Summary – British Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia

Jim Green

National nuclear campaigner – Friends of the Earth, Australia

The general attitude of white settlers towards Australian Aborigines was profoundly racist; Aboriginal society was considered one of the lowest forms of civilisation and doomed to extinction. Their land was considered empty and available for exploitation – ‘terra nullius’.

The testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s by the British government in territory which sustained Indigenous culture had the effect of aiding the policy of ‘assimilation’. It did this by denying the safe use of land.

In “Fallout – Hedley Marston and the British Bomb Tests in Australia” (Wakefield Press, 2001, p.32), Dr. Roger Cross writes: “Little mention was made of course about the effects the bomb tests might have on the Indigenous Australian inhabitants of the Maralinga area, a community that had experienced little contact with white Australia. In 1985 the McClelland Royal Commission would report how Alan Butement, Chief Scientist for the Department of Supply wrote to the native patrol officer for the area, rebuking him for the concerns he had expressed about the situation and chastising him for “apparently placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. When a member of staff at Hedley Marston’s division queried the British Scientist Scott Russell on the fate of the Aborigines at Maralinga, the response was that they were a dying race and therefore dispensable.”

The British nuclear testing program was carried out with the full support of the Australian government. Nine nuclear weapon tests were carried out at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia, and three tests were carried out on the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Permission was not sought for the tests from affected Aboriginal groups such as the Pitjantjatjara, Tjarutja and Kokatha. The use of atomic weapons contaminated great tracts of traditional land, and transformed an independent and physically wide ranging people into a semi-static and dependent group – forced relocation was one of the traumas. The damage was radiological, psycho-social and cultural. This change was profoundly negative and to this day, much of the work of lifting the living conditions of Indigenous people result from the loss of traditional independence dating from the 1950s when the use of nuclear weapons forced Aboriginals into government- and mission-controlled enclaves. The size and nature of these substitute areas was such as to prevent the successful use of traditional living skills and de-culturalisation occurred.

Little or no attention was paid during the British nuclear testing program in Australia to the increased vulnerability of Aboriginal people to the radiological effects of the tests. That increased susceptibility was due to a range of factors including lack of clothing and footwear, a diet conducive to biological magnification of radioactivity, movement patterns, language barriers, and general health status. Conversely Aboriginal people generally lacked protections available to others such as reticulated water; hard permanent dwellings with dust proofing; remotely sourced food; food storage facilities which afforded some radiological protection; laundry/bathroom and drainage facilities.

The secrecy surrounding the nuclear testing program had the effect of ensuring the social isolation of groups, including affected Indigenous populations, compounded the suffering inflicted.

Studies of the health impacts of the weapons tests have excluded non-urban Aboriginal people (e.g. the study by Wise and Moroney, first presented to the Royal Commission, which states: “Two population groups are excluded from the calculations. They are the aboriginals living away from populations centres and personnel involved directly in nuclear test activities …” (Keith N. Wise and John R. Moroney, Australian Radiation Laboratory, May 1992, “Public Health Impact of Fallout from British Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia, 1952 – 1957”, Dept. of Health, Housing and Community Services, ARL/TRI05 ISSN 0157-1400, p.2.)

List of British atomic weapons tests in Australia:

Operation Hurricane (Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia)
* 3 October, 1952 – 25 kilotons – plutonium

Operation Totem (Emu Field, South Australia)
* ‘Totem 1’ – 15 October, 1953 – 9.1 kilotons – plutonium
* ‘Totem 2’ – 27 October, 1953 – 7.1 kilotons – plutonium

Operation Mosaic (Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia)
‘G1’ – 16 May, 1956 – Trimouille Island – 15 kilotons – plutonium
‘G2’ – 19 June, 1956 – Alpha Island – 60 kilotons – plutonium

Operation Buffalo (Maralinga, South Australia)
‘One Tree’ – 27 September, 1956 – 12.9 kilotons – plutonium
‘Marcoo’ – 4 October, 1956 – 1.4 kilotons – plutonium
‘Kite’ – 11 October, 1956 – 2.9 kilotons – plutonium
‘Breakaway’ – 22 October, 1956 – 10.8 kilotons – plutonium

