Gold card "too bloody late" for Aussie nuke test victim
JUST hours after the nuclear bomb detonated, with the temperature of its fireball briefly reaching into the tens of millions of degrees, Alan Batchelor headed right towards the site of the explosion.
It was late 1957, and he was part of an Australian military contingent working on Britain's nuclear testing program deep in the South Australian desert.
"They wanted some urgent measurements from the test so I went to within 50 yards [45 metres] of ground zero," Mr Batchelor told news.com.au.
He and a team of men parked up beside the remains of the metal tower from where the bomb was lashed.
"In the bottom 10 feet of the steel you could see the curvature of the fireball. There was a shed with all the operating equipment in and that was gone, a generator nearby had been blown into the scrub."
Little did Mr Batchelor know that it was the dust whipped up in the drive towards ground zero that would cause illness and death to otherwise healthy men. The 87-year-old suffers from a chronic auto-immune condition he is adamant was caused by his exposure to radiation.
In Tuesday's Budget the Government will announce a $133 million plan that will mean any Australian exposed to radiation from nuclear bombs while serving in the military will receive a veteran's Gold Card.
It will mean anyone in the Australian forces, and local Aboriginal people, who suffered following the British nuclear tests conducted between 1956 and 1967 in South Australia and Western Australia will receive treatment for any medical condition.
Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said those affected would now receive better health care from the Commonwealth.
The announcement has been welcomed by some test veterans.
Mr Batchelor already has a White Card, which lets him access free treatment for any conditions directly affected to his exposure at the Maralinga test site, just north of the Nullarbor.
But he isn't impressed at the time it's taken to for the Government to bring test veterans in line with other military personnel.
"I presume I'll get a Gold Card but it's too bloody late for me to do anything about it," he says from his home in Canberra.
Mr Batchelor spent six months at Maralinga test in 1957, the second in command of a group of 68 military engineers.
They were never told of the risks they faced when the bombs exploded. Like many soldiers at the time, he was wearing just a hat, shorts and boots. Some men were protected simply by fox holes in the ground.
"We stood with our back to the bomb but even then we had to close our eyes because if the flash was reflected on a window it could induce blindness," he said
"When it went bang it felt like the heat from an oven right on the back of your neck."
But the real danger for the service men, some distance from ground zero, wasn't the explosion.
"When the weapon goes off, it only used about 20 per cent of its [radioactive] plutonium.
"The rest dispels into the fireball and like an aerosol spray settles on the ground. Every time that dust is raised (such as by a vehicle driving down an outback road) you breathe the plutonium in," he said.
"I've been exposed to significant amounts of plutonium and that ends up getting into the bone marrow."
Many Australians, like Mr Batchelor, were designated "immediate re-entrants". Between two days and sometimes as little as two hours after detonation they would head towards the explosion site to check on damage or take measurements.
Some didn't survive the doses of radioactivity they received, he said.
"Just eight days after the explosion one guy was sent home. When he died, he was described in the coroner's report as being 'tired, listless, and with symptoms of pneumonia'".
Mr Batchelor said personnel at the site knew this was code for radiation poisoning.
He witnessed three nuclear tests, two of the bombs were placed on towers and one - far more powerful test - saw the device hung from balloons in the middle of the desert.
His six month stint complete, Mr Batchelor returned home. A year later he his wife gave birth to a deformed, stillborn baby which he blamed on radioactive fallout from the test damaging his sperm.
He suspects the bombs as being the cause of deformities and mental health issues in his two surviving children.
In 1993, the UK agreed to pay the Australian Government $35 million to settle all claims arising from the tests. In 2013, Britain batted away requests for further compensation.
Australia has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to provide for test veterans. But Mr Batchelor has been critical of the Government's response.
He claims medical records have been destroyed, that studies have underplayed the levels of radiation sickness in veterans and that the poisonous clouds weren't confined to the remote outback but leeched across the continent.
The Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) has consistently said that nuclear bombs survivors do not have an increased frequency of major birth defects or increased mortality rates.
A DVA study concluded that only two per cent of participants received more than the current Australian annual dose limit for radiation.
Yet a 1999 study for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, found that 30 per cent of their veterans had died, mostly in their 50s, from cancers or cancer-related illnesses.
Mr Batchelor says his illness is worsening. "I go into hospital once every four weeks is received a blood infusion which I believe keeps me alive.
"I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm still alive. But the Gold Card is too late for thousands of people."