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Maralinga Nuclear Tests

Soon after World War II, the British, Americans and Russian raced to develop long range missiles and atomic weapons. The British, not wanting to depend on the US for protection, chose Australia as the place to develop and test long range missiles because of its political loyalty and large expanses of sparsely inhabited desert. About 25,000 servicemen from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji took part in the British nuclear tests. They began in 1952 on the Montebello Islands off the north-west coast of West Australia before moving a year later to Emu Field in SA’s Great Victoria Desert and Maralinga from 1956. Other explosions were carried out on Christmas Island (since renamed Kiritimati) and Malden Island in the Pacific Ocean between 1957 and 1958.

For the inland tests, the North-West of South Australia was transformed into a vast rocket range spanning 130,000 square kilometres (the size of England). The Zone was declared prohibited, resulting in the dispossession of the traditional owners, the Kokatha people. Not only were they forcibly removed from their homelands, but severed access to cultural sites meant the Kokatha could not carry out many of their custodial duties in caring for culture and country.

The Major Trials

Between 3rd and 9th October 1957, Britain tested 12 nuclear devices at Maralinga in a program known collectively as the ‘major trials’. The tests were carried out using a variety of methods of delivery, being supported on a tower in eight cases and dropped from an aircraft, tethered from a balloon, exploded on the ground and exploded inside a moored British naval frigate in each of the four remaining tests. These atomic tests were held at Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast, and Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia, under the series code names of Hurricane, Totem, Mosaic, Buffalo and Antler. Britain’s thermonuclear tests, the Grapple series consisting of nine tests, were held at the Malden and Christmas Islands in the Pacific from 15th May 1957 to 23rd September 1958).

A series of trials called ‘minor trials’ were performed at Emu and Maralinga between the years 1955 and 1963. The earlier trials of the series code-named Kittens, Tims, Rats and Vixen A tested nuclear weapon components and potential accident contamination. The last of the series Vixen B which was non-nuclear and used conventional explosives, was designed to investigate the behaviour of the components of a nuclear device by the simulation of the type of conditions that might cause a nuclear weapon to explode in an accident eg a fire, explosion. It was these series of tests particularly the Vixen A and Vixen B, that was to produce the most formidable form of radioactive pollution at Maralinga, which unfortunately exists to this day.

At Emu Junction (also referred to as Emu Field) a major test Totem 1 was detonated on 15th October 1953. The blast sent a dense radioactive cloud, the Black Mist, far beyond the ‘testing range’ over 250kms northwest to Wallatinna and down to Coober Pedy. It was later proved that it was responsible for the sudden outbreak of sickness and death experienced by nearby Aboriginal communities, including members of the Kupa Piti Kunga Tjuta and their extended families.

The testing range boundaries were not secure and warning signs were in English. Robert Menzies’ government did not seek permission from traditional owners before the nuclear tests. In fact, when he unilaterally agreed to a British proposal to conduct nuclear weapons tests in Australia, he is alleged to have added words to the affect that there was nothing in the areas being considered for the tests but empty deserts populated by a few natives. Whether Menzies said this is really irrelevant, for ironically, such a remark would probably typify white Government attitudes to the original indigenous occupiers of the Australian continent at that time.

To carry out the tests many Maralinga, Pitjantjatjara and Kokatha people were forcibly removed from their homeland by ‘Aboriginal Protectors’. Some Aborigines in South Australia were given one-way train tickets to Kalgoorlie; others were herded into a concentration camp at Yalata, a mission station 150km west of Ceduna; while others remained in the testing range (a fact known to the Australian government). Some were made to walk and died of thirst or starvation during the journey. For these Aboriginal people who still walked the Western Desert, many living traditionally, and were not alerted to the danger, radiation exposure caused sickness and death. There are tragic accounts of families sleeping in the bomb craters. Many Australian service personnel were also exposed to radiation.

