Maralinga Nuclear Tests
All photos by Nick Frayne
Australiana

Welcome to the Desert Where Nuclear Tests Melted Sand into Glass

Maralinga is a remote part of South Australia where the UK tested nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
January 17, 2019, 3:22am

The countdown began at 5 PM on September 27, 1956. A team of British and Australian military scientists turned their backs to a steel tower erected over the saltbush, and a white orb swallowed the landscape. It was silent at first, as the searing light reached Maralinga’s scientists faster than sound. Then the 15 kiloton shock wave rolled across the desert and the crowd turned to see their creation.

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The bomb was codenamed “One Tree” and it produced a blast comparable to the device dropped on Hiroshima. It was actually designed to produce 12 kilotons of energy (meaning the energy bound up in 12,000 tons of TNT) but the blast massively exceeded predictions, unleashing 15 kilotons and a radioactive cloud that towered some three kilometres higher than Everest. And then, as aircraft loaded with measuring instruments flew laps through the cloud, scientists on the ground broke into applause.

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It was the British military’s first nuclear test at Maralinga—the first of seven over seven years—in a program that would ravage the health of the region’s Indigenous communities and irreversibly scar the landscape. One of the lesser-known facets of this story, though, is that the test site has recently been opened for sightseeing. It’s one of those “dark tourism” opportunities that draws young people in from the cities—and I was one such candidate keen to take a look; to see what’s there, but also to try and understand this insane period of Australian history.

Maralinga is an area of remote desert in the midwest of South Australia. The closest “large” town is Ceduna, about five hours to the south, so it’s a long, unchanging drive to get there, regardless of where you start. I did the trip with my photographer friend and his girlfriend, and our ute rattled past endless scrub before we turned onto an out-of-place, bitumen road. Finally we passed a sign that read, “Former Maralinga Nuclear Test Site,” followed by a disclaimer about the radioactivity and then a fence.

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A guy named Robin Matthews was there to meet us. Now 67 years old, Robin first visited the area in 1972 and has since become its principal caretaker and tour guide. He swung open a gate with a tattooed, deeply tanned arm and waved us in. “No one knows this land like me anymore,” he announced as we shook hands.

Robin told us that he’d first floated the idea of guided tours to the Maralinga Tjarutja people in 2015, and they'd agreed. At first it was just him and his wife Della organising the tours, maintaining the buildings, and generally running the business, but lately they’ve been getting more tourists and they’ve brought on an additional caretaker to lighten the load. “We had 645 tourists come through last year,” Robin announced proudly, leading us towards the former military base. “That’s up 110 from the year before.”

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The nuclear tests at Maralinga weren’t actually the first on Australian soil. After two tests at Emu Field in 1953—about 100 kilometres further north—the British made a formal request for a permanent test site, and the Maralinga Prohibited Area was established. The construction of the airport and village took 16 months and was bankrolled by the British and Australian Governments, both of which ignored the Maralinga Tjarutja people who’d called the area home for several thousand years. Many of them were simply relocated to the nearby community of Yalata, which was something akin to being deported.

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“There are traditional Dreamtime routes that go directly through the bomb sites, and with one stroke of a pen, the land was taken away,” Robin explained sadly. He then told us how many of those people later returned to their home country, unaware that the soil and water been heavily radiated with nuclear tests. The health ramifications were predictably horrific, but until 1994 the Federal Government was reluctant to fully admit culpability or provide financial assistance.

Finally, that year, a royal commission resulted in a $13.5 million payout to the land’s traditional owners. The commission also demanded a thorough risk assessment and subsequent clean-up of the area, which wasn’t completed until 2000 at an estimated cost of $108 million.

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That night we stayed in portable buildings that had been set up as visitor accommodation at “the village.” This was once home to around 3,000 defence personnel, but many of the buildings had been demolished, leaving just a field of concrete foundations by a dilapidated pool and tennis court. Our rooms were relatively new, but austere, and not at all out of place among the other former military structures. Hot water services and wifi had also been installed, although we seemed to be the only people currently staying.

The following morning, we climbed into the back seats of Robin’s Hilux to go see the airfield and the test site. Robin drove with one arm, constantly turning back to expand on his anecdotes with fierce eye contact. “The Australian Government didn’t actually know what was going on here,” Robin explained, pulling up to an old building that once served as a customs terminal for arriving Brits. He went on to tell us how the UK basically ran the whole operation, and kept their obligingly uncurious hosts in the dark.

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“The British were fearful of the effects the testing would have on the reproductive systems of women, so this was the closest any females got to the base,” Robin said, pointing to the runway. Women would fly in, he explained, but they were rarely allowed off the planes.

Making our way toward the test site, Robin pointed out details on the landscape: old communication lines, ancient holes where Indigenous people once collected water, and then an enormous mound of red dirt. “That’s the most dangerous pit in Australia,” Robin announced. He explained that the concrete-capped pit is one of 22 and holds a range of vehicles, contaminated equipment, and radiated soil.

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While Maralinga is known for the large-scale nuclear weapons tests, it was also the site of some 700 minor tests, which blasted uranium and plutonium over smaller, more concentrated areas. As Robin explained, much of the pit’s contents were results of these smaller tests.

But really, we’d come for the larger test sites.

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“Taranaki” was the largest bomb ever tested at Maralinga (nearly double the size of what was dropped on Hiroshima) and its detonation point sat right by the burial pit. A small concrete pyramid and sign identified ground zero, and warned of radiation contamination.

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“These young lads were working in radioactive dust, yet the British deny they were ever even contaminated,” quipped Robin, grimacing.

A few hundred yards further on we found the test site marker for the bomb “Breakaway”, and pulled over to find the desert sand glistening in the sun. I got down on my knees to get a better look and realised the ground was embedded with nobs of greenish, brown glass no bigger than coins.

“When the bomb detonated, it fired the sand and turned it into glass,” explained Robin, hunching next to me to collect a piece. “When I first came here in 72, I remember seeing a sheet that was 50 feet long.”

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I watched him position the glass on a radiation monitor—he’d told us several times that it wasn’t a Geiger counter—and the digital reader began to climb. He then pulled out a piece of paper that listed comparative radiation levels to classrooms, domestic flights, and x-rays—showing how low the glass’ radioactivity ranked in contrast. “Yes, there is still radiation here, but it’s incredibly low,” he said.

I got back into the Hilux feeling oddly sombre. Those shards of glass had made the denotations of the 50s and 60s feel uncomfortably real and permanent. So I asked Robin for his opinion on the compensation offered to the Indigenous owners. He told me he thought it’d been used wisely, with most distributed to schools and hospitals. He then paused, before offering that his wife was also a traditional landowner. “Her grandparents were both born here. She has a strong affinity to these lands.”

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We quietly drove back to the gates through which we’d first entered, and I watched the landscape slide past: this sad place, where certain plants no longer grow, that the locals refer to as mamu—meaning “devil country.”

Back at the gate we said our goodbyes and I asked Robin whether he’d stay forever. He paused to reflect. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable retiring until I knew that my role was in the right hands,” he said slowly. “It’s important that the right person does this job, so the story of this place is told right. I can’t walk away just yet.”

Words by Joe Patterson. Follow him on Twitter

All photos by Nick Frayne, who is on Instagram

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