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British Nuclear Testing on Indigenous Peoples’ Lands

Map of Australia, with red triangles marking nuclear test sites at Maralinga and Mentebello Islands
Map of Australia depicting UK nuclear test sites

The Beginning of British Nuclear Weapons Testing

Many scientists who participated in the development of nuclear weapons during the Second World War were driven by the fear that Germany was also trying to develop an atom bomb. 

After Germany conceded defeat, some, like scientist Leo Szilard, strongly opposed the use of nuclear weapons. Robert Oppenheimer was not one of those who tried to stop the first bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, but he objected to the dropping of another, argued against the planned further development of even more powerful nuclear weapons and advocated that all nuclear weapons should be banned. Such foresight was not shared by the US or UK heads of state who continued independently to test and develop even more lethal nuclear weapons rather than seeking an agreed ban with the Soviet Union whose first nuclear weapon was conducted in 1949.

While the first atom bombs were the product of an official collaboration of the USA, UK and Canada, this cooperation was suspended when the USA passed the Atomic Energy Act in 1946 prohibiting information sharing. The British prime minister’s response was to assume that Britain must develop its own nuclear weapons program. A mentality consistent with Empire and colonial power took it for granted that Britain must have a capacity to ensure military dominance. The colonial legacy also meant a British prime minister with a cavalier attitude to conducting nuclear tests in overseas territories.

Victims of British Nuclear Tests in Australia

Yami Lester, nuclear activist, smiling

Yami Lester, activist

On October 3rd 1952, the UK conducted its first nuclear tests in Australia. 

In total twelve nuclear bombs were detonated in the open in Australia overlapping with another series of such atmospheric tests in the Malden and Christmas Islands. There were also hundreds of more ‘minor trials’ in Australia involving land-and-water polluting experiments with radioactive material, albeit not nuclear explosions. 

The go-ahead was given by prime-minister Menzies without consulting his cabinet, parliament or people. The public were only given information designed to reassure, rather than to inform them of the true nature of the risks – a process aided by government control of the Australian news media. The UK gave very little information even to the Australian prime-minister, and Australian scientists never had sufficient information to advise their government. The explosions not only caused immediate destruction but the radioactive fallout and toxic pollution caused longer term harms which, for some families, continue down through generations.

In June 2022, Mia Haseldine broke down in tears as she spoke of her experience at an ICAN forum. She is the granddaughter of traditional owners of the land around Maralinga – a UK nuclear test site. She described her post-traumatic stress following the death of her unborn daughter:

“A genetic complication meant my daughter developed tumour-shaped growths and tumours in her kidneys, her heart, and her brain all while she was in utero.” 

Her own childhood was far from the contaminated area but she believed that the nuclear testing had caused a hereditary genetic mutation, and now she lives in fear for the future children.

“I wonder, if my sisters or my sons have children, are there going to be more of our babies that are born with tumours and are they going to have to suffer the grief that I carry?”

However, victims can never fully prove the source of their ill-health. This is not only the case for Mia Haseldine but for those directly exposed to contamination. The fallout and subsequent health effects of the tests were never adequately documented. When 30 years later there was an investigation by a Royal Commission, chaired by MacClelland 1984-85, they concluded:

 “Because of the deficiencies in the available data, there is now little prospect of carrying out any worthwhile epidemiological study of those involved in the tests nor of others who might have been directly affected by them.”

 No attention was paid at the time or since to systematically documenting the harms to species other than humans.

The tests were conducted in what Australians describe as ‘the bush’, rural areas that the UK government of the 1950s regarded as unpopulated despite the presence of aboriginal people, the traditional owners – some of whom continued the practices of travelling long distances on foot, constructing temporary shelters from natural materials and living off ‘bush tucker’. Minimal efforts were made to warn aboriginal people. This was despite the fact that the traditions of living from the land and in the open put people at risk, even beyond the lifetime of those present, given the very long lasting potential harm of some radioactive particles.

Those who were warned were effectively forced to leave the lands they loved. The Royal Commission acknowledged that ‘Inadequate resources were allocated to guaranteeing the safety of Aborigines’, ‘the false assumption that the area was not used by its traditional Aboriginal owners’, and that this was ‘the beginning of a period during which Aboriginal people were denied access to their traditional lands.’ 

