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British nuclear tests at Maralinga, Australia

The environmental injustice of British Nuclear Tests at Maralinga between 1956 and 1963. Several nuclear tests took place with yields ranging from 1 to 27 kilotonnes of TNT. Persistent radioactive pollution.


"The facts are shocking. The treachery is chilling. The fallout ongoing" - Frank Walker, journalist and author

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:British nuclear tests at Maralinga, Australia
State or province:South Australia
Location of conflict:Maralinga, 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Other
Military installations
Specific commodities:Radioactive plutonium; TNT is trinitrotoluene, an explosive chemical compound
Project Details and Actors
Project details

On 27 September 1956, Britain conducted its first test at Maralinga.

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Project area:320,000 in the immediate test area and 80,000 sq km and larger for the affected areas
Level of Investment for the conflictive projectno data was available on the cost of the atomic bomb tests
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:Between 1,000 and 1,500 Aboriginal people were living in the area. The full extent of the effects suffered by service personnel and local Aboriginal communities are still not clear decades later
Start of the conflict:27/09/1956
Relevant government actors:Robert Menzie, Prime Minister of Australia 1949-1966
British Defence Department and British Foreign Affairs Ministry
British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment
Australian Defence Department
Australian Foreign Affairs Ministry
Veteran Affairs Department
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC)
Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR)
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta
Friends of the Earth Nuclear-free Campaign
Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)
Australian Nuclear Veterans Association
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Genetic contamination, Soil contamination, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsContamination immediately following nuclear tests and on-going problems as a result of inadequate clean-up efforts. The contamination has continued to spread by wind and rain.
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths
Other Health impactsRoyal Commission into the nuclear tests finally took place in 1987, held in both the UK and Australia. The commission concluded that there had been faults, secrecy, lack of safety and pollution of the land in the tests. However they stated that there was no firm evidence of health effects directly related to irradiation. Evidence tendered at the time by Indigenous people was harrowing. For example, we were told of how Australian servicemen in the area instructed an Indigenous nomadic family to remain on the road and not to go into the bush to hunt because of poison. They had become so terrified of the “poison” that they obeyed instructions implicitly and 4 of the family of 6 eventually died of starvation. It is worth keeping in mind that at the Royal Commission Aboriginal people were asked to prove their stories and tell their history within a non-Indigenous framework. People from Maralinga were asked to prove the instances of cancers, birth defects, and genetic defects passed down because of exposure to ionising radiation: they were asked to prove that in a Western court of law and of course they couldn’t. They did not have medical records; they had no death records , and their traditional law does not permit them to speak the name of
a deceased person.
The extremely limited resources devoted to finding and warning people (one experienced native patrol officer, Walter MacDougall was responsible for covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres by car) led to incidents of radiation exposure. For example, in 1957, the Milpuddie family was found camping next to a crater left by a Maralinga test detonation.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Specific impacts on women, Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsLoss of capability to sustain livelihoods due to chronic illnesses - eg cancer - from the exposure. In addition to radiation danger, Aboriginal people around Maralinga also faced extreme social, emotional and physical hardship from being denied access to food and water resources for more than 30 years.
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Australia ended up shouldering half of the total clean up and compensation costs
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:After a chequered history, Australian journalism had finally got the story out. At the time of the tests themselves ,journalists were used to following the official line on matters of scientific and technological development, and indeed on broader national security issues. They did not recognise the significance of the ongoing tests at Maralinga that left a large area of highly contaminated territory. Generational change saw a shift in skills and in perspective. The journalists of the later generation did a better job of reporting Maralinga, finally placing the momentous events at the desert test site on the public record.This was a long time coming, but without generational change it might not have happened at all.
There is now recognition of the problems caused by the military exercise of nuclear tests and their impact. Between 1996 and 2000, all but around 120 square kilometres of around 3200 square kilometres of Maralinga country had been cleaned to a standard considered safe for unrestricted access. Maralinga was formally returned to the Tjarutja owners in November 2009.
However, not all affected veterans and Aboriginal people exposed have been compensated, while many have died without any acknowledgement or compensation. The contamination was not 100% contained - it is impossible to fully contained radioactive fall outs from nuclear tests - and remnants of the radioactive materials have been spreading out through wind and rain in different directions.
Veterans of the nuclear tests and Aboriginal people near the sites suffer higher cancer mortality rates and more cancers than the general population. As a result of ongoing campaigning, veterans have obtained compensation. In 2017 the Australian Government agreed to provide improved health care to both veterans and Indigenous people. They were never compensated for their health problems from their involuntary exposure to hazards from the fallout.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Submission on health impacts from the Maralinga nuclear tests - Australian Ex-Service Atomic Survivors Association
[click to view]

Article on Maralinga in The Conversation
[click to view]

Book: Roger Cross, “Fallout: Hedley Marston and the British Bomb Tests in Australia”, Wakefield Press, 2001.

Conclusions and recommendations of the Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia
[click to view]

National Museum Australia: Defining Moment - Maralinga. An overview of the history of the conflict
[click to view]

British nuclear tests at Maralinga – Fact sheet 129 from the National Archives of Australia
[click to view]

Latitude and Longitude of British Nuclear Tests at Maralinga in Australia
[click to view]

Excellent source of information covering a wide range of issues and links to various case files, articles, Royal Commission Report, youtube clips, etc
[click to view]

The Australian Nuclear and Uranium Sites : Map, images, audio visuals with description of the Maralinga case study
[click to view]

Defence force releases last Maralinga ancestral lands to traditional owners
[click to view]

Frank Walker - Author and Journalist of "Maralinga - The chilling expose of our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country"
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Silent Storm atomic testing in Australia (Fukushima Fallout will be far worse) - on the lies and deceits of the Maralinga British Nuclear Tests
[click to view]

Australian Nuclear Veterans Association web archives
[click to view]

Maralinga Pieces from jessie boylan on Vimeo
[click to view]

Testimonies, art work, etc of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta - enior Aboriginal Women from Coober Pedy, South Australia
[click to view]

Other documents

Submission by Paul Langley Submission to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission - 20 The Fate of the Missing Maralinga Hospital Medical Files; Federal Hansard (Entry 2186) SENATE 14 MAY 1980 QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE MARALINGA ATOMIC TESTS; Health impacts from the legacy of the Maralinga Nuclear tests
[click to view]

Other comments:The Maralinga nuclear test case has been well documented through a wide range of media by a diverse network of actors. The best site to start would be the Friends of the Earth page which has many links to the materials
Meta information
Contributor:Lee Tan, Australian Environmental Justice (AEJ) project
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3648
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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