Operation Totem

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Totem One Obelisk.jpg
Obelisk at the Totem One test site
Country United Kingdom
Test site Emu Field, SA, Australia
Period 1953
Number of tests 2
Test type tower
Max. yield 10 kilotonnes of TNT (42 TJ)
Test series chronology
Map all coordinates in "Operation Totem" using: OpenStreetMap · Google Maps
Download coordinates as: KML · GPX

Operation Totem was a pair of British atmospheric nuclear tests which took place at Emu Field, South Australia on 15 October 1953. They followed the Operation Hurricane test of the first British atomic bomb, which had taken place at the Montebello Islands a year previously.

The main purpose of the Totem trial was to determine the acceptable limit on the amount of plutonium-240 which could be present in a bomb. The plutonium used in the original Hurricane device was produced in a nuclear reactor at Windscale. This plant did not have anything like the capacity to provide sufficient material for the British government's planned weapons programme, and consequently eight more reactors had been planned.

These were intended to produce both electricity and plutonium, and the design was known as Pippa, (for Pressurised Pile Producing Power and Plutonium). Construction of the first one started at Calder Hall in March 1953. However, for cost reasons they were to operate in such a way that a higher proportion of plutonium-240 was to be present in the fissionable plutonium-239 product than in the Windscale-produced material. This was potentially a problem since plutonium-240 is prone to spontaneous fission, which would both present a criticality accident risk and reduce the likely yield of any weapon containing it. Sir William Penney urgently obtained ministerial permission in December 1952, two months after the Hurricane shot, for the Totem tests to take place in October 1953.

The Totem tests tried two designs with different proportions of plutonium-240 in the pit. Since the Royal Navy were unable to provide the level of support which they had in the Hurricane test, the Montebello Islands used for that shot were ruled out. Instead a new site, originally given the codename X200 but later renamed Emu Field, was selected following surveys by Len Beadell and the British Army Survey Corps. An isolated dry, flat clay and sandstone expanse in the Great Victoria Desert, it was 480 km north west of Woomera, South Australia.[1]

Because the site was on the Australian mainland, the Australian government required much more information than they had for the Hurricane test, including details of implosion principle behind the bomb's design and much more information about nuclear fallout and radioactive contamination. The isolated location and poor roads meant that only 500 tons of the 3000 tons of equipment needed for the test arrived by road, the bulk arriving via the airstrip quickly constructed on the site (about 17 kilometres north west of the test field on a lake bed at 28°37′46″S 132°12′15″E / 28.62944°S 132.20417°E / -28.62944; 132.20417 (air strip)). The main scientific party arrived on 17 August and the device for the first test arrived on 26 September to be followed three days later by Penney.

The two nuclear explosions were preceded by five smaller tests which formed part of a series codenamed Kittens, and which were performed without formal Australian Government approval.[2] These did not produce nuclear explosions, but used conventional explosive and polonium-210, beryllium and natural uranium to investigate the performance of neutron initiators.


The United Kingdom test series summary table is here: United Kingdom's nuclear testing series.

The detonations in the United Kingdom's Totem series are listed below:

United Kingdom's Totem series tests and detonations
Name [note 1] Date time (UT) Local time zone [note 2][3] Location [note 3] Elevation + height [note 4] Delivery [note 5] Purpose [note 6] Device [note 7] Yield [note 8] Fallout [note 9] References Notes
T1 14 October 1953 21:30:?? aCST (9.5 hrs)
Emu Field, SAU 28°41′55″S 132°22′18″E / 28.69849°S 132.37159°E / -28.69849; 132.37159 (T1) 300 m (980 ft) + 31 m (102 ft) tower weapons development Blue Danube? 10 kt [4][5][6][7] A rehearsal for the first test took place on 1 October but rain delayed the actual test, originally scheduled for a week later, until 14 October. The yield was bigger than expected and only a little below the maximum planned in safety assessments.
T2 26 October 1953 21:30:?? aCST (9.5 hrs)
Emu Field, SAU 28°42′44″S 132°22′38″E / 28.7122°S 132.3773°E / -28.7122; 132.3773 (T2) 310 m (1,020 ft) + 31 m (102 ft) tower weapons development Blue Danube? 8 kt [4][5][6][7] The second test was also delayed because of poor weather. The yield was much bigger than the expected 2-3 kilotons, but again less than the estimated maximum of 10 kilotons.

Table notes:

  1. ^ The US, France and Great Britain have code-named their test events, while the USSR and China did not, and therefore have only test numbers (with some exceptions - Soviet peaceful explosions were named). Word translations into English in parentheses unless the name is a proper noun. A dash followed by a number indicates a member of a salvo event. The US also sometimes named the individual explosions in such a salvo test, which results in "name1 - 1(with name2)". If test is canceled or aborted, then the row data like date and location discloses the intended plans, where known.
  2. ^ To convert the UT time into standard local, add the number of hours in parentheses to the UT time; for local daylight saving time, add one additional hour. If the result is earlier than 00:00, add 24 hours and subtract 1 from the day; if it's 24:00 or later, subtract 24 hours and add 1 to the day. All historical timezone data (excepting Johnston Atoll) are derived from here:
  3. ^ Rough place name and a Latitude/Longitude reference; for rocket-carried tests, the launch location is specified before the detonation location, if known. Some locations are extremely accurate; others (like airdrops and space blasts) may be quite inaccurate. "~" indicates a likely pro-forma rough location, shared with other tests in that same area.
  4. ^ Elevation is the ground level at the point directly below the explosion relative to sea level; height is the additional distance added or subtracted by tower, balloon, shaft, tunnel, air drop or other contrivance. For rocket bursts the ground level is "N/A". In some cases it is not clear if the height is absolute or relative to ground, for example, Plumbbob/John. No number or units indicates the value is unknown, while "0" means zero. Sorting on this column is by elevation and height added together.
  5. ^ Atmospheric, airdrop, balloon, gun, cruise missile, rocket, surface, tower, and barge are all disallowed by the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Sealed shaft and tunnel are underground, and remained useful under the PTBT. Intentional cratering tests are borderline; they occurred under the treaty, were sometimes protested, and generally overlooked if the test was declared to be a peaceful use.
  6. ^ Include weapons development, weapon effects, safety test, transport safety test, war, science, joint verification and industrial/peaceful, which may be further broken down.
  7. ^ Designations for test items where known, "?" indicates some uncertainty about the preceding value, nicknames for particular devices in quotes. This category of information is often not officially disclosed.
  8. ^ Estimated energy yield in tons, kilotons, and megatons.
  9. ^ Radioactive emission to the atmosphere aside from prompt neutrons, where known. The measured species is only iodine-131 if mentioned, otherwise it is all species. No entry means unknown, probably none if underground and "all" if not; otherwise notation for whether measured on the site only or off the site, where known, and the measured amount of radioactivity released.


