British nuclear tests at Maralinga

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Maralinga Atomic Test Site
Map showing nuclear test sites in Australia
Type Nuclear test range
Location Script error in Australia
Operator United Kingdom
Status Inactive
In use 1955–1963
Completed in 2000

British nuclear tests at Maralinga occurred between 1955 and 1963 at the Maralinga site, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, in South Australia. A total of seven major nuclear tests were performed, with approximate yields ranging from 1 to 27 kilotons of TNT equivalent. The site was also used for hundreds of minor trials, many of which were intended to investigate the effects of fire or non-nuclear explosions on atomic weapons.

The site was contaminated with radioactive materials and an initial cleanup was attempted in 1967. The McClelland Royal Commission, an examination of the effects of the tests, delivered its report in 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test areas. It recommended another cleanup, which was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million. Debate continued over the safety of the site and the long-term health effects on the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land and former personnel. In 1994, the Australian Government paid compensation amounting to $13.5 million to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Historical contextEdit

On 3 October 1952, the United Kingdom tested its first nuclear weapon, named "Hurricane", at the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. A year later the first nuclear test on the Australian mainland was Totem 1 (9.1 kilotons) at Emu Field in the Great Victoria Desert, South Australia, on 15 October 1953. Totem 2 (7.1 kilotons) followed two weeks later on 27 October.[1]

The British government formally requested a permanent test facility on 30 October 1953. Due to concerns about nuclear fallout from the previous tests at Emu Field, the recently surveyed Maralinga site was selected for this purpose.[2] The new site was announced in May 1955.[1][3] It was developed as a joint, co-funded facility between the British and Australian governments.[4]

Prior to selection, the Maralinga site was inhabited by the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal peoples, for whom it had a "great spiritual significance". Many were relocated to a new settlement at Yulata, and attempts were made to curtail access to the Maralinga site. These were often unsuccessful.[5]

Major testsEdit

Two major test series were conducted at the Maralinga site: Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler.

Operation Buffalo commenced on 27 September 1956. The operation consisted of the testing of four nuclear devices, codenamed One Tree, Marcoo, Kite and Breakaway respectively. One Tree (12.9 kilotons) and Breakaway (10.8 kilotons) were exploded from towers, Marcoo (1.4 kilotons) was exploded at ground level, and Kite (2.9 kilotons) was released by a Royal Air Force Vickers Valiant bomber from a height of 35,000 feet.[6][7][8] This was the first launching of a British atomic weapon from an aircraft.

The fallout from these tests was measured using sticky paper, air sampling devices, and water sampled from rainfall and reservoirs.[9] The radioactive cloud from Buffalo 1 (One Tree) reached a height of 37,500 ft, exceeding the predicted 27,900 ft, and radioactivity was detected in South Australia, Northern Territory, New South Wales, and Queensland. All four Buffalo tests were criticised by the 1985 McClelland Royal Commission, which concluded that they ere fired under inappropriate conditions.[10]

In 2001, Dr Sue Rabbit Roff, a researcher from the University of Dundee, uncovered documentary evidence that troops had been ordered to run, walk and crawl across areas contaminated by the Buffalo tests in the days immediately following the detonations;[11] a fact that the British government later admitted.[12] Dr Roff stated that "it puts the lie to the British government's claim that they never used humans for guinea pig-type experiments in nuclear weapons trials in Australia."[13]

Operation Antler followed in 1957. Antler was designed to test components for thermonuclear weapons, with particular emphasis on triggering mechanisms.[14] Three tests began in September, codenamed Tadje, Biak and Taranaki. The first two tests were conducted from towers, the last was suspended from balloons. Yields from the weapons were 0.93 kilotons, 5.67 kilotons and 26.6 kilotons respectively.[6] The Tadje test used cobalt pellets as a 'tracer' for determining yield;[10][15] later rumours developed that Britain had been developing a cobalt bomb.[15] The Royal Commission found that personnel handling these pellets were later exposed to the active cobalt 60.[10] Although the Antler series were better planned and organised than earlier series, intermediate fallout from the Taranaki test exceeded predictions.[10]