Operation Hurricane

This first test of the British test series took place off Trimouille Island near Monte Bello Island on 3rd October 1952. Its purpose was to test the effects of exploding a ship-smuggled nuclear bomb on a harbour and surrounding areas. The bomb was exploded inside the hull of the British naval frigate HMS Plym that was anchored in 12 metres of water. The subsequent blast left a saucer shaped seabed crater 6 metres deep and 305 metres in diameter, where the explosive power of this implosion device was estimated at 25 Kilo Tons.

Operation Totem

The Totem series was intended to add to the general knowledge of atomic weapon technology ). In addition however, the series was an experiment to ascertain how much non-fissionable Plutonium-240 could be tolerated in a Plutonium-239 core without reducing the bomb’s effectiveness. This was because Britain’s nuclear power stations were not producing plutonium fast enough to satisfy needs (the British Chiefs of Staff wanted 200 A-bombs by 1957) hence the question arose as to how high a Plutonium-240 content was tolerable.
Totem 1: Emu Field; detonated 3rd October 1953. Yield: 10 Kt. Method of Delivery: 31 m high tower
Totem 2: Emu Field; detonated 26th October 1953. Yield: 8Kt. Method of Delivery: 31 m high tower

Operation Mosaic

The primary purpose of the series was to conduct research in support of thermonuclear weapon development.The G2 test was to produce the largest yield of any atomic device conducted in Australia and exceeded an assurance of yield limit given by the British Government to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, by an excess of 30 Kt.
G1: Trimouille Is. Detonated 16th May 1956. Yield: 15 Kt. Method of Delivery: high tower (unstated height)
G2: Trimouille Is. Detonated 19th June 1956. Yield: 98 Kt. Method of Delivery: high tower (unstated height)

The 1956 Australian-British Maralinga cratering nuclear surface burst, Buffalo-2, prepared for firing at Marcoo site. The middle of the weapon is carefully aligned to the height of the ground surface.

Operation Buffalo

This was the first test series carried out at Maralinga (Aboriginal for “Field of Thunder”) in the Great Victoria Desert in South Australia. The role of the first test of the series was to help develop the Red Beard tactical nuclear bomb that had an expected yield of 16 Kt. The Red Beard tactical bomb was a plutonium implosion device. Operation Buffalo involved four atomic explosions, during which men were sent into contaminated areas without protective clothing and ordered to stand within 900 metres of Ground Zero. It now appears that the tests were used by the British military to gather information the effects of nuclear blasts on men, clothing and their equipment.
Round 1 (photo right) One Tree. Maralinga. Detonated 27th September 1956. Yield: 15 Kt. Method of delivery: 31 m high tower
Round 2 Marcoo. Maralinga. Detonated 4th October 1956. Yield: 15 Kt. Method of delivery: Ground explosion
Round 3 Kite Site. Maralinga. Detonated 11th October 1956. Yield: 3 Kt. Method of delivery: Air drop, exploded at 150 m
Round 4 Breakaway. Maralinga. Detonated 22nd October 1956. Yield: 16 Kt. Method of delivery: 34 m high tower

Operation Antler

Round 2 was referred to as a lightweight plutonium device (ie similar to the Nagasaki bomb) which was to lead to the development of a miniaturised warhead for the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile. All were implosion devices. Worrying however was the discovery after the Tadje test of many small pieces of highly radioactive cobalt, later shown to be cobalt 60, found lying on the test site. Cobalt 60 was, because of its ability to become highly radioactive after being irradiated, a component of the hopefully now defunct cobalt bomb. Milliken asserts that the AWTSC headed by Titterton concealed this purpose of Round 1 from the Australian Government.
Round 1 Tadje. Maralinga. Detonated 14th September 1957. Yield: 1 Kt. Method of delivery: 31 m high tower
Round 2 Biak. Maralinga. Detonated 25th September 1957. Yield: 6 Kt. Method of delivery: 31 m high tower
Round 3 Taranaki. Maralinga. Detonated 9th October 1957. Yield: 25 Kt. Method of delivery: Balloon tethered

