The United Kingdom's Nuclear Testing Programme

Page 2: British Nuclear Testing

Emu Field

A major nuclear test was detonated at Emu Field in the South Australian desert on 15 October 1953, sending a radioactive cloud known as the "Black Mist" over a 250 km2 area. The Australian newspaper The Guardian, 4 October 2006, claims that the test was held responsible for a sudden outbreak of sickness and death experienced by Aboriginal communities exposed to the "Black Mist", including members of the Kupa Piti Kunga Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women from South Australia who have fought government plans to dump radioactive waste on their land, and their extended families. The Royal Commission found that the test had been detonated under wind conditions that produced unacceptable levels of fallout, and that the firing criteria did not take into account the existence of people downwind of the test site.

Christmas and Malden Islands

“Operation Grapple” consisted of nine detonations over Christmas Island and Malden Island in the South Pacific Ocean between November 1957 and September 1958. The first was the 1.8 megaton Grapple X test on 8 November 1957. The weapons were many times more powerful than those discharged at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and included a bomb with a yield of three megatons - the largest British nuclear test ever conducted. Britain’s first thermonuclear bomb was detonated during this testing period. Over 500 naval personnel from New Zealand also took part in Operation Grapple.

Impact of the tests

During a UK House of Commons Hansard Debate on 22 October 2008, John Baron MP referred to new scientific evidence from New Zealand suggesting that veterans suffered as a result of their exposure to radiation.  He also questioned whether the radiological safety standards for the Operation Grapple tests were adequate. Some veterans were allegedly too close to the epicentre of the blast and witnesses described their experiences of a heat wave of extraordinary intensity, leading in some cases to temporary blindness or a sensation of blood boiling within their bodies. Others developed skin rashes and flu-like symptoms immediately after the detonations. Nuclear fallout and the dangers from ingested radioactive particles were not taken seriously after the tests. Servicemen were free to move around the island, drinking local water, eating local fruits, bathing in the lagoons and breathing in dust, all of which could have been contaminated. Ingested radioactive particles from fallout can remain in the body and continue to cause harm for many years.

Some veterans were allegedly too close to the epicentre of the blast and witnesses described their experiences of a heat wave of extraordinary intensity, leading in some cases to temporary blindness or a sensation of blood boiling within their bodies.

“Cleanup” buries radioactive material

An initial cleanup operation was conducted at Maralinga in 1967. This merely involved burying various radioactive debris, including plutonium, in pits which were covered with concrete. Radioactive fragments scattered over the terrain were ploughed into the earth or covered with topsoil to reduce the likelihood of dispersion and subsequent inhalation or ingestion.

Health effects

The McClelland Royal Commission confirmed that the nuclear tests had been carried out with inadequate assessment of either the tests themselves or the impacts on those exposed to radiation. The Commission delivered its report in late 1985 and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test sites.