Major tests at Maralinga[16]
Name Date[17] Location[6] Yield[6][17] Type
Operation Buffalo
One tree 27 Sep 1956 17:00 Script error 12.9 kT Tower
Marcoo 04 Oct 1956 16:30 Script error 1.4 kT Ground-level
Kite 11 Oct 1956 14:27 Script error 2.9 kT Airdrop
Breakaway 22 Oct 1956 00:05 Script error 10.8 kT Tower
Operation Antler
Tadje 14 Sep 1957 14:35 Script error 0.93 kT Tower
Biak 25 Sep 1957 10:00 Script error 5.67 kT Tower
Taranaki 09 Oct 1957 16:15 Script error 26.6 kT Balloon

Minor testsEdit

In addition to the major tests, a large number of minor trials were also carried out, from June 1955 and extended through to May 1963.[1] Although the major tests had been carried out with some publicity, the minor tests were carried out in absolute secrecy.[2] These minor tests left a dangerous legacy of radioactive contamination at Maralinga.[3][4]

The four series of minor trials were codenamed Kittens, Tims, Rats and Vixen.[2] In all, these trials included up to 700 tests, with tests involving experiments with plutonium, uranium, and beryllium.[5] Operation Kittens involved 99 trials, performed at both Maralinga and Emu Field in 1953-1961.[6] The tests were used in the development of neutron initiators, involving use of polonium-210 and uranium, and generated "relatively large amounts of radioactive contamination."[6] Operation Tims took place in 1955-1963, and involved 321 trials of uranium and beryllium tampers, as well as studies of plutonium compression.[6] Operation Rats investigated explosive dispersal of uranium.[6] 125 trials took place between 1956 and 1960.

Operation Vixen was formulated to investigate what would happen to a nuclear device which burnt or was subject to a non-nuclear explosion.[2] 31 Vixen A trials between 1959 and 1961 investigated the effects of an accidental fire on a nuclear weapon, and involved a total of about 1 kg of plutonium.[7] Twelve Vixen B trials, between 1960 and 1963, attempted to discover the effects of high explosives detonating a nuclear weapon in a fire (typical of conditions which would occur in aviation accidents) and involved 22 kg of plutonium.[7] They produced "jets of molten, burning plutonium extending hundreds of feet into the air."[8] It was the subsequent disposal of the waste plutonium from these minor trials – Vixen B especially – which created the major radiation problems at the site.[8]

Cleanup and effectsEdit

The initial cleanup operation was codenamed Operation Brumby, and was conducted in 1967.[1] Attempts were made to dilute the concentration of radioactive material by turning over and mixing the surface soil.[8] Additionally, the remains of the firings, including plutonium-contaminated fragments, were buried in 22 concrete-capped pits.[8]

By the 1980s some Australian servicemen and traditional Aboriginal owners of the land were suffering blindness, sores and illnesses such as cancer. They "started to piece things together, linking their afflictions with their exposure to nuclear testing". Groups including the Atomic Veterans Association and the Pitjantjatjara Council pressured the government, until in 1985 it agreed to hold a royal commission to investigate the damage that had been caused.[4]

The McClelland Royal Commission into the tests delivered its report in late 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test sites, particularly at Taranaki,[3] where the Vixen B trials into the effects of burning plutonium had been carried out. A Technical Assessment Group was set up to advise on rehabilitation options, and a much more extensive cleanup program was initiated at the site.[8]