Operation Grapple

This series of nine tests formed the test program to develop the British hydrogen bomb. With a yield of only 200-300 Kt of an expected yield of one Mt, the first test of the series, Grapple 1/Short Granite was regarded as being only partially successful. However, the later tests Round C, Grapple Y and Grapple Z (Flagpole 1 and Halliard 1) were regarded as completely successful with yields of 1.8, 2 and 2.5-3 Mt respectively. In all cases the fission trigger was a plutonium implosion device. At the completion of these tests Britain was able to claim the status of a “Nuclear Power” and a program of cooperation with the United States was soon to follow.
1/Short Granite. Malden Island. Detonated 15th May 1957. Yield: 200-300 Kt. Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
2/Orange Herald. Malden Island. Detonated 31st May 1957. Yield: 720 Kt. Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
3/Purple Granite. Malden Island. Detonated 19th June 1957. Yield: 150 Kt. Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
Round C: Christmas Is. Detonated 8th November 1957. Yield: 1.8 Mt. Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
Grapple Y: Christmas Is. Detonated 28th April 1958. Yield: 2 Mt. Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
Pennant 2: Christmas Is. Detonated 22nd August 1958. Yield: 1 Mt. Method of delivery: Balloon-Burst over land
Flag Pole 1: Christmas Is. Detonated 2nd September 1958. Yield: 2.5-3 . Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
Halliard 1: Christmas Is. Detonated 11th September 1958. Yield: 2.5-3 . Method of delivery: Air-Burst over Ocean
Burgee 2: Christmas Is. Detonated 23rd September 1958. Yield: 1 Kt. Method of delivery: Balloon-Burst over land

The Minor Trials

The so-called “minor trials” were related to weapon design in that their purpose was by experiment, to improve the efficiency, power and safety of nuclear weapons. These trials were accorded the most secret classification of all aspects of the atomic tests, with all Australian scientists apart from Titterton being given little or no information as to their nature. Known prior to October 1958 as “Minor Trials” when they became known as the “Assessment Tests” until December 1959 after which they were referred to as the “Maralinga Experimental Program”. It is suggested that these name changes were imposed by a Government sensitive to the possible outcome of the ongoing Geneva negotiations and their potential to result in an International ban on nuclear testing, and “Maralinga Experimental Program” was probably thought to sound more innocuous. As an interesting and humorous aside as to why weren’t these trials held in Britain; when counsel assisting the Royal Commission into the Maralinga tests asked why these particular trials were not held in one of the remote parts of Scotland instead of at Emu and Maralinga, a British Atomic Tests official replied “I doubt if people owning estates in Scotland would look on that with very great favour. They are interested in pheasants and deer in Scotland”.

The minor trials were the worst polluters of all – they weren’t nuclear blasts, but were ‘dirty bombs’, in which uranium and plutonium was spread by TNT explosions across vast area to determine the degree of contamination such blasts would cause. They consisted of several experimental programs code-named Kittens, Tims, Rats, Vixen A and Vixen B. These experiments were designed to investigate for the purpose of improving, the performance of the component parts of a nuclear device. They were:


Five kittens programs occurred at Emu and a further 94 at Maralinga. They were designed to aid in neutron initiator development, where an initiator enhances the number of neutrons available to promote fission at the instant that the pieces of fissile material of an atomic bomb are explosively driven together to form a super-critical mass. In this way the power of the nuclear explosion is greatly enhanced. The Kitten experiments centred on the use of alpha emitting materials eg polonium which were forced into contact with beryllium by the chemical explosion in the bomb. Prior to that the two materials were separated by a sheet of material thick enough to stop the alpha particles reaching the beryllium. Intense neutron enhancement occurs when the alpha particles are absorbed by the beryllium atoms. The Kitten experiments dispersed polonium-210, beryllium and depleted uranium over the Emu and Maralinga sites.


