On this day: Australia’s first atomic bomb test

By Beau Gamble 7 November 2013
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On 3 October 1952, Britain tested its first atomic weapon off the coast of Western Australia.

AT 8:00AM ON Friday 3 October 1952, a lightning-like flash emanated from a shallow lagoon in the Montebello Islands, 75km off the coast of north-west WA. Just 4m 15s later, a heavy shock wave reached observers on the Australian mainland. Britain had successfully tested its first atomic bomb.

Named ‘Hurricane’, the bomb released the energy equivalent of 25,000 ton of TNT. It sent a mushroom cloud rising 4km into the sky and left a crater in the sea floor 6 m deep and 300m across.

Operation Hurricane was both a demonstration of Britain’s military power and a giant scientific experiment. The bomb exploded from within the hull of an old British frigate, the HMS Plym, and was used to test the potential effects of a ship-smuggled bomb exploding in a harbour. Scientists measured the extent of the blast and the radioactive contamination, and the ability of different types of shelters and equipment to withstand the forces.

Atomic bomb desperation

At the end of World War II, only the US possessed the technology to produce nuclear weapons. In the following years, as the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union developed, Britain was desperate to produce its own atomic bombs.

“If we are unable to make the bomb ourselves, and have to rely entirely on the United States for this vital weapon, we shall sink to the rank of a second-class nation,” said Lord Cherwell, scientific advisor to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

By 1952, British scientists were ready to test their first atomic bomb, and Australia was deemed a suitable testing ground. “They needed a large uninhabited area, in a friendly country, where they would have logistical support and local facilities,” says historian Lorna Arnold in her book on the topic, A Very Special Relationship. “Australia willingly accepted the British weapon test programme and cooperated generously and effectively in it.”

Over the next five years, Britain detonated a further 11 atomic weapons in Australia: two more in the Montebellos and nine on the Australian mainland, at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia.

Fallout from nuclear testing

Even today there is much controversy over the long-term health effects of the radiation that arose from the weapons testing. Lorna says there is little evidence to suggest either the workers or Aboriginal people suffered greatly from radioactive

“The Hurricane scientists gave much thought to safety,” she says. “Their calculations were based on ‘worst case’ assumptions and allowed, they felt, ample safety margins.”

However, the way of life for indigenous people at Maralinga was greatly impacted, with some tribes being relocated to new settlements before the testing.

“The people most affected by the atomic weapon tests program of the 1950s were the Aboriginal [people],” says Lorna, “because of damage to their way of life rather than directly to their health.” In 1994, the Australian Government awarded the Maralinga Tjarutja people $13.5 million in compensation.