Operation Antler (Maralinga, South Australia)
‘Tadje’ – 14 September, 1957 – 0.9 kilotons – plutonium
‘Biak’ – 25 September, 1957 – 5.7 kilotons – plutonium
‘Taranaki’ – 9 October, 1957 – 26.6 kilotons – plutonium

Monte Bello Islands

While the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia were uninhabited, the nuclear tests conducted there spread radioactivity across large portions of mainland Australia. The Royal Commission (p.261) concluded: “The presence of Aborigines on the mainland near Monte Bello Islands and their extra vulnerability to the effect of fallout was not recognised by either [Atomic Weapons Research Establishment – UK] or the Safety Committee. It was a major oversight that the question of acceptable dose levels for Aborigines was recognised as a problem at Maralinga but was ignored in setting the fallout criteria for the Mosaic tests.”

Emu Field

“The Government used the Country for the Bomb. Some of us were living at Twelve Mile, just out of Coober Pedy. The smoke was funny and everything looked hazy. Everybody got sick. Other people were at Mabel Creek and many people got sick. Some people were living at Wallatinna. Other people got moved away. Whitefellas and all got sick. When we were young, no woman got breast cancer or any other kind of cancer. Cancer was unheard of. And no asthma either, we were people without sickness.”
— Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, <>

At the time of the two ‘Totem’ nuclear tests at Emu Field in South Australia, the area was used, as the Royal Commission reported, for: “… hunting and gathering, for temporary settlements, for caretakership and spiritual renewal.” (p.152) A major test named Totem 1 was detonated on October 15th, 1953. The blast sent a radioactive cloud – which came to be known as the Black Mist – over 250 kms northwest to Wallatinna and down to Coober Pedy. The Totem I test is held responsible for a sudden outbreak of sickness and death experienced by Aboriginal communities, including members of the Kupa Piti Kunga Tjuta and their extended families. The Royal Commission found that the Totem 1 test was fired under wind conditions which a study had shown would produce unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the firing criteria did not take into account the existence of people at Wallatinna and Melbourne Hill down wind of the test site (p.151). In relation to the two Totem tests, the Royal Commission found that there was a failure at the Totem trials to consider adequately the distinctive lifestyle of Aborigines and their special vulnerability to radioactive fallout, that inadequate resources were allocated to guaranteeing the safety of Aborigines during the Totem nuclear tests, and that the Native Patrol Officer had an impossible task of locating and warning Aborigines, some of whom lived in traditional lifestyles and were located over more than 100,00 square kilometres (p.173).

No special consideration was given to the Aboriginal lifestyle. In an exact replica of Operation ‘Hurricane’, the authorities conveniently forgot that these people were largely or wholly unclothed. They cooked and ate in unsheltered locations and had a diet liable to biological magnification of radioactive contamination, for example, lizards such as goannas and snakes.


A number of Aboriginal people were moved from Ooldea to Yalata prior to the 1956-57 series of tests at Maralinga, and this included moving people away from their traditional lands. Yet movements by the Aboriginal population still occurred throughout the region at the time of the tests. It was later realised that a traditional Aboriginal route crossed through the Maralinga testing range.

In relation to the Buffalo series of tests in 1956, the Royal Commission found that regard for Aboriginal safety was characterised by “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism”, and that the site was chosen on the false premise that it was no longer used by the Traditional Owners – Aboriginal people continued to inhabit the Prohibited Zone for six years after the tests. The reporting of sightings of Aborigines was “discouraged and ignored”, the Royal Commission found. (p.323)

At the time of the tests it was well publicised that Indigenous People of the Maralinga lands were moved to the safety of mission stations and reserves by “Native Patrol Officers” who patrolled thousands of square kilometres of land to try to ensure Indigenous people were removed. Signs were erected in some places – written in English, which few of the effected Aborigines could understand. For the Aboriginal people who still walked the Western Desert, many living traditionally, radiation exposure caused sickness and death. There are tragic accounts of families sleeping in the bomb craters.

The British Government paid A$13.5 million compensation to the Maralinga Tjarutja in 1995. Other Indigenous victims – including members of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – have not been compensated and received no apology.