Australia's nuclear tourist hot spot
Maralinga – its very name sounds ominous to Australians. Blasted and battered by nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s, this land has finally been given back to its traditional owners. But they don’t want to return – instead, they have opened the gates to paying visitors.
IT’S AMAZING HOW much you can learn about someone from a handshake. Robin ‘Nobsy’ Matthews reaches out and swallows my soft urbanite hand in a giant paw. It grates like sandpaper and clamps like a vice. It tells of decades of hard physical labour in a tough environment.
Then you look at the bloke himself and it’s like meeting the outback version of Santa Claus: grey-turning-to-white beard foresting much of a reddened face, eyes sparkling despite being in permanent shadow under a baseball cap.
And then he speaks. “Welcome to Maralinga.” It’s not what he says but how he says it. It’s a voice that crackles and sparks, and is coarse like the rough, harsh landscape that surrounds us. It speaks of camp fires, beers and roll-your-own cigarettes – some of the classic ingredients of an outback life.
After being off-limits for half a century, Maralinga is now open to visitors. In 2009 the land was returned to traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, with full access being granted to them in 2014. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)
MORE IMAGES: Inside Section 400
Robin, in his 60s, is the site manager of the former atomic testing ground at Maralinga in western South Australia. His wife, Della, is a traditional owner of the land. Robin has been visiting Maralinga since the 1970s, in his former life as a truck driver.
“When I first came here in 1972 all the old records were still in the filing cabinets from the 1950s,” he says. “I love reading. I used to sit here at night for hours waiting for my truck to get loaded and just read all the old records and that piqued my interest about this place and its history. That’s where it all got started.”
In 1974 Robin’s new bride insisted he park the truck, but he was still called up to Maralinga by the federal police for handyman jobs, especially fixing the cantankerous diesel generators. “Working on the railroads, we could only afford a carton of beer a fortnight, and these blokes had pallets of it, so I was up here all the time,” says Robin with a laugh. “And that’s when I really started to get into the story of the place.”
Now, the gates of this infamous site are open to visitors and Robin is Maralinga’s first tour guide.
Site manager Robin Matthews is the master of Maralinga. He maintains the village and leads the tours to the bomb sites. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)
OFFICIALLY KNOWN AS Section 400, this 3300sq.km site was chosen as a permanent base to test and explode atomic bombs (see AG#83). It was 1953, and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was raging. Nuclear weapons had already been tested at the Montebello Islands, 80km off Western Australia, and at Emu Field, 180km up the road from here, but the British wanted somewhere with plenty of space to conduct their tests in complete secrecy. Maralinga, named after a Garik Aboriginal word meaning ‘thunder’, fitted the bill.
With support from the Australian government, the site was reconnoitred by outback surveyor Len Beadell. The land, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, became off- limits. Some of the local Aboriginal people – who are today represented by indigenous corporation Maralinga Tjarutja – were found and moved out of the area to missions in SA and WA, while others were left behind.
Scientists, builders and soldiers descended on the desert. Maralinga was built to operate for at least 30 years, but after seven major tests – which sent up giant mushroom clouds and nuclear fallout floating across the country – and hundreds of smaller radioactive tests, the site was abandoned.
In 1967 one of the first clean-ups, known as Operation Brumby, was carried out by the British. Contaminated surface soil was mixed with clean soil underneath. A thorough investigation by the McClelland Royal Commission in 1984–85 found that radioactive hazards still existed. Finally, after a $108-million scouring in 1996–2000, the land was deemed safe in 2000 and formally handed back to its original owners in 2009 – with unrestricted access granted in 2014.
Documentary footage of Operation Hurricane, the first atomic bomb test in Australia, filmed for the British Ministry of Supply. CREDIT: National Archives of Australia
But after being evicted from their traditional home and seeing the effects of the testing, the Maralinga Tjarutja had no desire to go back. Many within the community now live at Oak Valley, 120km to the north-west. “For my grandparents, that land they saw it as ‘mamu’, an evil place – it was a land they wouldn’t return to,” says Jeremy Lebois, chairman of Maralinga Tjarutja. “The people today, we understand about radiation and atomic testing and wouldn’t return to live there, but we would visit it,” he says.
