Australia’s nuclear test sites are some of the world’s most isolated locations, used by the British government to test weapons in the 1950s and 60s.
The nuclear age began on July 16, 1945: the date the American government detonated the world’s first atomic bomb.
Known as the ‘Trinity Test’, the 25 kiloton explosion took place in the desert of New Mexico, 230 kilometres south west of Los Alamos. This was the culmination of the ‘Manhattan Project’, a World War II program overseen by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and General Leslie R. Groves.
In October 1945, nuclear weapons from Los Alamos would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastating both cities. The Japanese surrender, and end of the war, followed a week after the second detonation.
The road to nuclear weapons had begun years earlier, in Britain. In 1940, as the country came under threat of invasion by Germany, the British Government began a program known as ‘Tube Alloys’, investigating the viability of atomic weapons.
The project was halted as the war intensified; the British did not have the money or material resources to continue. Many scientists from Tubes Alloy would subsequently cross to America and join the Manhattan Project.
Post war, America hoped to remain the world’s only nuclear armed nation, but they were in for a surprise. Russia detonated its own nuclear bomb only four years later, in 1949.
The rapid advance of the Russian program led many to suspect espionage. These charges were later proven; scientists working on the Manhattan Project had passed nuclear information to a spy ring run by the KGB.
The nuclear arms race would continue, as country’s scrambled to develop their own weapons to counter those held by Russia and America.
Britain’s nuclear weapons program resumed in late 1945. They received some technical assistance from the US, but not as much as hoped.
While the countries were strong allies, British scientists had been among the group who had passed information to Russia. America now viewed them as a nuclear security risk.
Britain’s program would proceed largely on its own. Now known as ‘High Explosive Research’, the program was headed by physicist William Penney, of the Imperial College in London.
Penney oversaw the design of the British bomb, versions of which were built at an RAF base in Lancashire. Several uranium enrichment plants were also built, to provide fissile material.
Motivated by the threat of a nuclear armed Soviet Union, the British made swift progress. In March 1952 Winston Churchill, in his final stint as Prime Minister, announced that a nuclear test would be conducted by the end of the year.
A remaining problem was where to stage it.
The world’s two existing nuclear powers had been able to utilise remote areas within their sovereign territory; the United States in New Mexico and Pacific atolls under its control, Russia in the empty expanses of northern Siberia. Lacking an equivalent, Britain initially asked America if it could use its Pacific test sites.
When this was rebuffed they turned to the Commonwealth.
Canada rejected a testing request, but Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies was fiercely pro-British, and agreed to provide sites. In 1952 his government passed the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act, which authorised nuclear testing in Australia.
Details of the tests, and their associated risks, were largely kept from the public. The first was scheduled for late 1952, in the Montebello Islands off West Australia.
The Montebello Islands are a remote archipelago, scattered off the Pilbara Coast, 1300km north of Perth. There are more than 170 islands in the group, but most are tiny; only two, Hermite and Trimouille, are of any significant size.
At the end of the last ice age, the islands had been connected to the mainland, and had been occupied by the area’s First Nations people. Rising sea waters disconnected them around 9000 BCE and they had been uninhabited since.
The Montebellos offer a harsh landscape: the climate is hot and dry, the land arid.
In 1622, the British trading ship ‘Tryall’ had been wrecked nearby, and the survivors had landed in the islands in their longboat. They spent 7 days ashore before sailing north for Java; this is the first known occupation of Australia by Europeans.
In the modern era the islands were disused and had been of significance only as a haven for migratory seabirds.
The British assembled a small naval fleet to conduct their test, which would be called ‘Operation Hurricane’. The flagship was the escort carrier HMS Campania, supported by three small landing craft.
A hospital ship, the HMS Tracker, was included in case of radiation sickness.
Also included was the aging frigate HMS Plym; this vessel would transport the bomb to Australia and house it for the detonation. The British wanted to test the impact of their weapon on a military vessel, the Plym was near the end of its operational life.
The Australian Navy would support the test with 11 ships of its own, including the aircraft carrier HMS Sydney. The two fleets arrived in the Montebello Islands in August 1952.
A small base was established on Hermite Island, partially buried, and reinforced with sandbags. The Plym, and the bomb, were anchored in shallow water in the main bay of Trimouille Island, and surrounded by remotely operated cameras.
The first nuclear test in Australia occurred at 9:30am, on October 3, 1952.
‘We put our hands over our eyes and they counted down over the tannoy. There was a sharp flash, and I could see the bones in my hands like an X-ray. Then the sound and the wind, and they told us to turn and face it.
The bomb was in the hull of a 1,450-ton warship and all that was left of her were a few fist-sized pieces of metal that fell like rain, and the shape of the frigate scorched on the sea bed.’
– Royal Engineer Derek Hickman, ‘Hurricane’ eyewitness
At 25 kilotons, the device was significantly more powerful than the bomb that had devastated Hiroshima.
