The United Kingdom's Nuclear Testing Programme

The United Kingdom's
Nuclear Testing Programme

The United Kingdom conducted 12 atmospheric tests between 1952 and 1957 on Australian territories at Maralinga, Emu Field and Monte Bello Island. From 1957 to 1958, nine atmospheric tests followed over Christmas Island (Kiritimati) and Malden Island in the central Pacific Ocean, some of which were considerably more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The remaining 24 UK nuclear tests were conducted jointly with the United States at the Nevada Test Site.

During the testing period, roughly 16,000 Australian civilians and servicemen involved in the tests and 22,000 British servicemen were exposed to nuclear fallout.

Maralinga test site

Seven nuclear tests were carried out at Maralinga in South Australia between 1956 and 1957 (Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler) at various sites. Many of the Maralinga Tjarutja indigenous population continued to move throughout the region at the time of the tests. It was later discovered that a traditional Aboriginal route crossed through the Maralinga testing range.

“Minor trials”

Considerable contamination resulted from the “minor trials” at Maralinga. The trials were designed to test the safety and security of British nuclear weapons in case of an accident and to improve the trigger mechanisms, which  were subjected to chemical explosions, heat and other tests. The resultant destruction produced plumes of radioactive material in the form of fine particles. These particles fell to Earth over a wide area of the test range and in some cases, beyond it. There were up to 600 minor trials, which contaminated Maralinga with approximately 8,000 kg of uranium, 24 kg of plutonium, and 100 kg of beryllium (Report by the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC) on the Rehabilitation of Former Nuclear Test Sites at Emu and Maralinga (Australia), 2003). Plutonium, one of the most toxic radionuclides with a half-life of 24,000 years (see Chart 1), remains scattered around a huge area. The effects were not only radiological: restrictions on the indigenous population’s access to their traditional lands also caused psycho-social and cultural problems (A toxic legacy: British nuclear weapons testing in Australia, Australian Institute of Criminology). The relocation of indigenous communities from Ooldea, near Maralinga, occurred before and for reasons unrelated to the British nuclear test programme (Australia 1985, The Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia (Royal Commissioner, Mr Justice McClelland), 2 vols, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, p. 164 - 168). However, the tests did have a significant impact on indigenous people seeking to return to their lands and follow traditional migration routes.

Factors such as inadequate clothing, ingestion of food contaminated with radioactive material, movement patterns, language barriers (many indigenous people could not read the English warning signs), and general health status rendered them susceptible to the effects of nuclear testing.

Monte Bello Islands

The nuclear tests conducted at the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia spread radioactivity across large portions of mainland Australia. Considerable publicity in Australia in the early 1980s about the health and environmental impacts led to the setting up of the McClelland Royal Commission in 1984. The Commission concluded that: “The presence of Aborigines on the mainland near Monte Bello Islands and their extra vulnerability to the effect of fallout was not recognised by either [the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment - UK] or the Safety Committee. It was a major oversight that the question of acceptable dose levels for Aborigines was recognized as a problem at Maralinga but was ignored in setting the fallout criteria for the Mosaic tests”, which were conducted in mid-1956 and involved the detonation of two weapons at the Monte Bello site.

Vulnerability of indigenous populations

Authorities paid little or no attention to the vulnerability of indigenous people to the radiological effects of the tests. Factors such as inadequate clothing, ingestion of food contaminated with radioactive material, movement patterns, language barriers (many indigenous people could not read the English warning signs), and general health status rendered them susceptible to the effects of nuclear testing. In addition, Aboriginal people usually lacked amenities such as piped water, hard permanent dwellings with dust proofing, and bathroom and drainage facilities, which would have afforded them more protection from the fallout.

Tests shrouded in secrecy

While major test explosions were announced in the media, the general public had little specific knowledge about the British nuclear testing programme since it was confidential. The remoteness of the tests from major population centres also meant that public opposition and awareness of the risks involved were very slow to develop, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology in A Toxic Legacy: British nuclear weapons testing in Australia.

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.

The health impacts of the tests were highlighted by the British Nuclear Veterans Association in a 1999 survey of 2,500 veterans, many of whom had been at Maralinga. The survey found that:

  • 30 percent of the men had died, mostly in their fifties;
  • Spina bifida rates in grandchildren of veterans were more than five times the usual rate for live births in the UK;
  • More than 200 skeletal abnormalities were reported; and
  • Over 100 veterans’ children reported reproductive difficulties.
In addition to British ... personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radiation produced by the tests...also Aboriginal people living downwind of the test sites, and other Australians more distant who came into contact with airborne radioactivity.Australian Institute of Criminology

Concerns by New Zealand government result in extensive survey

In 1987, the New Zealand government commissioned a survey of the New Zealand participants in Operation Grapple. Extensive studies were carried out by Otago University’s Wellington School of Medicine over a five year period starting in 1987. The research accepted indications of a possible correlation between participation in the tests and the development of leukaemia and other cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. A study by the New Zealand Test Veterans Association also pointed to various ill-health links, including abnormalities in some of the children of test veterans.

Battle for compensation

The Compensation (Commonwealth Government Employees) Act 1971 permitted ex-service personnel to receive compensation if they could prove that their disability resulted from exposure to radiation from the tests. The Royal Commission recommended that eligibility be extended to civilians at the test sites and to Aborigines and others exposed to the 'Black Mist'. Furthermore, claimants should be entitled to compensation unless the government could prove that the disability did not result from radiation produced by the tests. The British government continued to deny both legal liability or moral responsibility for the consequences of its tests in Australia.

