maralinga nuclear test site in 1974.

Information freedom

In correspondence with both CNN and Agar, the NDA suggested those interested in the files could file freedom of information (FOI) requests for them.

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The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons

Map showing nuclear test sites in Australia . At least two books have been written about nuclear weapons testing in Australia . These include Britain, Australia and the Bomb and Maralinga: Australia 's Nuclear Waste Cover-up.

Under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, British citizens and concerned parties are granted the "right to access recorded information held by public sector organizations."

FOI requests can be turned down if the government deems the information too sensitive or the request too expensive to process. Under a separate rule, the UK government should also declassify documents between 20 and 30 years after they were created.

According to the BBC, multiple UK government departments -- including the Home Office and Cabinet Office -- have been repeatedly condemned by auditors for their "poor," "disappointing" and "unacceptable" treatment of FOI applications.

Commenting on the nuclear documents, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a UK-based NGO, said it was "worrying that properly released records can suddenly be removed from public access without notice or explanation."

"It suggests that the historical record is fragile and transient and liable to be snatched away at any time, with or without good reason," he added.

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