These were timing experiments related to the compression of fissile bomb material by chemical explosives. The 321 Tims experiments which were carried out dispersed beryllium and uranium-238 (depleted uranium) on the test sites.


These were also timing experiments similar to Tims but applying a different means of measurement. There were 125 Rats experiments which contributed scandium-46, uranium-238 and polonium-210, to site contamination.

Vixen A

The Vixen A experiments were designed to study the extent that a nuclear accident can cause radioactive and toxic material contamination which could possibly result from nuclear weapon being subjected to an explosion or fire. These tests caused widespread dispersion of contaminants to the extent that airborne sampling of contamination and existing meteorological conditions using aircraft or balloons was sometimes required. The experiment was based on three variations that were; combustion in a controlled petrol fire, combustion in an electric furnace and dispersion by chemical explosives. There were thirty-one Vixen A experiments between 1959 and 1961 which contaminated the Maralinga site with natural and depleted uranium, plutonium, polonium-210 and actinium-227.

Vixen B

Called “safety experiments”, the Vixen B trials were intended to investigate the accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon when subjected to a fire or aircraft crash. Because of the precise and complicated timing needed to correctly initiate a chemical explosive trigger of an implosion device to produce a full nuclear explosion, Scientists were interested in knowing how far towards this end a random external explosion would go. Even a partial nuclear explosion would release significant amounts of fission energy and radioactive material albeit that the fission energy would be less than that produced by the chemical explosive trigger. To facilitate a realistic experiment, the quantity of fissile material used such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239, was sufficient under the appropriate conditions to achieve a slightly super-critical condition for a relatively short period. The inclusion of a powerful neutron source sustained the super-critical phase for a period sufficient for multiplication of the neutron population during the phase to be measured. So that in addition to safety assessments, the experiment was able to contribute information relating to the improvement of the weapon’s design.

The twelve Vixen B trials which took place at Maralinga between the years 1960-1963 dispersed tens of kilograms each of Pu-239, U-235, U-238 and beryllium on the Taranaki site, making Taranaki by far the worst contaminated area at Maralinga. It was from the Vixen B tests that the largest amount of radiation was released and the most damage caused.

The Maralinga Clean-up

In 1967 Britain decided that the nuclear test facility at Maralinga would be no longer needed and created “Operation Brumby” to restore the tribal land to a suitable condition for habitation by its traditional occupants. As part of the Brumby operation, whilst the tests were still in progress, a clean-up of abandoned sites of the Major Trials, eg the Totem series at Emu Field, was progressing. The standard practice used was to remove the larger pieces of glazed and fused material from ground zero of the site, whilst plowing the smaller pieces in and covering them with clean topsoil. A circular area of 250 metres radius was ploughed and a smaller area of 100 metres radius was additionally covered with several centimetres of uncontaminated topsoil, which was then planted with native vegetation.

With only two exceptions, all the sites of conventional nuclear testing were treated in this manner. However the architects of Operation Brumby failed to take wind erosion into account and in 1972, an inspection of the treated sites showed extensive loss of new topsoil, almost total loss of vegetation, and exposed debris including glazed materials, concrete and metal from tower structures and in the case of the Antler 1 site, the presence of highly radioactive Cobalt 60 pellets. Prior hopes of making the sites habitable were defunct, now requiring that they be regarded as non-residential areas, suitable for hunting and travelling over but not for camping. During clean-up Operation Brumby, approximately 830 tonnes of contaminated material including 20 Kilograms of plutonium, were buried in 21 pits and an estimated 2 Kilograms distributed over the test site at Taranaki. It is not known how much of the plutonium from other sites was dispersed since some was attached to soil that was transported to Taranaki and subsequently buried in the pits there.

The Aftermath

By the 1980s the long-term effects of the nuclear testies started to become clear. Australian servicemen and the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land were suffering blindness, sores and illnesses like 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 put pressure on the government until in 1985 it agreed to hold a royal commission to investigate the damage that had been caused.

