• A 1950 file photo of John L Stanier in the South Australian town of Maralinga wearing protective clothing. (AAP Image/National Archives of Australia)
Indigenous landowners have finally been given back their homelands at Maralinga, which was used by Britain to test atomic bombs in the 1950s. But why did Britain use Australian land for nuclear tests in the first place?
5 Nov 2014 - 2:06 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2014 - 11:32 AM

Traditional owners will finally get full access to their homelands at Maralinga with Defence giving up its weapons testing range. 

The site in the South Australian outback was the site of British atomic bomb testing during the 1950s and 1960s.

Most of the Maralinga-Tjarutja land was handed back to indigenous people in 2009 after rehabilitation work was completed. 

Defence held on to the weapons testing range in the Woomera Prohibited Area. But the 1782 square kilometre site has been officially handed back to the Aboriginal community on Wednesday, November 5 2014.

Maralinga is 516 kilometres from Ceduna.

What were the nuclear tests for?

The Maralinga area in South Australia was used by the British government for nuclear weapons development tests between 1952 and 1963. These tests were conducted in agreement and with support from the Australian government.

The tests were carried out across several locations in the country, including Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia and the Montebello Islands off the West Australian coast.

Two nuclear devices were detonated at Emu and seven at Maralinga. 

In May 1955, Maralinga became a permanent test site. Following the two major trials (Operation Buffalo in 1956 and Operation Antler in 1957) there were a number of minor trials and experimental programs (from 1959) held at the range until 1963.

Maralinga was officially closed following a clean-up operation (Operation Brumby) in 1967.

Why was this site chosen?

During The Cold War, the British were keen to develop nuclear weapons of its own.

"If we are unable to make the bomb ourselves, and have to rely entirely on the United States for this vital weapon, we shall sink to the rank of a second-class nation," said Lord Cherwell, scientific advisor to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. 

Australian Institute of Criminology reported that the “remoteness and sparse population of Australia made it an attractive alternative.”

The operation – codenamed 'Hurricane' – was a secret agreement between the British prime minister Winston Churchill and Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, who was reportedly “only too pleased to assist the motherland”.

In 1993, Ian Anderson wrote in Scientific American magazine that "Britain knew in the 1960s that radioactivity at its former nuclear test site in Australia was worse than first thought. But it did not tell the Australians."

What happened to the people who lived there?

The nuclear testings lead to widespread dispersion of radioactive material in the local environment. The Anangu Aboriginal people who lived the area called it "puyu" or "black mist".

UK servicemen, Australian soldiers and civilians, including Indigenous people, were all exposed to radiation. Illnesses reportedly included cancer, blood diseases, eye problems, skin rashes, blindness, vomitting, which are all symptoms of radioactive poisoning. 

Between 1953 and 1957, two nuclear devices were detonated at Emu and seven at Maralinga, the Department of Industry reported. According to the Australian Radiationn Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) these “major trials” have largely decayed and are “no longer a significant health risk” as these nuclear devices were conducted at higher altitudes (from balloons).

However, the biggest cause of contamination was from “minor trials”, which were weapons development trials that investigated the performance of various components of a nuclear device. Although minor trials didn’t involve nuclear explosions, they did contain radioactive material. 

Since contamination remains on or close to the ground surface, there is a significant health risk for locals. Three sites, Taranaki, TM100/101 (TMs), and Wewak remained highly contaminated with plutonium 40 years later.

Who owns the land?

The Maralinga-Tjarutja people are traditional owners of the land. 

Most of the Maralinga-Tjarutja land was handed back to indigenous people in 2009 after rehabilitation work was completed between 1993 and 2001.

In 1994, the Maralinga-Tjarutja people were paid $13.5 million dollars in compensation by the Commonwealth in a deal struck between Australia and Britain in response to the 1985 Royal Commission into the tests.

Maralinga-Tjarutja general manager Richard Preece says the community is setting up a tourism business to take visitors on bus tours of the traditional area and nuclear test sites.

Maralinga village in South Australia as seen from the north-east in 1956. (AAP Image/National Archives of Australia)

Is the land 'clean' now?

