UK Nuclear Tests in Australia: Maralinga

landscape Maralinga site. image from wikipedia

In the mid-1950s, seven bombs were tested at Maralinga in the south-west Australian outback. The combined force of the weapons doubled that of the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War Two.  In archive video footage, British and Australian soldiers can be seen looking on, wearing short sleeves and shorts and doing little to protect themselves other than turning their backs and covering their eyes with their hands.Some reported the flashes of the blasts being so bright that they could see the bones of their fingers, like x-rays as they pressed against their faces.

A cloud hangs over Australia’s Monte Bello Islands after Britain tested its first atomic bomb
Much has been written about the health problems suffered by the servicemen as a result of radiation poisoning. Far less well-documented is the plight of the Aboriginal people who were living close to Maralinga at the time….”A lot of people got sick and died,” said Mima Smart, an aboriginal community leader.”It was like a cancer on them. People were having lung disease, liver problems, and kidney problems. A lot of them died,” she said, adding that communities around Maralinga have been paid little by way of compensation.  It’s a ten hour drive to the nearest big city, Adelaide. But people here say that the Australian government was wrong to let the tests go ahead and that Britain acted irresponsibly…

“They didn’t want to do it in their own back yard because their back yard wasn’t big enough,” said Robin Matthews, caretaker of the Maralinga Nuclear Test Site.”They thought they’d pick a supposedly uninhabited spot out in the Australian desert. Only they got it wrong. There were people here.”During the 1960s and 70s, there were several large clean-up operations to try and decontaminate the site.  All the test buildings and equipment were destroyed and buried. Large areas of the surface around the blast sites was also scraped up and buried.

But Mr Matthews said the clean-up, as well as the tests themselves, were done very much behind closed doors with a high level of secrecy.“You’ve got to remember that this was during the height of the Cold War. The British were terrified that Russian spies might try and access the site,” he said.  The indigenous communities say many locals involved in the clean-up operation also got sick.  Soil at the nuclear site grow so hot from the blast that it melted and turned to silicon has long been declared safe. There are even plans to open up the site to tourism.

But it was only a few months ago that the last of the land was finally handed back to the Aboriginal people. Most, though, say they have no desire to return there….And even almost 60 years on, the land still hasn’t recovered. Huge concrete plinths mark the spots where each of the bombs was detonate

Excerpt from Jon Donnison, Lingering impact of British nuclear tests in the Australian outback, BBC, Dec. 31, 2014

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