A study by the New Zealand Test Veterans Association also pointed to various ill-health links, including abnormalities in some of the children of test veterans.

Many claims rejected

By October 1986, a total of 272 claims arising from the testing programme had been registered with the Australian government, of which 116 were denied.

An article in The Guardian on 26 July 2006 described how a critically ill British ex-serviceman, Roy Prescott, who had been exposed to radiation during Operation Grapple, had been awarded compensation of US$75,000 by the United States in July 2006. The U.S. government recognized that Prescott’s lung cancer had been caused by radiation released in the tests. Prescott had been a member of the Royal Engineers and was seconded to the U.S. military when it was testing its nuclear bombs off Christmas Island. According to the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the American compensation scheme was less stringent than the British one which required "those claiming compensation to show a reasonable link between their service and their illness".

Recognition of contamination of land and compensation by Australia

In 1986 the Australian government announced a payment of AU$ 500,000 (US$ 330,000) as compensation to indigenous populations for land contaminated during the course of the British testing programme. The Australian government spent AU$ 108 million (US$ 71 million) on decontaminating the Maralinga and Emu sites from 1996 to 2000.

While in 1991, the Australian government paid the Maralinga Tjarutja people AU$ 13.5 million (US$ 8.5 million) in compensation for displacing them from their land, in 2010 the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement announced its intention to sue the British government for compensation according to an article in The Telegraph.

Ministry of Defence acknowledges that servicemen were treated as guinea pigs

In May 2001, a journalist released a document dated October 1956 which she had found in the Australian National Archives concerning the Buffalo trials, conducted at Maralinga. It listed 24 Australian servicemen who were deliberately given excessive doses of radiation in so-called protective clothing experiments. The British Ministry of Defence eventually confirmed that such trials had taken place.

Benefits extended by New Zealand government

In 1990, the New Zealand government decided to extend coverage of war pension benefits to veterans who had contracted any of the health conditions outlined by the Wellington School of Medicine’s survey, and also to their widows.

The New Zealand government subsequently awarded NZ$ 200,000 (US$ 104,000) to the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association in 2000. These funds were to cover the costs of further research into the health effects of nuclear testing, and any initiatives serving to promote the objectives of the Association in supporting veterans who took part in Operation Grapple.

The Australian and British governments subsequently spent AU$ 108 million (US$ 71 million) on decontaminating the Maralinga and Emu sites.

Recent studies on link between nuclear testing and cancer

The findings of the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests in Australia Study were released in June 2006. The study identified increased cancer rates increased by 23% amongst participants of the tests, but no relationship between this increase and radiation exposure and no significant change in death rate. The Australian government nonetheless agreed to provide cancer treatment for test participants through the introduction of legislation to provide cancer treatment for surviving participants of the tests, the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill of 2006. A related report (PDF) by an Australian parliamentary committee stated a "general recognition that participants in the tests were essentially human guinea pigs" and that the veteran's "illnesses have a high probability of being connected to their exposure to hazardous activities."

New Zealand study shows increased genetic mutations

In addition to physical health problems, veterans of the British nuclear testing in the Pacific suffered serious psychological trauma, according to a 2007 survey conducted by Professor Al Rowland of the Massey University in New Zealand. The study involved 50 New Zealand veterans who had participated in the Operation Grapple testing programme. They were found to have an average rate of depression four times higher than the age-matched control group of ex- military and police. The study showed nuclear veterans suffered three times more genetic mutations than normal.

Almost a quarter had suffered from cancer, compared with just one in the control group, while 40 percent had chronic skin conditions - a rate more than three times higher than among the control group. Exposed men also had twice as many respiratory conditions, gastrointestinal ulcers, bowel disorders and bacterial/viral infections.

In addition, psychologists have stated that veterans had to endure years of uncertainty because of the difficulty proving these illnesses were caused by radiation exposure, which led in many cases to "chronic stress".

Fifty years later …the fight for compensation continues

On 21 January 2009, a group of just over 1,000 ex-servicemen who had served in the South Pacific in the 1950s brought a case against the British MoD. The veterans are seeking compensation for illnesses, including cancer, skin defects and fertility problems, which they claim are the result of exposure to radiation during nuclear bomb testing. The British government has insisted on “scientific evidence” of the detrimental effects of nuclear testing. MoD lawyers argue the tests happened too long ago for compensation to be considered.

Australian government provides funding for veterans

In May 2010, the Australian government allocated AU$24.2 million (roughly US$21.4 million) over a five-year period as compensation for the Australian personnel who participated in Britain’s nuclear testing programme. A further AU$55 million (roughly US$49.5 million) is being spent on compensation, health care and counselling for Royal Australian Air Force personnel who fell ill as a result of servicing F-111 fuel tanks.

Veterans win Supreme Court appeal bid

On 28 July 2011, veterans of Britain's 1950s nuclear bomb tests defeated Ministry of Defence attempts to have the case thrown out of court. In a significant victory for the campaign for compensation, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling that nine out of 10 lead cases in the action had been brought beyond the legal time limit. Lawyers for 1,011 former servicemen can now move on to the next court stage, providing evidence that the veterans' ill health were related to the tests.


Next Chapter: France's Nuclear Testing Programme