A picture in time: Maralinga, the blinding flash that ushered in Australia’s atomic age
Nuclear tests conducted in South Australia from 1956 resulted in swaths of countryside obliterated and decades of highly contaminated land
The atomic age reached Maralinga with a blinding flash. At 5pm on 27 September 1956, a 15-kilotonne atomic device was detonated at the site in the western plains of South Australia.
The ensuing blast had as much explosive strength as the weapon which fell on Hiroshima 11 years earlier.
More than a decade after that horror struck Japan, Australia had become tangled up in the UK’s nuclear testing program, which saw swaths of countryside obliterated to further the nuclear arms race.
The atomic test at Maralinga was carried out by the British government as part of Operation Buffalo, run by the UK’s Atomic Weapons Research establishment.
In the moments after the detonation, RAAF personnel flew through the mushroom cloud to carry out tests with little instruction or protective equipment to shield them from the radiation.
For the next seven years, major and minor nuclear tests were carried out at Maralinga. The minor tests led to contamination of the area with plutonium-239, which has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.
Prior to the test, very little effort was put into finding and notifying the Anangu Pitjantjatjara people who lived on the land. In addition to the obvious immediate dangers of nuclear fallout in the area, the Indigenous community would endure the long term hazards of poisoned land and water for more than thirty years.
Maralinga was not the first nuclear weapons test conducted on Australian soil. Three years earlier, on 3 October 1952, Britain detonated a nuclear weapon on the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia.
A further two detonations were carried out at Emu Field. Britain moved the testing site to Maralinga after previous locations were deemed to be too remote for nuclear weapons tests.
When Maralinga was eventually closed as a testing site in 1967, the British government began the process of cleaning the 3,200 sq km of contaminated land.
By 1968, the Australian and British governments agreed that Britain has successfully decontaminated the area by covering contaminated debris in concrete and ploughing the plutonium-laden soil into the ground.
In 1984, as the land was slated to be returned to the Tjarutja people, scientists found the land was still highly contaminated.
Nine years later, in 1993, following a royal commission, and after mounting pressure, the British government agreed to pay a portion of the estimated $101m cleanup cost.
It wasn’t until 1994, 38 years after the initial blast, that the Australian government paid $13.5m to the Indigenous people of Maralinga as compensation for what had been done to the land.