Nuclear weapons tests in Australia

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Map showing nuclear test sites in Australia

The United Kingdom conducted 12 major nuclear weapons tests in Australia between 1952 and 1957. These explosions occurred at the Montebello Islands, Emu Field and Maralinga.[1]

Several books have been written about nuclear weapons testing in Australia. These include Britain, Australia and the Bomb, Maralinga: Australia's Nuclear Waste Cover-up and My Australian Story: Atomic Testing: The Diary of Anthony Brown, Woomera, 1953. In 2006 Wakefield Press published Beyond belief: the British bomb tests: Australia's veterans speak out by Roger Cross and veteran and whistleblower, Avon Hudson.


Memorial tablet in Paisley remembering the people concerned in the tests

The British conducted testing in the Pacific Ocean at Malden Island and Kiritimati known at the time as Christmas Island (not to be confused with Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean) between 1957 and 1958.[2] These were airbursts mostly occurring over water or suspended a few hundred metres above the ground by balloon.[2]

In Australia there were three sites. Testing was carried out between 1952 and 1957 and was mostly done at the surface.[2] A few hundred smaller scale tests were conducted at both Emu Field and Maralinga between 1953 and 1963.[3]

Monte Bello Islands[edit]

Two separate atomic test projects occurred at the islands, the first being Operation Hurricane and the second being Operation Mosaic. Following the second Mosaic explosion, the radioactive cloud that was supposed to be taken away from the site, was sent back by wind that was not anticipated by the British scientists. [4]

Major tests at Monte Bello Islands[1]
Name Date[5] Yield[5] Type
Operation Hurricane/Mosaic
Hurricane 3 October 1952 11:15 25 kt In the hull of HMS Plym
Mosaic One 16 May 1956 11:15 15 kt Tower
Mosaic Two 19 June 1956 10:14 60 kt Tower

Emu Field[edit]

The atomic tests at Emu Field in 1953 were known as Operation Totem. The test site of Emu Field was abandoned just hours after the second and final test, Totem 2.

Major tests at Emu Field[1]
Name Date[5] Yield[5] Type
Operation Totem
Totem One 15 Oct 1953 07:00 10 kt Tower
Totem Two 27 Oct 1953 07:00 8 kt Tower


A testing site at Maralinga was established in 1955, close to a siding along the Trans-Australian Railway. Because supplies could be brought to the site via rail, it was preferred over Emu Field. A total of seven major tests were conducted at Maralinga. Both the Federal government and Australian newspapers at the time were very supportive of the tests.[6] In 1952, the Liberal Government passed legislation, the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, which allowed the British Government access to remote parts of Australia to undertake atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. The general public were largely unaware of the risks from the testing program, stemming from official secrecy about the testing program and the remote locations of the test sites.

Before the tests could begin the Maralinga Tjarutja, the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, were forcibly removed.[7]

An air base at Woomera, 570 km away, which had been used for rocket testing, was initially used as a base from which planes were flown for testing of the bomb clouds.[7]

Major tests at Maralinga[1]
Name Date[5] Yield[5] Type
Operation Buffalo
One tree 27 Sep 1956 17:00 12.9 kt Tower
Marcoo 04 Oct 1956 16:30 1.4 kt Ground-level
Kite 11 Oct 1956 14:27 2.9 kt Airdrop
Breakaway 22 Oct 1956 00:05 10.8 kt Tower
Operation Antler
Tadje 14 Sep 1957 14:35 0.93 kt Tower
Biak 25 Sep 1957 10:00 5.67 kt Tower
Taranaki 09 Oct 1957 16:15 26.6 kt Balloon

According to Liz Tynan from James Cook University, the Maralinga tests were a striking example of extreme secrecy, but by the late 1970s there was a marked change in how the Australian media covered the British nuclear tests. Avon Hudson, an atomic veteran who participated as an Australian serviceman during the later stage Minor Trials became a prominent whistleblower. Some resourceful investigative journalists emerged and political scrutiny became more intense.[8] In June 1993, New Scientist journalist Ian Anderson wrote an article entitled "Britain's dirty deeds at Maralinga" and several related articles.[9]