The commission found that the land where the tests were conducted is still highly radioactive, and the cost of cleaning up the area would be around $600 million. Even after this full clean-up, certain areas would still remain dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years. The royal commission recommended that Britain pay for the clean-up of the test sites, but the British government said Australia had already agreed to its previous clean-up of the area, Operation Brumby. Later, after much public pressure, Britain contributed additional funds. In June 1991, British high commissioner Brian Barder, touring the range with scientists, stumbled upon an active uranium core, pointing to the inadequacy of Operation Brumby. In the two decades after the tests, more solid uranium, weapons grade plutonium and other radioactive materials were found in the area. A team of scientists, known as the Technical Assessment Group (TAG), mapped the contaminated areas at Maralinga. In some of these areas they found radiation levels 470 times the “acceptable” limits.

Among the 220 recommendations of the royal commission, one was for group compensation for all of those people affected by the testing. The commission had found that while Aboriginal people were supposed to have been removed from the area during testing, many were actually in the area during and after the tests and had been exposed to high levels of radiation. For 10 years, the Maralinga Tjarutja people fought a long battle to win group compensation. This period was a very difficult time, with many of the people becoming disillusioned and frustrated with what they saw as the government’s attempts to put them off.

However, in November 2004, they won a settlement of $13.5 million from the federal government. In order to receive any of the funds, the community had to set up a trust company, and also selected three trustees, two from Maralinga and one from Western Australia. They communicated to the people what has been done and discussing ways of using the funds for resettlement of the community and development of useful infrastructure.

Archie Barthan, administrator and adviser to the Maralinga Tjarutja group, commented that it had been a very long and arduous struggle, involving two visits to England to demand that the British government pay for the clean up. But Barthan also said that the $13.5 million settlement represented a win for the community. “The community should be proud of the things that have been achieved through this struggle. We have educated the broader community about the fact that nuclear testing actually took place in Australia. We forced the government to hold a royal commission which proved that the land was still radioactive and dangerous. In 1984 we won the title to our lands. We have also forced the Australian government to pay a settlement of $13.5 million to the people and the British government to pay $45 million for the clean-up. This is a credit to the community.” Sixteen people from the Aboriginal community sought individual compensation. In addition, more than 200 Australian veterans or their families lodged claims for compensation for illness or death due to radiation exposure.

Woomera Baby Cemetery

People who worked at Australian atomic bomb test sites claim they have produced generations of children with severe deformities and suffered a high number of stillbirths. Hundreds of children and grandchildren of veterans exposed to radiation were born with shocking illnesses including tumours, Down syndrome, cleft palates, cerebral palsy, autism, missing bones and heart disease. One veteran, who was posted to the Maralinga nuclear test site in South Australia in the 1950s as part of the British Nuclear Test (BNT) program, says the radiation contaminated his sperm and is to blame for the death of a child he never got to know. He is not alone, with the documents detailing a litany of miscarriages and stillbirths that has allegedly passed the devastation from generation to generation.

Secret records detailing the fate of dozens of babies born in the shadow of Maralinga’s nuclear testing hold the key to the State of South Australia’s largest class action. More than 100 South Australians joined a class action against the British Ministry of Defence over deaths and disabilities they believe were caused by nuclear testing at Maralinga. Among them are families of the Woomera babies  more than 60 lives lost, many without explanation, during the decade of nuclear testing, up to 600km away. Woomera Cemetery contains 23 graves for stillborn babies born in the hospital between December 1953 and September 1968, and a further 46 graves for other children who died around that period. Autopsies were not always conducted and it is understood the medical records of those 23 stillborn babies remain sealed and held by the National Archives of Australia.

Secrecy surrounding the disturbing rate of baby deaths and research suggesting fallout from tests blanketed the town despite being more than 600km from the Maralinga testing sites led to the class action being taken. The claims follow the lead of a class action lodged on behalf of British ex-servicemen affected by the tests during the ’50s and ’60s.

Maralinga village, 1956

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