The impact of nuclear testing on the Australian environment

Essay by bugger!!University, Bachelor's October 2004

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The impact of British nuclear tests in Australia, as well as the government funded uranium mines which operated from the 1950's through to the early 1970's (the most notorious of these mines being Rum Jungle) has had a significant impact on the Australian environment and has caused long term damage to water systems, wildlife and plant life. In order to understand why Britain undertook nuclear tests in Australia and why the Australian government helped to fund uranium mining, one must understand the political climate of the time.

In 1947 the British government, under Prime Minister Clemet Atlee, who it could be argued was eager for the country to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities due to the fear that if the United States were the only country to have the nuclear bomb, Britain's role in the world would be 'down graded' to being that of little more than a second ranked nation in relation to the global community.

So thus the decision was made by the Atlee government that if Britain was to retain her status as a global power in the 'new' world after the Second World War, then she would need to acquire the nuclear bomb as soon as possible.

But although they had the technology to develop nuclear weapons (they had been working on them since 1939) they had no where to test them, due to Britain been too small and overcrowded. Therefore Britain would have to look overseas for possible tests sites in countries where their were large uninhabited regions suitable for atmospheric and contained nuclear explosions. Britain at first requested permission to use the Nevada test site in the United States, but although the Americans agreed somewhat reluctantly to let the British use the site, they imposed conditions which made it impractical to do so.

In 1949 the Liberal party came to power under Robert Menzies and Britain's problem of where to test was solved. The Menzies government believed it was in Australia's best interest to help the British obtain the bomb because it was believed it would also benefit Australia and in December 19. As well as this the Australian government also believed, as did Britain and America, that uranium was a mineral in short supply and their for highly valuable .

In 1952 the Australian government gave permission to the British to undertake tests in the Monte Bello Islands of the coast of Western Australia. Atlee informed Menzies that for three years after the tests were completed the islands would be unfit for habitation or for occasional visits from indigenous pearl fishermen who visited their from time to time. Menzies accepted the information given to him by Atlee, little realising how absurdly optimistic his estimation and gave the go ahead for the tests to start commencing .

So on October 3, 1952 the first tests were undertook at Monte Bello islands, with the explosion of a 25 kiloton bomb just off the coast of Trimouille island. After the explosion survey teams moved into the contaminated zone to recover their measuring devices. They recorded heavy contamination to the north of the blast zone, where most of the fallout was occurring. Unknown to the test personnel, the southerly Leeuwin current would wash the fallout back toward the Western Australian coast.

The British undertook numerous other tests in the Monte Bello islands, although the severity of the impact on the environment was somewhat reduced by the dispersion of the radioactive materials into the Indian Ocean, although their was some damage caused by the tests and the actual islands where the test were undertaken were contaminated by radioactive fallout.

As well as the tests at Monte Belle islands, between 1952 and 1963 the British government, with the agreement and support of Australia, carried out 'major' tests at two other sites on the Australian mainland at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. Their were two types of tests Britain conducted, contained explosions and atmospheric. Contained explosions were the most common and involved exploding a nuclear device under ground and were generally used to measure shock wave affects and the general effectiveness of the devices, while atmospheric tests involved the setting off of nuclear devices in the open air to test such things such as dispersion of radiation and the effectiveness of the bombs .

The environmental impact of these tests had wide ranging implications for the environment with radioactive particles that dispersed into the atmosphere and could spread for kilometres away from the test sites, settling on the ground and in water supplies contaminating the environment with radioactive fallout. The effects of these tests (especially six mounted tests undertaken at both sites) was that at present, areas of fused or 'glazed' sand are still contaminated with levels of plutonium which are of a high and dangerous level. The worst of these sites is at Taranaki, which was used for minor tests from 1960 until 1963, with the high levels of uranium particles and debris at the site having made the area un-inhabitable for both humans and wildlife for the next quarter of a million years .

Perhaps one of the saddest testimonies to the effects that the nuclear tests had on the environment is the health of the local Aborigine populations who from around the time tests were carried at out Maralinga have been plagued with an above average amount of cases involving illness which are caused by exposure to unsafe levels of radiation in the environment. One Aboriginal who lived near the area of some of the tests, told in a governmental enquiry that he remembered when he was a child a 'black mist' that occurred after one of the tests at Maralinga. The black mist caused conditions in the local Aboriginal community such as sore eyes, diarrhoea and general sicknesses, which are common signs of exposure to unsafe levels of radioactive materials .

Another Aboriginal reported that while with a hunting party near the site of Emu Field after the Totem 1 explosion in 1953 that numerous members of his group fell sick after a black, greasy mist had travelled towards them through the mulga . As well as these two cases, their were numerous other incidents of Aborigines who suffered from the fallout and contamination of the tests, but since a lot of the illnesses they suffered as a result can be caused by other conditions, one might feel that the severity and full impact off the tests on the Aboriginal population has never fully been appreciated by governmental inquiries.