The TAG Report plan was approved in 1991 and work commenced on site in 1996 and was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million in 1999 dollars.[3][9] In the worst-contaminated areas, 350,000 cubic metres of soil and debris were removed from an area of more than 2 square kilometers, and buried in trenches. Eleven debris pits were also treated with in-situ vitrification. Most of the site (approximately 3,200 square kilometres) is now safe for unrestricted access and approximately 120 square kilometres is considered safe for access but not permanent occupancy.[3] Alan Parkinson has observed that "an Aboriginal living a semi-traditional lifestyle would receive an effective dose of 5 mSv/a (five times that allowed for a member of the public). Within the 120 km², the effective dose would be up to 13 times greater."[10]

A Department of Veterans' Affairs study concluded that "Overall, the doses received by Australian participants were small. ... Only 2% of participants received more than the current Australian annual dose limit for occupationally exposed persons (20 mSv)."[11] However, such findings are contested. A 1999 study for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association found that 30 per cent of involved veterans had died, mostly in their fifties, from cancers.[12]

Successive Australian governments failed to compensate servicemen who contracted cancers following exposure to radiation at Maralinga. However, after a British decision in 1988 to compensate its own servicemen, the Australian Government negotiated compensation for several Australian servicemen suffering from two specific conditions, leukemia (except lymphatic leukemia) and the rare blood disorder multiple myeloma.[13]

One author suggests that the resettlement and denial of aboriginal access to their homelands "contributed significantly to the social disintegration which characterises the community to this day. Petrol sniffing, juvenile crime, alcoholism and chronic friction between residents and the South Australian police have become facts of life."[14] In 1994, the Australian Government reached a compensation settlement with Maralinga Tjarutja, which resulted in the payment of $13.5 million in settlement of all claims in relation to the nuclear testing.[3]

In popular cultureEdit

The Career Highlights of the Mamu is an Australian play by Trevor Jamieson and Scott Rankin, performed by the Adelaide Festival in February–March 2002. The play tells the story of the Tjuntjuntjara Aboriginal people, who lived in the desert country between South Australia and Western Australia, and their experience with British nuclear testing at Maralinga and Emu Field. Tribal elders describe being moved out of the area, and the death and illness of their people when they attempted to return to their contaminated homelands.[15][16]

See alsoEdit


  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named modkey
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Keane, John (2003-05-11). "Maralinga's afterlife". The Age. Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 "Maralinga rehabilitation project". Australian Department of Education, Science and Training. Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Maralinga: nuclear testing in Australia Green Left, 2 August 1995. Retrieved 2008-12-02
  5. Rondon, A. Poison Fire, Sacred Earth: Testimonies, Lectures, Conclusions. World Uranium Hearing, Salzburg 1992. New York: International Action Center (Reprint: pp. 175–176. ISBN 3-928505-00-9. 
  6. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ava
  7. 7.0 7.1 Atomic Weapons Tests—Minor Trials in: "Federation and Meteorology". Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 "Maralinga" (PDF). Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency). Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  9. Richard Broinowski (2003). Fact or Fission: The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions, Scribe Publications, p. 177.
  10. "Maralinga: The Clean-Up of a Nuclear Test Site". International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  11. "Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests in Australia 2006 - Dosimetry" (PDF). Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs. pp. 145. Archived from the original on 2006-08-26. Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  12. Do atomic test victims deserve compensation?
  13. Richard Broinowski (2003). Fact or Fission: The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions, Scribe Publications, pp. 178.
  14. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named grabosky
  15. The Career Highlights of Mamu
  16. Richard Broinowski (2003). Fact or Fission: The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions, Scribe Publications, pp. 175-176.

Further readingEdit

  • Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith (2006). Britain, Australia and the Bomb:The Nuclear Tests and their Aftermath. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 1403921024. 
  • Robert Milliken (1986). No Conceivable Injury. Penguin Books Australia. ISBN 0-14-008438-X. 
  • Cross, R. T. (2005). Beyond belief : the British bomb tests : Australia's veterans speak out. Wakefield Press. ISBN 1862546606. 
  • Beadell, Len (1967). Blast The Bush. Lansdowne Publishing. ISBN 1863026185. 

External linksEdit

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