Following the clean-up, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) found that someone living at Maralinga full-time would receive no more than 5 milliSieverts (mSv) of radiation annually, even in the most contaminated areas around Taranaki. Casual visitors who do not disturb the soil or engage in ‘dust raising’ activities would receive less than 1mSv. Most people are exposed to about 1.5 to 2mSv each year from natural background radiation anyway, and would receive about 1.5mSv in some kinds of medical X-ray.
We see the massive clean-up at the Taranaki site, where the explosion was more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.
ARPANSA’s results are disputed by some experts, however, including nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson, who was involved in the clean-up and later became a whistleblower. Although no-one currently lives permanently in the most contaminated areas, he says an Aboriginal person leading a “traditional lifestyle” there could receive a dose up to 13 times higher than 5mSv.
Robin and Della’s strong connection to this country means it was almost inevitable that they were chosen as Maralinga’s caretakers in 2008. These days Della has retired to Fowlers Bay on the coast, a four-hour drive away, while Robin is kept busy with a long list of jobs. He is not only the site manager, but also chief mechanic, maintenance man and security guard for the village, airport, bomb sites, and scrub that together make up Section 400. To that CV he can now add chief tour guide. It’s a job he started last year and he loves it so far.
“I really do,” he says with a smile. “We are relating the history of this place and I feel a sense of pride about it. There is so much history, but it’s not only British history, this is where people get confused. It’s indigenous history, Australian history, British history and world history out here.”
The swimming pool at Maralinga village was the centre of activity in the 1950s when temperatures reached scorching levels during summer. Now it’s yet another rubbish tip. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)
As the word has spread that Maralinga is open to visitors, more and more curious tourists have begun to arrive. Mostly they make the trek along the good dirt roads from the south, turning off the Eyre Highway on the Nullarbor Plain, just west of Nundroo. A few come by plane and a bus tour from Adelaide is planned.
The tour has three legs: the village, the old airport and the test sites. Robin shuttles everyone between them in a Coaster bus. Of the three sites, the airport is the most intact and shows the massive investment that went into this place. The runway is 2.4km long – long enough to land an Airbus on – and boasts an 80m rectangular section at each end, reinforced by a 5m-deep concrete slab. Beyond that, there are 600m dirt over-shoots. Thirty aircraft a day used to land here.
“It’s strong enough to land the space shuttle on,” Robin says proudly. “It’s the only runway in the southern hemisphere that can do it. They planned for years to come, so that’s why it is so big and was so well built.”
If the runway itself is indicative of great ambition then the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ is a poignant reminder of the smaller, human realities of this outpost. The ‘bridge’ is merely a few steps over a deep gutter on the way to, or from, the airport terminal. Those leaving were said to sigh with relief, while those arriving back for their six-month stints would sigh resignedly.
Smoke rocket launchers sit abandoned near the Marcoo test site. After a series of clean-ups, there is little wreckage like this left. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)
At the height of operations, 3000 military personnel and civilians lived in this remote spot about 800km north-west of Adelaide. Although much has been demolished, through clean-ups and sell-offs, evidence of their life here in the desert can still be seen.
The village sits atop a forested hill, a giant water tank jutting out above the tree-line. Just six original buildings still stand, including the former hospital Robin now calls home. There are signs that the new era of tourism has arrived – a camping ground and amenities block are under construction, some demountable huts have sprung up, and a small museum is being created.
But for the most part, the neatly laid-out streets wind past concrete slabs where houses would have stood and where there was once a post office, a canteen and workshops. Leafing through a thick album of photos helps fill in the blanks. One shows young soldiers lounging about a swimming pool, seeking relief from the oppressive 50ºC summer heat.