After the end of British nuclear tests, the British government undertook three cleanup programs in a vain attempt to decontaminate the former test sites. In 1967 the British government undertook 'Operation Brumby', which was the third and final of the clean ups, in which apart from a view small 'islands' they claimed to have successfully decontaminated the site, which the Australian Federal government deemed to be the case and thus Britain were cleared of any further responsibilities in regard to the sites. Unfortunately the sites were no where near de-contaminated, with the sites still having dangerous levels of plutonium and in 1985 the Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia found that the land where the tests were conducted was still highly radioactive, and that the cost of cleaning up the area would be around $600 million, but that the land would still remain to be dangerously radioactive for approximately a quarter of a million years after the clean up process was complete . In 1963 the British ceased to do atmospheric tests in Australia as a result of Britain having signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, although 'minor' tests continued at Maralinga until 1967.

In 2000 the Australian government announced that the area at Maralinga was now decontaminated, although many were sceptical due to the way the radioactive hazards were dealt with. They were simply buried in unlined ditches which will do little more than to provide a band-aid solution since that over time, the effects of sand erosion and radioactive seepage will cause the waste to be uncovered once again. Thus the only effective way to deal with the contaminated sites would be to leave them alone and wait the thousands of years it will take for the radiation to disperse.

As well as the nuclear tests having a devastating impact on the environment, the uranium mines that operated from the 1950's to the 1970's also had just as a devastating impact on the environment, especially as mentioned before at the some what notorious mine of Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory where deposits of uranium were discovered in 1949, as well as the mine Mary Kathleen, which was in Queensland.

As previously mentioned the British and Americans thought that uranium metal was in extremely short supply, as well as the Australian government and with the onset of the Cold War uranium was even more highly prized as it was viewed that who ever controlled the supply of uranium, controlled the fate of the world. Uranium mining was nothing new to Australia, with the first deposits being discovered at Radium Hill and Mt Painter in 1906 and 1910, but up until the 1950's radium was little more than a bi-product of the process of extracting radium from iron ore . When the quest for uranium began in the 1950's little attention was paid to the impact of the mining process on the environment since at the time nobody fully understood just how seriously the implications on the environment could be.

In the case of Rum Jungle, the pollution of the surrounding environment was quite severe with run off from the tailing damns causing extensive damage in the East Finniss river for several kilometres away from the sight of the mine. Damage caused by the mine included; damage of native vegetation, damage to stream beds, loss of fishes from large stretches of the river due to an increase in the oxide, copper and sulphate levels of the river caused by run off from tailings at the site of the mine, death of invertebrates and a reduction in the photo synthesis of aquatic plant species due to the visibility of the water being reduced. In 1963 the situation was so bad that it was reported that the run off from the Rum Jungle site had affected more than 20 miles of the East Finniss and Finniss Rivers, which in turn made the water unsuitable for stock or human usage and also destroyed plant life along the banks of the rivers, due to high acidity level content in the water .

The situation at the other uranium mines tended to be the same, with numerous reports of destruction and damage to the environment from areas near uranium mines. In the second report into the Ranger proposal in 1977, it was reported that if the proposal was to go ahead as proposed, it would have serious implications for the environment in the Ranger area, with damage caused by sulphuric acid, which is used in the leaching of uranium from the iron ore, damage to surrounding areas caused by the effects of blasting out mines, erosion from the site resulting in sediments from the site entering waterways and either destroying or seriously affecting them . Another source of pollution for the waterways would be the run off of contaminated water from the retention ponds during the wet season, resulting in large scale devastation of waterways many kilometres away from the mine site, although it was found that the environmental impact would not have been as great as that at Rum Jungle, with the operation at Rum Jungle not bound by any environmental regulations due to the lack of understanding on the impact of the environment back in the 1950's .

As well as contamination of waterways, which is one of the main environmental damages caused by the mining process, other dangers to the environment include the contamination of land with radon, a bi product of the uranium mining process which can have a life of anything up to 250,000 years. As well as this there is also the risk of environmental impact from ionized radiation and gamma rays. At Rum Jungle for miles down stream a radioactive anomaly can be found, where as well as damage caused to the waterways by sediments from the mine, there is also above average levels of back ground radiation which has a severe impact on the water supply of native wildlife since that the sections that are affected are unsuitable for drinking.

While the British were undertaking nuclear tests in Australia and mines such as Rum Jungle were operating, public opinion was gradually beginning to turn against the practices, especially the nuclear tests. An example of this is that in the late 50's surveys showed that public support had dropped quite dramatically. In 1952 58% of people were in favour of the tests been undertaken, while in 1957 a total of 66% of the population wanted the tests to be stopped by international agreement. As well as public opinion turning against the idea of nuclear tests, trade unions in Adelaide and Brisbane opposed the tests as well as prominent politicians such as the leader of the opposition, Arthur Calwell.

