70 years since Operation Hurricane: the shameful history of British nuclear tests in Australia
70 years since Operation Hurricane: the shameful history of British nuclear tests in Australia
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At 9.30am on 3 October 1952, a mushroom cloud billowed up above the Monte Bello Islands, 130 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. The next day, the West Australian reported: “At first deep pink, it quickly changed to mauve in the centre, with pink towards the outside and brilliantly white turbulent edges. Within two minutes the cloud, which was still like a giant cauliflower, was 10,000 feet [three kilometres] high”.

Derek Hickman, a royal engineer who witnessed the blast aboard guard ship HMS Zeebrugge, told the Mirror: “We had no protective clothing ... They ordered us to muster on deck and turn our backs. We put our hands over our eyes and they counted down over the tannoy [loudspeaker]. There was a sharp flash, and I could see the bones in my hands like an X-ray. Then the sound and the wind, and they told us to turn and face it. The bomb was in the hull of a 1,450-ton warship and all that was left of her were a few fist-sized pieces of metal that fell like rain, and the shape of the frigate scorched on the seabed.” 

Operation Hurricane was, up until that moment, a closely guarded secret. 

During World War II, British and American scientists had collaborated in the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear weapons dropped by the US on Japan in August 1945. However, the rise of anti-colonial movements during and after the war marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Britain had lost its dominant position in the imperialist world order to the ascendant US, which had proved itself willing to use nuclear weaponry. 

In an attempt to revive its great power status, Britain launched its own nuclear research program in January 1947. In Australia, the postwar Chifley and Menzies governments were only too happy to assist. 

Throughout 1946, negotiations took place between the British and Australian governments, culminating in an agreement to establish a 480-kilometre rocket range extending northwest from Mount Eba (later moved to Woomera) in outback South Australia. 

On 22 November 1946, Defence Minister John Dedman informed parliament of cabinet’s decision to establish the rocket range. Peter Morton, author of Fire Across the Desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946–1980, explains that Dedman reiterated claims made in a report by British army officer John Fullerton Evetts that related to the original proposed site at the more remote location of Mount Eba, not Woomera. Dedman told parliament that Australia was the only suitable landmass in the Commonwealth for such testing, the designated area was largely uninhabited and that impacts on the Aboriginal population in the Central Aboriginal Reserves would be negligible. According to Morton, there were approximately 1800 Aboriginal people living on the reserves at the time. The Committee on Guided Projectiles would immediately begin consultations with the director of Native Affairs and other authorities, Dedman told parliament.

Dedman’s announcement ignited fierce opposition. In her book Different White People: Radical Activism for Aboriginal Rights 1946-1972, Deborah Wilson describes the independent Labor member for Bourke, Doris Blackburn, spearheading a peace movement strongly supported by the Australian Communist Party. She published her speeches in the CPA newspaper, Tribune. Blackburn was the widow of lawyer and parliamentarian Maurice Blackburn, whose left-wing views resulted in his expulsion from the ALP. 

Blackburn insisted that the rocket range amounted to a grave injustice against a “voiceless minority”, Australia’s First Nations people. In March 1947, medical practitioner Charles Duguid told a 1300-strong Rocket Range Protest Committee meeting in Melbourne that he was appalled by the government’s blatant “disregard” for the rights of Aboriginal people. According to a Tribune report, he asked those present: “Shot and poisoned as they were in the early days, neglected and despised more lately, will most of our Aborigines [sic] now be finally sacrificed and hurried to extinction by sudden contact with the mad demands of twentieth century militarism?”

Dedman, supported by the Menzies-led opposition, dismissed concerns expressed by Duguid and anthropologist Donald Thompson that contact between military personnel and Aboriginal people living in the military zone would have devastating consequences for their traditional way of life. Deploying assimilation arguments, Dedman insisted that contact between military personnel and “natives” in the area would simply accelerate an inevitable process of detribalisation. 

Meanwhile, Liberal and Country Party politicians railed against Duguid and other opponents of the project, labelling them dupes of communism with a lax attitude to the nation’s security, according to Wilson. They called on the Chifley government to follow the example of the Canadian royal commission established to weed out alleged communist spies in public sector employment.

The labour movement was sharply divided between Communist-led unions, which advocated a black ban on construction at the proposed rocket site, and right-wing unions, such as the Australian Workers Union, which sided with the Labor government.

In June 1947, federal parliament rushed through the Approved Defence Projects Protection Bill, a gag tool preventing critical commentary about the government’s defence policy. Transgressors were threatened with fines of up to £5,000 or a 12-month prison sentence.

Under the cover of “national security”, federal bans were imposed on union officials visiting the Woomera rocket range site, now a no-go area for anyone other than sanctioned military personnel. Anti-communist fearmongering helped set the scene for the Chifley government’s establishment of a new and powerful security organisation, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), in 1949.

In mid-1947, 446 kilometres north of Adelaide, the Woomera township was swiftly constructed on the traditional lands of the Kokatha people. By mid-1950, its population had grown to 3,500 and, over the following decade, doubled to 7,000. Roads gouged through Aboriginal country. Electricity and telegraph lines soon followed, connecting the military base with centres of political power.  

The nature of the missile testing remained a top secret to all but those firmly ensconced within the upper echelons of the Department of Defence. However, rumours of a nuclear testing program abounded. The detonation of a 25-kiloton nuclear weapon off the Monte Bello Islands made Britain’s nuclear ambitions, and the Australian government’s complicity, visible for the world. 

In the film Australian Atomic Confessions, witness May Torres, a Gooniyandi woman living at Jubilee Downs in the Kimberley, described observing a cloudy haze that remained in the sky for four or five days. At the time she did not know that it carried radioactive particles that were to contribute to cancer and an early death for many of her community, including her husband, in the early 1960s.