Although it was turned into a rubbish pit during the first British clean-up, its outline and the steps leading up to it can still be found on a small rise at the southern edge of the site. “It’s one of my favourite spots,” says Robin. “It’s nice and peaceful and you are sitting there looking down on the Nullarbor Plain 40km away.”
Image: Thomas Wielecki
However, the centrepiece of the tour is undoubtedly the bomb site. The bitumen road north is in good condition considering it is 60 years old. We crest a series of hills, the road running arrow straight. The bush is thick, healthy scrub. But we know when we have reached ground zero – the landscape is open and barren.
Within the detonation zones nothing much grows today, except for a smattering of stunted saltbush and grass. The only sign of life is the occasional bird. The test area is huge, and intersecting streets and avenues run for kilometres. It is like the layout for a city that would never be built. Instead, concrete cairns mark where the two major operations – Buffalo and Antler – were carried out.
We see the massive clean-up at Taranaki, where the explosion was more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima. As well as absorbing a nuclear blast equivalent to 27,000 tonnes of TNT, this site was home to the most dangerous trials at Maralinga, including the scattering of 22kg of plutonium. These later, smaller tests led to much more pollution than Taranaki itself, which left relatively little radioactive residue.
Sand turned to glass by the heat of the explosion can still be found here today. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)
At Breakaway, we can see where sand was melted to glass as the ability of the bombs to withstand heat and other explosions was tested. At Marcoo there are tangled remains of the wire that held the bomb in place. We see stubs of steel towers and mounds where planes, tanks and structures were anchored to test their resilience.
A concrete tower, used to film and photograph the action, still looms to the side. In a fold of ground, 30 smoke rocket launchers are nestled. They have been there for 40 years. Robin insists the site is largely clean of radiation and no longer dangerous. He does, however, have one piece of safety advice: don’t eat the dirt.
“But you’d have to eat the ground three times a day for two and a half years before you get a mild dose of contamination,” he says. And with that our visit is over. We follow Robin back to the front gate – no-one arrives or leaves without him.
“What I want to see is this tourism to go ahead,” he says.
“Eventually the profit will come back to the Maralinga Tjarutja. Every year they will get a dividend from this place.”After another crushing handshake, the gate is closed behind us and Robin is headed back to the village of Maralinga.
Cleaning up Maralinga
Image: Thomas Wielecki
IN 1967 one of the first clean-ups of Maralinga’s most polluted sites was carried out by the UK’s Ministry of Supply. Named Operation Brumby, the project aimed to reduce plutonium on the surface by turning contaminated soil over and burying it.
Discarded equipment and debris were buried in a series of pits, sealed with concrete and steel bars, and high mesh fences were erected around the most radioactive areas. In 1984–85, however, research by the Australian Radiation Laboratory revealed that contamination was far worse than originally reported, still at levels that prohibited human habitation. Three-strand fences were placed around the treated sites, but further tests showed contamination extended even beyond this second line of defence.
In 1996–2000, a large-scale clean-up operation, costing more than $100 million, was launched by the Australian government. About 350,000 cubic metres of contaminated topsoil was removed and reburied in trenches. Some of the contaminated equipment in pits was dug up and reburied; the rest was to be electrocuted and fused into a giant block of glass, to stop the radioactive material from spreading. Towards the end of this procedure, however, the machinery exploded and the process was abandoned. The remaining untreated debris was buried under the solidified material and covered with soil.
Bruce Newton is a freelance writer who has worked as a journalist for 30 years. Formerly the editor of Auto Action, Bruce has long had a passion for motorcycles and cars. This is his first story for AG.
Thomas Wielecki is a photographer who focuses on motoring, road trips, people and travel. His last feature for us was Last of the desert cavalcades (AG#125), about a camel trek across the Simpson Desert.
This article was originally published in the Jul-Aug 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#133).