Following the devastating nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, several nations scrambled to further develop the new technology, with the United States, Russia and Britain all engaged in active research.
Part of the essential development of nuclear weaponry involved detonating test explosions, but the difficulty here was the toxic “nuclear cloud” or radioactive fallout that dispersed according to the prevailing winds. This meant that any test explosion could only take place in remote areas of the globe, and in the 1950’s Australia was thought to be one of the best areas.
The Australian Government agreed to play host to a series of British atomic tests during this time with the initial blasts planned for a far inland area of South Australia called Emu Field, about 480 km to the north west of Woomera.
The initial test, the first nuclear explosion on the Australian mainland, was called Totem 1, and took place on 15 October 1953. It consisted of the equivalent of 9.1 kilotonnes of TNT and was followed by Totem 2, a smaller blast on 27 October.
Although the tests were successful the location at Emu Field was considered too remote for further use, and the testing field was changed to Maralinga, about 800 km to the north west of Adelaide. It was here that a series of top-secret nuclear tests were conducted between 1955 and 1963, code name Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler. These tests involved the relocation of two groups of Indigenous Australians, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, whose land was affected by the blasts.
It was later revealed that the radioactive fallout produced in these tests had been detected across parts of South Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and NSW, and that land around Maralinga had been heavily contaminated. In addition, a researcher in 2001 uncovered documentary evidence that showed military personnel had been intentionally exposed to radioactivity following the blasts to determine the effects on humans.
In 1994 the Australian Government paid compensation of $13.5 million to the Indigenous Australians who had been affected by the tests.
Image: The concrete marker located at the Totem 1 test site on 15 October 1953 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.