Yes, to an extent.

In 2001 the Chief Executive of ARPANSA formally advised that the clean-up had achieved the safety standards set at commencement of the clean-up of the main test sites.

Most of the site now has unrestricted access. But as a precaution, a 412 square kilometre area is not available for permanent habitation.

Emu was found not to have significant contamination apart from residual radioactivity close to the major trial detonation sites and was returned to Maralinga Tjarutja in 1996.

What happened after the nuclear tests?

Between 1984 and 1985, the Australian Government established a Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia. The Royal Commission report (PDF), delivered in 1985, found that significant radiological hazards remained at many of the Maralinga test sites.

In 1993, representations from the Australian Government and the traditional owners of the Maralinga lands resulted in the British Government making an ex-gratia payment of £20 million to the Australian government. 

In response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations, a $108-million rehabilitation project was successfully implemented between 1995 and 2000 to rehabilitate the former nuclear test sites at Maralinga.

In 2009, the test site land was returned to traditional owners.

Were victims compensated by the British government?

Aboriginal people exposed to British nuclear tests in South Australia during the 1950s are being told they have no hope of compensation. British firm Hickman and Rose had hoped to represent more than 150 civilians, if a huge class action by 1,000 British veterans had succeeded. 

But the class action was blocked - the UK Supreme Court ruling that 60 years after the event their claims were too late, the causes of their illnesses apparently unprovable. (Read the full judgment here)

The Australian Greens' nuclear spokesman Scott Ludlam said the dangers of radiation are well known and it's unfair to ask Aboriginal people with scant medical records to prove a direct link between exposure to fallout and subsequent sickness.

"The British courts have blocked the application from Defence personnel and Aboriginal people in central Australia by saying you can't prove those radiations exposures are what caused your illness," he said. "Now, we know that ionising radiation is harmful for health - we know that for a fact. The right thing for the British Government to do is make an Act of Grace payment to the people who they injured in their nuclear weapons tests."

In response, UK Defence Personnel Welfare and Veterans Minister of State Mark Francois said: "[The] Ministry of Defence's position with respect to paying compensation is unchanged. I am sorry to have to send a disappointing reply, but I hope I have explained the reasons for doing so."

Key events: Nuclear testings at Maralinga

Mar 1951 - Australian Government approval sought to use Monte Bello Island for tests

Oct 1952 - First UK Test on 3 October – code named “Hurricane”

Sep 1953 - Minor trials at Emu Field on Australian mainland

Oct 1953 - Next two UK tests, known as “Totem 1 and 2” on 14 and 26 October, at Emu Field

May 1955 - Permanent test site at Maralinga announced

June 1955 - Minor trials start at Maralinga

May 1956 - UK conducts tests “Mosaic 1 and 2” on 16 May and 19 June at Monte Bello

Sep 1956 - “Buffalo” tests at Maralinga (four shots on 27 Sept, and 4, 11 and 21 October. Buffalo 3 was the first UK airdrop test

Sep 1957 - “antler” tests at Maralinga, 3 shots (14 and 25 September and 9 October)

Minor trials continued in short annual campaigns until May 1963

Aug 1967 - The final UK clean up operation at Maralinga completed, (Operation Brumby in May to Aug 67)

July 1984 - Australian Royal Commission (ARC) established

Nov 1985 - Royal Commission Report published Feb 1986 Post ARC Technical Assessment Group (TAG) established with UK membership. Study of options and costs of decontamination and rehabilitation of Emu and Maralinga

March 1989 - TAG reports to Australian Ministers

Dec 1993 - UK Government agrees to pay £20M on an ex gratia basis towards the cost of site rehabilitation

Mar 2003 - Report into the clean up of Maralinga published in Australia. The Australian Science Minister reports to Federal Parliament that the land at Maralinga can be handed back to its traditional owner, the Maralinga Tjarutja.

2009 - Most of the Maralinga-Tjarutja land  handed back to indigenous people after rehabilitation work was completed. 

5 November 2014 - Full handover of the 1,782 square kilometres of land to the Maralinga Tjarutja people marked by a ceremony.

Source: The National Archives UK