The Plym was largely vaporized, replaced by a crater in the seabed 300 metres wide. The bomb had been just below sea level so the explosion deflected down and then up again; instead of the familiar mushroom shaped cloud, this produced one that more closely resembled a cauliflower.
Within seconds the cloud stretched 2000 feet into the air; it would eventually reach to more than 10 000. While it largely blew out to sea, radioactive fallout would later be detected as far away as Brisbane.
The test was considered to be a resounding success. Britain had become the world’s third nuclear armed nation.
Measurements were collected by planes and helicopters flying over the islands, while military personnel in heavy protective gear collected samples on the ground. By the end of October the operation was complete, and the two fleets departed the area again.
Chief scientist William Penney had already gone. On October 9 he flew back to London, and two weeks later was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Two further nuclear tests would be conducted in the Montebellos in 1956.
But even before that, the British sought a new location. While the island’s isolation was desirable, they were too remote to be ideal; the British hoped for a mainland site that would allow easier access.
The Australian Air Force maintained a base in Woomera, in central South Australia, that was used for ballistic missile testing.
Woomera was on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert; a vast, empty expanse that stretched thousands of kilometres to the West Australian coast. It seemed like the ideal location.
Penney visited Woomera in early 1953 and helped select a site 480 kilometres north of the town. This was a flat, uninhabited claypan over a sandstone foundation, that would be dubbed ‘Emu Field’.
Two nuclear tests, ‘Operation Totem’, were conducted at the site in October 1953. These were much smaller than the bomb detonated in the Montebellos, yielding 8 and 10 kilotons.
A tank, parked 300 metres away from the first explosion, was found largely undamaged afterwards, and was later driven back to base.
Emu Fields was still viewed as too difficult to access, so British operations moved to a third, and final, site in 1955. Known as ‘Maralinga’, this was 500 kilometres west of Woomera, but closer to the Trans-Australia railway, and so easier to supply.
The name of the site came from the traditional owners of the land, the Maralinga Tjarutja people, who lived in the small settlement of Ooldea.
Once the test site was selected the local authorities began an evacuation of Ooldea. The Indigenous occupants were forcibly removed and relocated several hundred kilometres south, to the Aboriginal community at Yalata.
Maralinga Tjarutja leaders protested their treatment, but their complaints were ignored. Press coverage of the British nuclear program was limited due to secrecy, and what commentary was published was highly favourable.
The Premier of South Australia, Sir Thomas Playford, promised the traditional owners would be able to return in the future, but did not provide a timeframe. Roadblocks and fences were erected around the test site’s perimeter, to prevent unauthorised access.
Between 1956 and 1963 the British detonated seven nuclear bombs at Maralinga. The tests were conducted in a similar way to the original Trinity Test, utilising metal towers that were vaporised in the ensuing explosion.
Part of the agreement to use the site was that fallout would be limited to an area of 100km, but due to the size of the explosions this proved impossible. One of the devices was ten times the size of the Hiroshima bomb, the resulting mushroom cloud reached 47 000 feet into the atmosphere and spread radioactive traces across the Australian mainland.
The heat from the detonations was 100 million degrees Celsius, enough to fuse the desert sand into glass.
In addition to the bomb tests, minor experiments with radioactive material were also conducted. Known as ‘Kitten’ tests, these involved setting fire to plutonium, or blowing it up with conventional explosives.
British and Australian military personnel at Maralinga were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Some Indigenous inhabitants, who had avoided evacuation, were contaminated as well.
In 1963, both England and Australia signed the United Nations Partial Test Ban treaty, which banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Testing at Maralinga concluded that year, and a British cleanup operation commenced.
These efforts were significant, but not thorough: across four years contaminated debris was collected and buried in trenches topped with concrete, while plutonium contaminated soil was simply ploughed into the ground.
A British commissioned report in 1968 concluded that all of the sites had been sufficiently decontaminated. The report was accepted without remark by the Australian government.
Public access to Emu Fields and Maralinga was restored in 1972.
But the scale of the tests began to come to light. Public opposition had steadily grown throughout the 1950s and 60s, after the program was complete journalists began to uncover details of what had occurred.
Australia’s own testing of the sites in the 1970s revealed that they retained significant radioactive contamination.
In 1984, the newly elected Hawke Labor government established the McLelland Royal Commission to investigate further. The commission would finally make public the size of the nuclear weapons tested in Australia, and their environmental impact.
The final report was damning.
‘The cavalier attitude towards Australia’s Indigenous populations was appalling and you’d have to say that extended towards both British and Australian service people as well.’
– Professor David Lowe, Deakin University
Environmental dead zones existed at Maralinga, completely devoid of plants and animals. All of the sites were still littered with radioactive debris, and background levels of radiation were above safety limits.
The commission also documented high rates of leukaemia and other cancers in nearby populations, the British press reported similar findings in military personnel who had served at the site.
A new, more comprehensive cleanup of the sites commenced in 1984. The eventual cost of the operation was $100 million, of which England contributed one quarter.
The Maralinga site was returned to the traditional owners the same year.