Minor Trials[edit]

Over a decade, 1953 to 1963, a series of "Minor Trials" occurred testing components of the Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs using in some instances highly radioactive materials, such as Plutonium, Beryllium, and Uranium. Most of the minor trials involved conventional explosions to map out the radioactive dispersion and contamination of military assets, building structures and early crash test dummies. The Minor Trial of Vixen A dispersing Plutonium over a wide area by conventional explosive was considered to have had the longest half-life of any test or trial conducted in Australia.

Minor trials name, location and radioactive material
Year Location Trial Material Quantity (kg)
1953 Emu Field Kitten Beryllium 0.036
1955 Naya 3 Tims Uranium 13.8
1955 Naya Kittens Uranium 5
1955-57 Naya Kittens Beryllium 0.75
1955-57 Kittens area Kittens Uranium 120
1956-60 Kuli TM4 Tims Uranium 6605
1956-58 Naya 1 Rats Uranium 151
1957 Naya Tims Beryllium 1.6
1957 Naya 3 Kittens Uranium 23.4
1957 Wewak Vixen A Uranium 67.8
1957 Dobo Rats Uranium 28
1957 Taranaki Vixen B Uranium 25
1959 Wewak VK33 Vixen A Plutonium 0.008
1959 Wewak VK29 Vixen A Beryllium 0.14
1959 Wewak VK28 Vixen A Beryllium 0.25
1959 Wewak VK27 Vixen A Beryllium 0.27
1959 Wewak VK30 Vixen A Beryllium 0.1
1959-60 Kuli TM11 Tims Beryllium 26.2
1959-60 Kuli TM11 Tims Uranium 67
1960 Naya TM100 Tims Plutonium 0.6
1960-62 Naya 2 Kittens Uranium 32
1960-61 Kuli TM16 Tims Beryllium 39
1961 Kuli TM50 Tims Uranium 90
1961 Naya TM101 Tims Plutonium 0.6
1961 Wewak VK60A Vixen A Plutonium 0.294
1961 Wewak VK60C Vixen A Plutonium 0.277
1961 Wewak 60A Vixen A Beryllium 1.72
1961 Wewak 60B Vixen A Beryllium 1.72
1961-63 Taranaki Vixen B Beryllium 17.6


Opposition to the tests grew throughout the 1950s. A poll in 1957 found that almost half the population was against them.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Michael Carter et al. (2006). Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests in Australia, Vol 1: Dosimetry, Commonwealth of Australia, p. 3.
  2. ^ a b c United Nations Scientific Committee On The Effects Of Atomic Radiation (2000). Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation: UNSCEAR 2000 Report to the General Assembly, with Scientific Annex. United Nations Publications. p. 176. ISBN 9211422388. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
  3. ^ Kalmykov, Stepan N. (2010). Actinide Nanoparticle Research. Springer. p. 342. ISBN 3642114326. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
  4. ^ Walker, Frank (2014). MARALINGA. Sydney, NSW 2000: Hachette Australia. ISBN 0733635938.CS1 maint: location (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests in Australia 2006 - Dosimetry" (PDF). Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs. p. 7. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2008-12-02.
  6. ^ Lines, William J. (1991). Taming the Great South Land: A History of the Conquest of Nature in Australia. University of California Press. p. 214. ISBN 0520078306. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
  7. ^ a b McAuley, Gay (2006). Unstable Ground: Performance and the Politics of Place. Peter Lang. p. 210. ISBN 9052010366. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
  8. ^ Liz Tynan (November 2013). "Dig for secrets: the lesson of Maralinga's Vixen B". Chain Reaction #119.
  9. ^ Philip Jones (5 April 2000). "Ian Anderson obituary". The Guardian.
  10. ^ Australian Government. A toxic legacy: British nuclear weapons testing in Australia.

External links[edit]