The forgotten history of Britain's nuclear tests at Maralinga

The forgotten history of Britain's nuclear tests at Maralinga

When we think of nuclear weapons, we most often think of the power of the "big three", the USA, Russia and China, and perhaps North Korea. But Britain has been a nuclear power since 1952, and while former Prime Minister Clement Attlee is most often remembered for achievements such as the establishment of the NHS, there is one legacy of his leadership that often slips under the radar: the fact that he was the British Prime Minister who paved the way for the UK to test atomic weapons for the first time. Between 1952 and 1957, the UK detonated seven nuclear bombs in Australia, the majority in Indigenous territory at Maralinga, as well as testing multiple individual component parts for bombs. But what were the implications of these tests? And are they still being felt today? 

During the 1950s and 1960s, amid the backdrop of the Cold War, many nations engaged in a race to develop nuclear capability that led to large scale weapons testing across the world. The USA had been testing - and using - nuclear weapons since the early 1940s, while the USSR detonated their first test bomb in 1948.

Needing to assert their influence on the world stage in the aftermath of the Second World War and desperate to prove their continued value as an ally to America, Britain was not about to be left behind. With the technological know-how to develop the A-bomb but lacking the space to test it in the UK, they needed a willing ally - one with lots of space and access to remote locations, away from prying eyes. Australia seemed like the perfect choice. Attlee put in a call to the country's then Prime Minister Robert Menzies who approved the plan without even taking it to his cabinet - in the belief that Australia needed a strong, nuclear equipped ally in the face of communist expansion.

Codenamed Operation Hurricane, initial tests took place at Montebello, an uninhabited but ecologically rich archipelago off the north west coast of the country, on 3 October 1952. The explosion of the 25 kiloton bomb - bigger than those used at Hiroshima or Nagasaki - left a 300m wide crater in the seabed and radiation was detected as far away as Brisbane, which is over 2400 miles to the east. Further tests took place on the islands in 1956, before it was decided that the weather conditions and hard-to-access location were not ideal for nuclear testing. As such, the testing was moved to mainland Australia - and so began the era of British involvement at Maralinga.

A remote area in the south Australian desert, Maralinga was the traditional land of the Indigenous Maralinga Tjarutja people and included the sacred Ooldea area, an important cultural centre. Indigenous Australians were not even on the national census until 1967. As such, the land was seized and handed to federal government for use by the British. Sue Coleman-Haseldine, who was three years old when the weapons testing began, highlighted the blow that this dealt on the community: “For all of us our land is the basis of our culture. It is our supermarket for our food, our pharmacy for our medicine, our school and our church.” Displaced and disillusioned, people fled to other areas, where they were often made unwelcome, scattering families in the process and leading to what Sue describes as "confusion and conflict between Aboriginal groups".

In the meantime, Operation Buffalo commenced. On 27 September 1956, an RAF bomber dropped the first of four nuclear weapons, a 15 kiloton bomb named One Tree, after two weeks of delays owing to unsuitable weather conditions. The atomic cloud it triggered reached over 10,000 feet higher than predicted, before it carried its hazardous particles eastward, towards the populous areas on Australia’s east coast. Over the next three weeks, three more detonations followed, with radioactive material being registered as far away as Queensland. The immediate area of Maralinga was completely contaminated.  

Operation Antler followed just a year later, this time testing the capability of thermonuclear weapons with a series of three explosions, the highest of which had a maximum yield of 26.6 kilotons. This time the sites were better prepared, with more specialised protection and in-air balloon explosions protecting the ground somewhat. The McClelland Royal Commission, a 1985 enquiry into the conduct of the British government during the testing of weapons in Australia, found that the bombs trialled included cobalt pellets, ostensibly to trace yield. The revelation led to accusations from some that the British were secretly testing a Cobalt bomb, a highly controversial weapon specifically designed to spread an increased amount of radiation and contaminate a wider area with radioactive materials.

Environmentally, the combined impact of the tests at Maralinga have been scarring. While the nuclear explosions projected their heat and fire into the air, the minor tests designed to assess the individual components of various devices - of which there were over 200 between 1953 and 1963 - devastated the immediate landscape. Despite two cleanup operations during the 1960s, the McClelland Royal Commission found in 1985 that the land was still contaminated. It was not until 1996 that an effective cleanup operation finally began, lasting until 2000, with thousands of tonnes of soil and debris removed and reburied elsewhere. Less than half of the $108 million AUD that it cost to make the site safe was paid for by the British government, and this was only after protracted negotiations and extensive campaigning, including a visit by Aboriginal elders to London. Even after 60 years, the vegetation has not yet grown back.

The health fallout from the nuclear tests is still uncertain, but it is estimated up to 1,200 Maralinga people were still living within “exposure distance” of the explosion sites. Some injuries were almost immediately apparent, such as the story of Yami Lester, who was 10 years old when nuclear weapons were first tested at Maralinga: “A few hours later we all got crook, every one of us. We were all vomiting; we had diarrhoea, skin rashes and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for two or three weeks. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all of the sickness.Within four years, Yami was completely blind; he went on to become a tireless anti-nuclear campaigner. Yet, there were many more cases where cancers, disabilities and long term illnesses only manifested themselves years later. In a testament to how strongly the Australian government believes in the longterm health effects of the British nuclear tests at Maralinga, it granted medical Gold Cards, designed for military veterans, to Indigenous people that were near to the test sites to cover the medical costs of any treatment they may need now or in the future.

Soldiers involved in the tests also suffered heavily and the Australian government have come under retrospective criticism for allowing soldiers to be used a "guinea pigs". Despite initial denials from the British government, it is now accepted that servicemen were not only close to the explosions as they happened, but also asked to walk, crawl and run across contaminated ground with no protective clothing. Today, there are considerably higher incidences of cancer in those who were present at the trials compared to the general population, as well as growing speculation around a link between the nuclear tests and birth defects in children born to servicemen. In 2012, an action against the Ministry of Defence brought about by the survivors of Maralinga failed, citing a lack of irrefutable scientific evidence linking illness to the explosions. Avon Hudson, who served with the Royal Australian Air Force at Maralinga and later became a whistleblower about the way the experiments were undertaken, is still fighting for justice: “We were naive and trusting of our government. Now they are waiting for us to die. This is an uncomfortable history for many a politician, because it cannot be spoken of in the abstract - families are still suffering.”

From 1962, British nuclear weapons tests were carried out in conjunction with the USA and moved to the infamous Nevada test site. It is estimated that the UK now has over 200 nuclear warheads, although it has not tested directly for many years owing to US-UK cooperation. Since the 1970s, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all joined the list of countries that possess nuclear weapons. Israel are also believed to have developed such weapons, although they have never publicly confirmed it. It goes almost without saying that nuclear weapons continue to be as great a threat as ever. However, there are signs that attitudes are changing: the United Nations has agreed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). For now though, as the world waits with bated breath hoping that no more damage will be caused in the future, the people of Maralinga continue to live with the consequences of the past. 

Featured illustration by Egarcigu