Another witness, Royal Australian Air Force pilot Barry Neale, described aircraft operating out of Townsville identifying nuclear particles in the air three days after the detonation. Two days later, New Zealand Air Force aircraft similarly observed radioactive particles that had emanated from Operation Hurricane. Still today, signs on the Monte Bello islands warn visitors about the dangers of elevated radiation levels.

In October 1953, two nuclear tests (Operation Totem) took place at Emu Field, 500 kilometres northwest of Woomera. In May and June 1956, nuclear testing returned to the Monte Bello Islands. Operation Mosaic detonated the largest ever nuclear device in Australia: a 60-kiloton weapon four times as powerful as that which had destroyed Hiroshima. 

My aunt was among the children who witnessed the Monte Bello explosion from the jetty in the Pilbara town of Roebourne. The spectacle left her and her siblings covered in ash, oblivious to the toxicity of the fallout they were exposed to. 

Meanwhile, west of Woomera, Aboriginal people were being relocated from their traditional lands. In preparation for Operation Buffalo, a series of four nuclear tests at the Maralinga Testing Ground, an 1,100 square kilometre area was excised from the Laverton-Warburton reserve and declared a no-go area. 

Two patrol officers, William MacDougal and Robert (Bob) Macaulay, were given the nearly impossible task of keeping Aboriginal people out of the no-go area. The pair’s reports to the range superintendent were frequently censored, according to Morton. 

In December 1956, a Western Australian parliamentary select committee, led by Liberal MLA William Grayden, visited the Laverton-Warburton Ranges. The select committee's report (the Grayden Report) identified that displaced Aboriginal people suffered from malnutrition, blindness, unsanitary conditions, inadequate food and water sources, and brutal exploitation by pastoral interests.

News reports in the Murdoch-owned Adelaide News dismissed the committee’s findings, insisting that the claims could not be substantiated. Responding to the Murdoch media whitewash, Tribune reported on 9 January 1957 that the committee had “ripped aside the screen that has veiled the cruel plight to which our [g]overnments condemn Australian Aborigines”.

Tribune asserted that “huge areas of the most favourable land are being taken from [Aboriginal] reserves and provided for mining interests, atomic and guided missile grounds, and other purposes”.

A subsequent Tribune article reported a week later on the observations of Pastor Doug Nicholls, who accompanied the West Australian minister for native welfare, John Brady, on a tour of the Warburton-Laverton district. According to Tribune:

“Pastor Nicholls said that at Giles weather station, deep in the heart of the best hunting grounds in the Warburton reserve—a region that the Government had stolen as part of the Woomera range—the white people lived like kings, and the Aboriginal people worse than paupers ... The Commonwealth had spent a fortune on Woomera, but has not even supplied a well for the Aboriginals.”

The Grayden Report deeply shocked the public. A film documentary produced by Grayden and Nicholls, Their Darkest Hour, further exposed these crimes. Wilson describes scenes from the film:

“Images of malnourished, sick and poverty-stricken Aboriginal people bombard the viewer. A mother’s arm has rotted off with yaws. A blind man with one leg hobbles grotesquely on an artificial leg stuffed with furs and bandaged into an elephant-like stump. Malnourished children with huge swollen bellies stare blankly at the camera. A baby lies deathlike beside a mother too weak to walk. A sickening close-up of a toddler who fell into a fire reveals cooked flesh covered with flies. Skeletal remains of a man, dead from thirst, lie beside a dried-up waterhole. As the film concludes, his body is buried in an unmarked grave.”

The detrimental impact of British nuclear testing in Australia wasn’t limited to traditional Aboriginal people. It also exposed thousands of military personnel and their families to nuclear radiation, survivors still feeling the effects seven decades on, according to submissions received by the 1985 McClelland Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia

In 2001, a group of Melbourne scientists made a startling discovery: thousands of jars of ashed human bone that all contained strontium 90, a by-product of nuclear testing that can cause bone cancer and leukaemia. All had been collected from autopsies without the consent of family members, according to a 2002 report by the Australian Health Ethics Committee. This officially sanctioned “body-snatching” provided vital, and until then hidden, evidence of radioactive contamination with widespread effects on human health. 

In the mid-1950s, CSIRO scientist Hedley Marston was tasked by the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) with studying the radioactive iodine uptake in sheep and cattle as part of wider effort to monitor the biological effects of radiation caused by atomic-bomb testing in Australia. Marston argued that radioactive iodine found in the thyroids of animals indicated the presence of radioactive strontium in the food chain, which would endanger the health of humans, particularly children. Marston’s discovery put him in conflict with the AWTSC, who denied the tests resulted in significant radioactive contamination.

According to the Australian Health Ethics Committee, between 1957 and 1978, the AWTSC and its successor, the Australian Ionising Radiation Committee, covertly took samples of bones from 22,000 human remains during autopsy to test for the presence of strontium 90. The surviving samples located in 2001 suggested that radioactive contamination was far more widespread than previously admitted.

The winding down of the British nuclear testing program in Australia in 1953 did not bring an end to the Australian government’s role in the global nuclear industry. Since 1954, Australian uranium has supplied nuclear reactors around the world, including to the Fukushima reactor in Japan, which in 2011 was the site of the most severe nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Australia has also committed to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines to better pursue its imperial interests, and those of its allies, in the Asia-Pacific. And the nuclear industry is trying to promote itself as a viable alternative to polluting fossil fuel industries. 

Its shameful history, and the dire threat it poses to humanity, must not be forgotten.

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