And, commenting on the safety of areas around test sites in the then 1980s, they lamented the continued lack of adequate information on which to make judgement about ongoing harm as there had been no effort to gather information about, ‘the dust conditions in Aboriginal camps, the types and amounts of specific food items and the amounts of plutonium in these food items. Information on the particle size distribution of plutonium contamination is also very important and needs to be determined.’

Predictions and expectations about ‘yield’, the amount of fallout, and anticipated areas affected, were often incorrect. Larger areas than expected – or unexpected places – ended up receiving fallout.

Fallout from the first test on Trimouille Island (part of the Montebello Islands of the north west coast of Australia) was not expected to reach the mainland but it did. The second test was in the heart of the mainland, at a place nicknamed Emu Fields in South Australia.

The Yankunytjatjara people suffered the worst consequences. 

Yami Lester was ten years old at the time and the damage to his eyes resulted in blindness in his teenage years. In various interviews he spoke of hearing the bomb, the ground shaking and then “this quiet black smoke ‒ oily and shiny” followed by everyone falling sick.

“We had sore eyes, skin rash, diarrhoea and vomiting – everybody. Old people too.” 

Yami became a powerful and effective campaigner for victims of nuclear tests helping to bring about the Royal Commission. He advocated for aboriginal land rights, for the abolition of nuclear weapons and against all forms of injustice. 

His daughter Karin Lester carries on this work. She spoke of her father at the UN negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in June 2017:

“Many of his people, his family, developed eye infections, skin infections, cancers, genetic problems, respiratory problems and auto-immune diseases and many are still suffering today. The emotional, mental and physical suffering is felt by generations.

The Effect of Nuclear Testing on Military Personnel

Thousands of British and Australian military personnel who assisted with the testing or were summoned to witness it were also exposed to radioactivity.

They had to fight for years before the harms they suffered were recognised.

In 2017, the Australian government finally issued what they described as ‘a gold health card’ to cover the health care costs of the surviving participants of the British Nuclear Test program, Australian veterans who served as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) as well as to indigenous people present at or near the test sites at the time of the British Nuclear Tests. 

As Yami Lester commented, “60 years too late”. 

While British veterans can claim for compensation for illness caused by duties while in service, the official position remains that ‘the Government do not accept in general that those present at sites were exposed to harmful levels of ionising radiation.’ ( The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Tobias Ellwood, Hansard 21 May 2019 column 698)

Nuclear Testing and Wildlife

Stone Curlew bird crouched down

A endangered stone curlew bird

At the time of the test, there were no environmental impact assessments taking consideration of wildlife. 

But the bush is never empty of life. 

In the present day, the Montebello Islands are recognised as a place of significance for many species of sea and shore birds, some now rare and endangered. 

Five species of terns breed there (fairy, roseate, Caspian, bridled, and Greater crested terns), along with the rare sooty oystercatchers as well as the more common pied oystercatchers, ospreys, white-bellied sea eagles, and the endangered beach stone-curlews. October is the beginning of spring in the Southern hemisphere.

When the first bomb was detonated from a sacrificial ship anchored in a lagoon early that morning, it was probably teeming with birds. Accounts by veterans of their experiences of tests report beaches litter with dead turtles, dead fish floating on the sea – and sometimes the distress of burned and dying birds and animals.

Sources:

There were up to 600 minor trials, which contaminated Maralinga with approximately 8,000 kg of uranium, 24 kg of plutonium, and 100 kg of beryllium (Report by the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC) on the Rehabilitation of Former Nuclear Test Sites at Emu and Maralinga (Australia), 2003

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia ROYAL COMMISSION INTO BRITISH NUCLEAR TESTS IN AUSTRALIA (Mr Justice J. R. McClelland) Vol. I ll Conclusions and Recommendations. November 1985  https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/publications/tabledpapers/HPP032016010930/upload_pdf/HPP032016010930.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22publications/tabledpapers/HPP032016010930%22

“Britain’s Nuclear Weapons-From MAUD to Hurricane”. Nuclear Weapons Archive. Archived from the original on 20 January 2017.

“Britain’s Nuclear Weapons – British Nuclear Testing”. Nuclear Weapons Archive. Retrieved 4 August 2018.

Leonard, Zeb (22 May 2014). “Tampering with History: Varied Understanding of Operation Mosaic”. Journal of Australian Studies. 38 (2): 205–219. doi:10.1080/14443058.2014.895956. ISSN 1444-3058. S2CID 144611309.