Efforts were made to prevent nomadic Aboriginal People from entering the area around the test site, but there were thought to be no (or at most very few) people in such a dry and inhospitable environment. The chief scientist at the Australian Department of Supply, W. A. S. Butement asserted that "I am given to understand that the area is no longer used by Aborigines". The precautions consisted of warnings sent to pastoral stations in August 1953, warning notices around the perimeter of the test site, and aerial and ground searches, usually within 20 miles of the site, which were made with increasing frequency as the test firings approached. The 1985 Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia determined that the area was still being occasionally used and the efforts have been criticised as inadequate.[8]

Before the tests, the height of the radioactive cloud resulting from the explosions was estimated at 12,000 feet, (+/-1000 feet). This led to safety criteria for making the decision to detonate the device that the wind direction from ground level up to 10,000 feet should not lie between 330 and 130 degrees and that no rain was forecast closer than 200 miles downwind. However the cloud from the Totem 1 shot rose to 15,000 feet, drifting east and crossing the coast 50 hours later near Townsville.

Following the Totem 1 test, a black mist rolled across the landscape at the Wallatina and Welbourn Hill stations in the Granite Downs 175 km from the test site and led to unacceptably high levels of radioactive contamination of these locations. There is controversy surrounding injuries received by Aboriginal People from fallout, and in particular from this mist. Approximately 45 Yankunytjatjara people were reported to have been caught in the mist at Wallatina and fallen ill, and over half may have died.[8]

The 1985 Royal Commission concluded that "Aboriginal people experienced radioactive fallout from Totem 1 in the form of a black mist or cloud at or near Wallatina. This may have made some people temporarily ill. The Royal Commission does not have sufficient evidence to say whether or not it caused other illnesses or injuries".

The Totem 2 cloud rose even higher, to 28,000 feet because of condensation of moisture entrained in it, and whilst the wind direction below 12,000 feet was an acceptable 10 degrees, at 20,000 feet it was 270 degrees. However high winds dispersed the cloud so that it had dissipated to the point where it could not be tracked beyond around 500 km east of the test site.


A few days after the conclusion of these tests, the British Government formally requested a permanent testing site from the Australian Government, which led to the agreement on the use of the Maralinga test site in August 1954. However the next trial was back at the Montebello Islands in May 1956. Operation Mosaic was a pair of tests as part of the development of thermonuclear weapons. The first trial at Maralinga was in September 1956, with the Operation Buffalo series.

Atomic Tank[edit]

An unmanned British Centurion tank, Registration Number 169041 was positioned c. 500 yards (460 m) from ground zero at the Totem I test, following the test the tank's light damage was repaired and it was put back into service.[9]

169041, subsequently nicknamed The Atomic Tank, was later used in the Vietnam War. In May 1969, during a firefight, 169041 (call sign 24C) was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) but remained battle-worthy.[9]

The Atomic Tank is now located at Robertson Barracks in Palmerston, Northern Territory. Although other tanks were subjected to nuclear tests, 169041 is the only tank known to have withstood atomic tests and subsequently gone on for another 23 years of service, including 15 months on operational deployment in a war zone.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beadell, Len (1967). Blast The Bush. New Holland Publishers Sydney. ISBN 1 86436 736 9. 
  2. ^ "A toxic legacy: British nuclear weapons testing in Australia". Australian studies in law, crime and justice. Archived from the original on 2007-11-09. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  3. ^ Timezone Historical Database, iana.com, retrieved 2014-03-08 
  4. ^ a b Milliken, Robert (1986). No Conceivable Injury. Ringwood, Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books. 
  5. ^ a b Maclagan, D. S.; Cooper, M. B.; Duggleby, J. C. (August 1, 1979). Residual Radioactive Contamination of the Test Site at Emu from Nuclear Weapons Tests conducted in 1953 (PDF) (Technical report). Yallambie, VIC, Australia: Australian Radiation Laboratory. Retrieved December 18, 2013. 
  6. ^ a b Norris, Robert S.; Burrows, Andrew S.; Fieldhouse, Richard W. (1994). Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. 5: British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 
  7. ^ a b Yang, Xiaoping; North, Robert; Romney, Carl (August 2000). CMR Nuclear Explosion Database (Revision 3) (Technical report). SMDC Monitoring Research. 
  8. ^ a b Roger Cross and Avon Hudson (2006). Beyond Belief: The British Bomb Tests: Australia's Veterans Speak Out. Wakefield Press. pp. 23–25. ISBN 978-1-86254-660-8. 
  9. ^ a b The Unique History of 169041
  10. ^ "Australian Centurions in preservation, many photographs". Steel Thunder Original Two.