Although the environmental aspect of damage caused by uranium mining would play a role in the protest movements from the 1970's onwards, when the movements were first starting up in the late 1940's (the Australian Peace Council in 1949) the main aspect of concern for the movements was that of the carnage nuclear power could unleash on the world . From 1960 onwards, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament groups started to get formed around Australia, based on the British model that was operating at that time in Britain. The CND groups were some of the first of the protest groups that were organised mainly by the Australian youth, thus giving them a voice for the first time in the political landscape of Australia . Through out the 60's the anti-nuclear protest movement rapidly grew, with such events as the Cuban missile crisis in 1963 resulting in making people even more ware of the potential danger of nuclear arms.

The anti-uranium movement, it could be argued grew out of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970's although the movement was somewhat overshadowed by the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. Another reason for the growth of the anti-uranium movement in the 1970's was as previously mentioned the growing awareness on the impact of the industry on the environment, especially in regard to the controversial proposal to commence mining for uranium at Ranger. Around the end of 1977 people became aware of the connection between uranium mining and nuclear weapons and as Australia held around twenty percent of the world's uranium supplies, along with cheap open pit methods of mining, it was viewed as being imperative that the federal government moved to end the sale of uranium for the purpose of building nuclear weapons .

On the environmental side of the uranium protest movement it had gained momentum from the far-left in 1975 Radical Ecology Conference, which enabled the anti-uranium movement who up until that time was operating by itself to develop links with local Aboriginal communities as well as anti-uranium trade unions . As well as this the anti-uranium also gained credibility as politicians, such as the Labor environmental minister, Dr Moss Cass spoke out against the mining and export of uranium in 1975 .

Throughout the late 1970's the anti-uranium protest movement gained momentum, with the publication of the first Ranger report in 1976 giving further credibility to the anti-uranium protest movement's claims of the damage that uranium could cause to the environment. The same year, 7000 people protested around Australia and the following year a total of 10,000 people marched in protest in Sydney, while 20,000 people marched through Melbourne . The increase in the number of people in the protest marches showed that uranium mining was an issue that concerned the majority of Australians and could not be ignored by the government and the mining companies. From 1977 onwards the protest movement continued to fight against new proposals, but had little luck in their attempts to bring about an end to the industry. Ironically one of the reasons why attempts to end uranium mining were ultimately unsuccessful was that many of the mining sites were owned by Aboriginal communities after they had been given the land under native title, and thus the indigenous owners gave permission to the companies to continue mining in some cases due to the irresistible fees payed by the companies.

In conclusion, the nuclear tests Britain undertook are still affecting the Australian impact and have played a role in dramatically shaping the Australian desert at places such as Maralinga. Uranium mining still continues today at such places as Ranger and perhaps the most controversial site been Jabiluka mine which is allowed to operate in Kakadu National Park, which has World Heritage status.


Cawte, A., Atomic Australia 1944-1990 (Kensington, 1992) p.69

ibid, p41

It was also common practice during the tests to deliberately expose soldiers working at the site to the dispersive effects of nuclear explosions in order to measure the effect radiation from these devices had on humans.

Fused sand is where the plutonium from a fall out settles and causes the sand to form a thin layer, which the plutonium remains under for thousands of years.

Rehabilitation of Former Nuclear Test Sites at Emu and Maralinga (Australia) 2003, Report by The Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee pp16-32

Arnold, L., A Very Special Relationship: British Atomic Weapons Trials in Australia (London, 1987), pp 72-75

Hagen, R., 'Maralinga: No Peace in the Desert', Arena, vol.19, 1984, pp.38-45

Rehabilitation of Former Nuclear Test Sites at Emu and Maralinga (Australia) 2003, Report by The Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee pp35-42

Mudd, G.M, Uranium Mining in Australia: Environmental Impact, Radiation Releases and Rehabilitation, (Jabiru, 2003)pp 179-82

Report of the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution, (Canberra, 1963) pp34-36

Second Report/Ranger Uranium Environmental Enquiry (Canberra, 1977) pp.85-107

ibid, p.109

Mudd, G.M, Uranium Mining in Australia: Environmental Impact, Radiation Releases and Rehabilitation, (Jabiru, 2003)pp 185-196

Milliken, Robert, 'No Conceivable Injury: The Story of Britain and Australia's Atomic Cover-Up, (Melbourne: Penguin, 1986)pp 93-98

Saunders, Malcolm; Summy, Ralph, The Australian Peace Movement: A Short History, (Canberra, Australia National University, 1986)p 31

ibid, p.35

ibid, p.45

Hutton, D.; Connors,. A History of the Australian Environment Movement (Canberra, 1999) p137

ibid. pp17-18

ibid. pp141-143