3 October 1952 - First British nuclear test

Map of the Montebello Islands – click to enlarge.

On 3 October 1952, the United Kingdom became the third country to test nuclear weapons after the United States and the Soviet Union. The first British test, code-named ‘Hurricane’, was conducted at the Montebello Islands in Western Australia.

The United Kingdom had embarked on its own atomic weapons programme in 1947. As the British mainland was considered unsuitable for nuclear testing due to its small size and high population density, the British government requested Australia to provide a permanent nuclear test site, to which the latter agreed. This decision by Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies was later questioned increasingly.

The HMS Plym was sacrificed for the test.

Between 1952 and 1957, the UK conducted a total of 12 atmospheric nuclear tests on Australian territories at the Montebello Islands, Maralinga and Emu Field. Following a 1958 agreement with the United States, both countries subsequently cooperated closely in the development of nuclear weapons and all British tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site in the USA.

Operation Hurricane was specifically designed to test the effects of a nuclear weapon smuggled into a British harbour onboard a ship, which was already a concern at the time. For this purpose, a 25-kiloton plutonium implosion bomb was detonated inside the hull of the frigate HMS Plym, anchored in a lagoon between the Montebello Islands. This was a similar procedure to the U.S. ‘Able’ test at the Bikini Atoll in 1946, which ‘used’ 78 ships. The explosion left a crater 6 metres deep and 300 metres wide on the ocean floor, and the mushroom cloud from the detonation rose up to 4.5 kilometres into the sky.

There were hundreds of thousands of dead turtles on the beach...they had come up the beach and been killed - obviously by the radiation. It was just littered with turtles from one end of the place to the other. UK nuclear test veteran Max Kimber
The test helped to develop the first deployable UK nuclear weapon, the Blue Danube.

The device was a close copy of ‘Fat Man’, the U.S. bomb dropped on Nagasaki seven years earlier. Based on the Hurricane test, the UK developed its first deployable nuclear weapon, the Blue Danube.

The impact of British testing in Australia remains a matter of contention until today. Although the Montebello Islands were uninhabited, the atmospheric nuclear tests spread radioactivity across large parts of the Australian mainland. Fallout from the testing at the Aborigine territories in Emu Field and Maralinga contaminated large parts of South Australia; see effects of British nuclear testing.

The presence of Aborigines on the mainland near Montebello Islands and their extra vulnerability to the effect of fallout was not recognized.McClelland Royal Commission
on the on the health and environmental impacts of British nuclear testing in Australia

In a time when indigenous people were afforded no citizenship rights, authorities paid little if any attention to their particular vulnerability to the effects of nuclear testing. Aboriginal people were not only the most exposed to radioactive fallout but also lacked protection measures available to the rest of the Australian population.

The Royal Commission established by the Australian government in 1984 to study the health and environmental impacts of British nuclear testing concluded that the Montebello Islands were a particularly unsafe and inappropriate location for nuclear testing and that the “presence of Aborigines on the mainland near Montebello Islands and their extra vulnerability to the effect of fallout was not recognized.” During the 1990s, the Australian government received US$ 45 million compensation from the UK to rehabilitate the test sites and to compensate indigenous people.

The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association

British and Australian servicemen who participated in the testing claimed they had been used as ‘guinea pigs’. Their legal battle for compensation continues until today.

The UK conducted its last nuclear test on 26 November 1991. While only 45 nuclear tests are directly attributed to the UK, the country participated intensively in the U.S. nuclear testing programme that numbered over 1,000 nuclear tests.

The UK signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) on the 24 September 1996, the day it opened for signature, subsequently ratifying it on 6 April 1998 on the same day as France. Both countries were the first nuclear weapon possessors to ratify the CTBT.