Nuclear weapons testing began in Australia in the 1950s. 

The Decades-Long First Nations Fight Against Nuclear

Peter Dutton’s nuclear power pipe dream is the tip of the iceberg in Australia’s decades-long nuclear history.

In arguably the least-anticipated drop of 2024, the Coalition has revealed its plan to turn Australia nuclear. For Peter “I need details about the Voice” Dutton, the proposal to build seven nuclear power plants by 2050 is overwhelmingly devoid of detail. 


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has already derided the plan as a “fantasy”, citing a lack of a cost plan, community consultation, details on types of reactors or the proportion of nuclear energy in the system. 

But beyond the details there’s a missing piece in the ongoing critique of Dutton’s nuclear plan: that First Nations people have been fighting nuclear for decades.

From nuclear weapons testing to uranium mining and nuclear waste dumps; any discussion involving nuclear in Australia requires reflection on the disproportionate impact any nuclear initiative would have on First Nations people and Country. 

Australia’s love of nuclear weapons testing

The first nuclear weapons tests conducted on the Australian mainland were on October 15 and October 27, 1953. These were the secret Emu Field Operation Totem bomb tests, part of a United Kingdom project to quickly develop a nuclear arsenal post-war. It was endorsed by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies without cabinet or parliamentary approval. 

Emu Field, on Aṉangu Country in South Australia, was chosen because it’s a flat claypan favoured by surveyors. They didn’t care that the site was surrounded by Aboriginal communities, who reported a “greasy, black mist” of nuclear fallout after the Totem 1 test, which, anecdotally, was followed by death and sickness in these communities. 


Yami Lester, a Yankunytjatjara anti-nuclear activist, was seven years old when Totem 1 was detonated downwind of his home in Wallatinna. He said that shortly after the “black smoke” came through, “we all got crook, every one of us. We were all vomiting; we had diarrhoea, skin rashes and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for two or three weeks. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all of the sickness. The closest clinic was 400 miles away.” 

Karina Lester, Yami’s daughter, is one of many descendants of atomic testing survivors championing First Nations anti-nuclear activism. Including lobbying and presenting a petition from Indigenous peoples across Oceania at the United Nations conference to create the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Between 1956 and 1963, Aṉangu Country was again used for atomic bomb testing on the Maralinga site. Seven bombs were dropped during the site’s activity  – one  was twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Scientists performed more than 200 minor trials including blowing up plutonium, which has a radioactive life of 24,000 years, with TNT. The only resource dedicated to warning Aboriginal people in the area was one native patrol officer, who had to cover hundreds of thousands of square kilometres by car. 


Aṉagu people have suffered from radiation poisoning and ongoing radiation-related illness as a result and have been restricted from traditional food collection practices due to the risk of ongoing contamination. To this day, Maralinga Tjarutja people refer to the area as "Mamu Pulka" – Pitjantjatjara for "Big Evil”. 

What came next

The consequences of nuclear testing at Emu Plains and Maralinga weren't addressed until the release of the 1985 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, which was highly critical of Britain’s treatment of Australia and condemned the lack of commitment to ensuring the safety and welfare of First Nations people. 

Beyond weapons testing, a shift towards nuclear energy still spells trouble for mob through the increased demand for mining uranium; a material widely used by nuclear power plants. 

One of Australia’s most successful anti-nuclear protests was the 1998 Jabiluka Blockade, led by Mirrar Traditional Owners, to protest the mining of a uranium deposit next to Kakadu National Park. The Jabiluka Blockade spanned over eight months and had more than 5000 participants with 500 arrests made. The Blockade was one part of a domestic and international campaign against the uranium mine led by Mirrar woman Yvonne Margarula and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation. 


This campaign included convincing the UNESCO World Heritage Bureau to send a mission to Jabiluka. The organisation ended up finding serious threats from the mine on Kakadu and the Committee recommended stopping construction. Through ongoing legal battles and public pressure, Mirrar people got Rio Tinto to agree to no development without their consent and functionally ended uranium mining on their Country in 2021.

However, First Nations communities in the area have continued to suffer a higher rate of stillbirths and cancer than other parts of the country and Northern Territory government is supposedly stumped on why that could be. 

Despite governments’ awareness of First Nations resistance to uranium mining, we have continued to approve experiments, mines and tests, like the Yeelirrie uranium mine on Tjiwarl Country in 2019. Jessica Urwin, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Environmental History at Australian National University, called the mine, “the newest instalment in Australia’s long tradition of ignoring the dignity and welfare of Aboriginal communities in the pursuit of nuclear fuel”.


Mining on sacred land

Often these deposits exist in parts of Country considered sacred and significant. And the dumping of the eventual waste is often redeposited back onto First Nations homelands at increased risk to people and Country. 

“Iranti Wanti - the poison, leave it!” was an anti-nuclear dump campaign run from 1998 to 2004 by Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta; senior Yankunytjatjara, Antikarinya and Kokatha women of Coober Pedy in the Northern Territory. Being victims of previous nuclear testing on their Country, the group wrote to politicians, marched and spoke out publicly to keep the poison out of their Country. Eventually, in 2004, they won and the project was abandoned. 

But proposals for dump sites continue to pop up, with South Australia in particular being the focus of proposals by the Federal Government four times within the last 26 years. This includes Napandee near Kimba on Barngala Country in 2021, which was planned to receive reprocessed nuclear fuel waste by sea from France, the United Kingdom and the Lucas Heights reactor in NSW. 

This particular plan was opposed by Barngala Traditional Owners, who were excluded from a government poll about the proposal because they were not deemed to be local residents


This is despite the Barngala people holding cultural rights and responsibilities over their Country. The Traditional Owners ran a counter-poll and found no support for the nuclear waste dump among them. But they were ignored.

Continued community opposition eventually resulted in the Federal Court overturning the decision to build the site in 2023. But if this is the struggle for First Nations people currently, what would be the landscape of nuclear harm on Country if we pursued a larger slice of the nuclear energy pie?

The impact of nuclear power on Indigenous peoples globally has been recognised in the United Nations nuclear abolition treaty, where its preamble recognises “the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapon activities on Indigenous peoples.” It is yet another treaty Australia refuses to sign.

In a Queensland Conservation Council press release on Thursday, Gamilaraay and Ngarabal man Paul Spearim condemned Australia for its continued flirting with nuclear power despite decades of protests, pleading and arguments to the contrary. Spearim said Aboriginal people have, “learnt that white Australia cannot be trusted with nuclear power, and you continue to act without care for our sacred Country”. 

“We will fight these poisons,” he said. “They are not welcome.”

Phoebe is McIlwraith is a Bundjalung and Worimi dubay/galbaan writer and content producer based in “Sydney”.