As former Australian Conservation Foundation anti-nuclear campaigner David Noonan put it in 2005, “Australia is the only society to have ever provided its own uranium to an overseas nuclear weapons state to make nuclear weapons to then bomb back on their own land.”
And it was Scott Morrison’s pin-up boy, former prime minister Robert Menzies, who in 1950 said yes to the British government carrying out secret nuclear weapons tests without initially consulting cabinet, whilst making assurances that no negative radioactive impact would occur.
Around 800 kilometres northeast of Adelaide, Maralinga was chosen as the main nuclear testing site, as the government found that the Maralinga Tjarutja people – who’d been living there since time immemorial – weren’t actually using the land.
The local Indigenous peoples were never consulted about the testing. Many were forcibly removed from their lands and taken to Yalata mission in SA, which effectively served as a prison camp. Some remained in the vicinity of the test site. Signs written in English were erected warning them to leave.
Indeed, on 27 September 1956, when the first nuclear device, One Tree, was detonated at Maralinga, First Nations peoples had no rights under Commonwealth Law. The vote didn’t come until 1962, while citizenship rights weren’t granted until the 1967 Referendum.
A toxic legacy
The Menzies Liberal government passed the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, which effectively allowed the British to access remotes parts of Australia to test atomic weapons. The general public for the most part had no awareness or understanding of what would take place.
British and Australian servicemen built a test site, airstrip and township at Maralinga known as Section 400. Australian troops signed documents under Australian secrecy laws that required them never to divulge any operational information, with the threat of harsh prison sentences.
Between September 1956 and October 1957, the British set off seven above ground nuclear bombs ranging from 1 to 27 kilotons. The first four were part of Operation Buffalo, while the last three made up Operation Antler.
Following these tests, the British continued to carry out around 600 minor nuclear warhead tests up until 1963. And it was these that caused the greatest contamination. The most dire being the Vixen B tests that led to massive contamination of plutonium, which has a half-life of over 24,000 years.
The impact upon First Nations
Around 1,200 Aboriginal people were exposed to the radioactive fallout of the tests. This could lead to blindness, skin rashes and fever. It caused the early deaths of entire families. And long-term illnesses such as cancer and lung disease became prevalent amongst these communities.
As for those who were moved away from their homelands, their way of life was destroyed. The Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act was passed by the SA parliament in 1984, which ensured the damaged land was handed back freehold to traditional owners, as soon as it became “safe” again.
The Maralinga Tjarutja people, as well as other First Nations peoples, gradually returned to their homelands. Australia and reluctant British governments carried out initially terribly shonky clean-ups, that got progressively better, of the Maralinga site in 1967, 2000 and 2009.
And the British government eventually paid affected Aboriginal peoples $13.5 million in compensation for the loss and contamination of their lands in 1995.
Prior to Maralinga
The late Yankunytjatjara elder Yami Lester was just a boy living at Walatinna in the South Australian outback, when at 7 am on 15 October 1953, the British detonated a nuclear bomb at a test site at Emu Fields, northeast of Maralinga.
Mr Lester watched as a long, black cloud of smoke stretched out from the bomb site towards his homelands. In the wake of two tests carried out at Emu Fields within 12 days of each other, Yemi permanently lost his site, sudden deaths occurred, and his people suffered long-term illnesses.
The Emu Fields blasts were not the first on Australian soils. The initial nuclear bomb blast was carried out on the Monte Bello Islands in October 1952, while two more blasts took place in this Indian Ocean region in 1956.
And just like the Maralinga and Emu Fields blasts, the radioactive waste from these islands travelled across the entire continent. Two hotspots of excessive radioactive fallout resulting from the Emu Fields blasts were the NSW towns of Lismore and Dubbo.
Adding insult to injury
In 1989, the federal government announced it was establishing a nuclear waste dump near Coober Pedy in SA on the lands the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a senior women’s council representing the local peoples, many of whom had directly suffered the impacts of British nuclear testing.
As opposition to the dump grew, the government used the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act 1989 to seize the land, where it proposed to store the waste that was being produced at Sydney’s Lucas Heights reactor.
In July 2004, after a six year long battle the Kungka Tjuta senior women brought a stop the nuclear waste repository being situated on their land. And the federal government then turned to the NT’s Muckaty Station to dump the NSW waste. However, after that fell through, it’s still looking for a site.
The global threat continues
Maralinga took place at the height of the Cold War, after the US government refused to continue its nuclear program with British participation. And following World War Two, the crumbling empire sought to develop its own nuclear capacities in its faraway colonial backyard.
But, while many believe the threat of nuclear war faded with the end of the Cold War, renowned political analyst Noam Chomsky still warns that the two major threats in the world today are climate change and nuclear war.
Chomsky has pointed to a March 2007 article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences that revealed the “extremely dangerous” threat the Trump administration’s nuclear forces modernisation program is creating.
And as of January this year, the Doomsday Clock – which measures the likelihood of human-made global catastrophe – is still set at two minutes to midnight, as it first was 12 months prior. Based on the two threats identified by Chomsky, this setting is the closest to midnight it’s been since 1953.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.