Today I Discovered Britain's Sordid, Secret History Of Testing Atomic Bombs In Australia

Image: Australian Screen

The advent of the atomic bomb dramatically changed the course of history and, even today, looms as a threat for global catastrophe. From 1956 to 1963, Britain tested nuclear weapons at Maralinga, in South Australia, running hundreds of different experiments. The tests resulted in sickness and death for the local Indigenous populations, yet for many years, the fact these tests took place at all were kept secret from the Australian public.

Maralinga is situated in South Australia, about 800km northwest of Adelaide, and was the traditional home of the Maralinga Tjarutja people. Across eight years, the British Government conducted nuclear tests in the region in an effort to better understand the effects of nuclear weapons. However, with the controversial use of the weapons explicitly known since the end of the second World War, the experiments were kept highly confidential.

It wasn't until 1970, when RAAF serviceman, Avon Hudson, revealed the extent of the British testing and the subsequently poor efforts to clean up the area in that the tests became widely known about. The public outcry worsened over the following decade, eventually leading to the Government asking for a Royal Commission into the secretive testing in 1984 and a damning report on the failures of the British and Australian Governments to adequately clean up the sites and areas surrounding the explosions.

The Maralinga site saw two major tests and several minor tests, with the latter leaving the most detrimental legacy. Pioneering journalism by Ian Anderson, for New Scientist, back in 1993, revealed the political handball that the cleanup had become - Australia wanted Britain to pay for it and Britain didn't believe it was their responsibility to do so.

Sadly, it was the local population of Maralinga that suffered the most.

One of the most devastating and fascinating stories from the tests is that of Aboriginal man, Nyarri Morgan. Morgan was out hunting in the area at the time of a nuclear bomb explosion. Having never seen a white man before and without any knowledge of the nuclear testing taking place, Morgan believed that the spirit of his gods were rising up. After the explosion, Morgan recounts, all the kangaroos fell to the ground, dead. He believed that the spirit had caused all of the kangaroos to fall down on the ground as a gift, but after taking and eating the kangaroos, people were sick.

Morgan also described how the "water was on fire" and explained that there were Indigenous Australians who had lived closer to the test site that were poisoned as a result of the blast, with many of them dying. In the years following the original tests, Aboriginal people downwind of the fallout where shown to have higher incidence of radiation-related illnesses.

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers - the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it's just mind-blowing. This week, I'm travelling through the UK to bring you some of my new knowledge. As always, let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


    The political handball that the cleanup had become - Australia wanted Britain to pay for it and Britain didn't believe it was their responsibility to do so.

    Who wrote the agreed terms for this? Someone in first year contract law?

      This was a deal to secretly test doomsday weapons in remote Australia - pretty sure it wouldn't have had a prospectus. There were deals done to benefit someone high up in Aus back then but I doubt any of it is recorded on paper.

      "Who wrote the agreed terms for this? Someone in first year contract law?"

      No doubt employed by the Australian government as a cost saving measure.

      But wait, their incompetence gets worse...

      The Australian government just didn’t allow the testing of atomic bombs by Britain at Maralinga, but also at Emu, test sites as little as 1000 kms from Adelaide which caused radioactive clouds to drift over South Australia, Queensland and NSW and which the Royal Commission found caused cancers among the population which would otherwise have not occurred.

      It's interesting to note that during the initial atomic tests 
Australian scientific personnel were, with the happy agreement of 
Menzies, expressly forbidden by the British to monitor the tests.

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