Once the most highly secretive location for the testing of British Nuclear weapons and devices on the Australian mainland, Maralinga now offers modern day four wheel drivers the opportunity to witness first-hand the true beauty of the Australian Outback and visit an area of Modern Day Nuclear history that for decades has made this isolated location restricted to Government Officials and Scientists. With the final clean-up and the official handing back of this land to its Traditional Owners in 2009, Maralinga is now easier to visit than ever before.
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Nullarbor Regional Reserve, located in the far west of the State, covers an area of 2,873,000 hectares and extends from the Eyre Highway north to the Transcontinental Railway line and west into Western Australia and was proclaimed in 1989 and is one of South Australia’s largest protected areas. The reserve is a key component of the biological corridor connecting extensive intact areas from the Western Australia border to central Eyre Peninsula. The area is of great significance to the traditional owners of the land and continues to be an important connection of their living culture today.
Both the Nullarbor Regional Reserve and National Park protect many Aboriginal cultural sites associated with the world’s largest semi-arid cave landscape. There are 24 sites listed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 within the reserve, including sites still used for cultural purposes by initiated members of local Aboriginal communities.
The harsh environment, isolation and lack of available water resulted in very brief attempts to settle land in the reserve and throughout the broader Nullarbor Plain. Consequently, the reserve contains few relics of pastoral life and to date no features have been entered in the State Heritage Register.
Once you head further north and cross the Trans Continental Railway Line, the landscape take on another appearance, as the Bluebush gives way to red sand dunes that are covered in Mallee and you now enter the southern section of Australia’s largest dune desert, the Great Victoria Desert, which was named by explorer Ernest Giles in 1875 after Queen Victoria after he had undertaken a 17 day, 500 kilometre journey without finding any fresh water sources, and stumbled across a small Claypan that was full of fresh water, and ultimately saved the life of him and his party.
The first and original inhabitants of this area were various Aboriginal groups that formed part of the ‘Western Desert Culture Bloc’, with all groups sharing a common language with minor dialect variations and similar social and religious structures. Life revolved around small family groups living as hunter gatherers and at times of drought, would retreat to sites where a reliable source of water would be guaranteed, sometimes many hundreds of kilometres from their traditional hunting areas. One such site that was a very important meeting and trading place was Ooldea Soak or as it was known to the local Aboriginals, Yuuldul or Juldigabi.
Ooldea Soak was focal hub for hundreds of kilometres, and during times of ceremonial activities, it has been recorded that as many as up to 500 people would gather and would settle disputes, arrange marriage, trade and initiate young boys into manhood. Such ceremonies took place at Ooldea up until the early 1940’s. The first Europeans to see Ooldea Soak were 2 well sinkers, Venning and Howie who were led to the Soak by a group of Aboriginals that they had met while working in the Fowlers Bay area in 1868. The next white person to visit the soak was the local Fowlers Bay Policeman, Thomas Richards who was told about the soak by Venning and Howie when they returned to Fowlers Bay.
With the settlement of the New Colony of South Australia
, there was the ever quest for cropping and grazing land, which in turn led to may visits to all areas of the state. There were a number of well-known explorers
that visited the far western part of the new Colony of South Australia
, but only a few that ever visited the depths of the Nullarbor Plain and the area that we now know as Maralinga.
Ernest Giles made 2 visits to the area in 1873 and 1875 in an attempt to find a way across the deserts to Western Australia
, while in 1879 William Tietkens was asked by a British Businessman, Mr Louis Leisler to sink some wells north of Ooldea in the hope of finding good water and opening up the land for pastoral development. The project was a disaster and the project called off, with Tietkens returning to New South Wales
in 1882. One of these wells can be visited as part of the Range Tour.
Over the coming years, the area was again visited by a number of explorers
, but one person that put fame to the area and Ooldea was not a man, but an Irish woman by the name of Daisy Bates. Between 1919 and 1934 she lived in a tent around 2 kilometres north from the Ooldea Railway siding and she was a self-appointed with the aim to provide the Aboriginal people with food, clothing, simple medicines, to discourage contact of the Aboriginal women with the railway workers and to generally look after the wellbeing of the Aboriginal people in the area.
Even with all the European contact, there were still many small Aboriginal family units that continued to live a nomadic lifestyle which would all come to a very sudden and abrupt end in the mid 1950’s and an event that would for ever change the landscape and the lifestyle they were accustomed to.
It all started in 1947 after the end of World War 11 with the push for Britain to be a major nuclear power when Eastern Europe became gripped in the events
that were known as the Cold War. England needed large uninhabited tracks of land well away from the preying eyes of Russia and where else but Australia
could for fill all of these requirements. With the development of the Woomera Rocket Range, Emu was to become the first location for the first 2 Nuclear Bombs to be exploded on the Australian Mainland with Totem 1 on the 15th October 1953 at 9.1 kilotons and Totem 11 on the 27th October 1953 at 7.1 kilotons. As ideal as this location was, its sheer remoteness made it a logistical nightmare of transporting material into Emu or as it was first know, Project X200. Britain began searching for a permanent proving ground location that would still be remote, but being able to have equipment brought into that new location far easier and quicker and from a reliable Transport source.
Such a location was observed from aerial reconnaissance photographs and only a short distance north of the Transcendental Railway Line. The new location for Project X300 was found and recommended and on the 17th October 1953, the site was inspected from the air by Sir William Penney, Britain’s chief nuclear scientist and the site was given the green light. By late 1954 a new township had spring up and the town was given the name of Maralinga, a world taken from the local Aboriginal people that roughly translated to “Thunder”. This new town was not going to be a short term affair, with plans set in place for the long term testing of nuclear bombs and devices for a planned life of 30 years.
By 1956 the first Nuclear Bomb was detonated as part of the Buffalo Series of testing, but by 1958 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was well under way with over 5000 people attending the first public meeting in February 1958 and the CND became the biggest peace and anti-nuclear movement in the United Kingdom. Had these historic events
not taken place, the total number of 7 nuclear tests that took place at Maralinga could have ended up in the hundreds.
There were 2 major test series conducted at Maralinga, Operation Buffalo during 1956 for the testing of nuclear devices and Operation Antler during 1957 for the testing of components for thermonuclear weapons, with particular emphasis on triggering mechanisms. The first test was at the One Tree site on the 27th September 1956 with a yield of 12.9 kilotons and was detonated from a tower. The second test was at Marcoo on the 4th October 1956 with a yield of only 1.4 kilotons and was exploded at ground level, creating a 40 metre deep crater. The third test was at Kite on the 11th October 1956 with a yield of 2.9 kilotons.
The Kite test was special, as this was the first test ever by the British when the device was released by a Royal Air Force Vickers Valiant bomber to become the first ever atomic weapon to be released by the British from an aircraft at a height of over 10,000 metres above the Maralinga Site. The final in the Operation Buffalo series was conducted at Breakaway on the 22nd October 1956 from a tower with a yield of 10.8 kilotons.
During 1957, the Operation Antler tested were planned and on the 14th September 1957, Tadje was to become the first in the Antler series with a yield on 0.93 kiloton from a tower and used cobalt pellets as a tracer for determining yield, followed by Biak on the 25th September 1957 with a yield of 5.67 kilotons also from a tower. The final in the Operation Antler series was conducted on the 9th October 1957 at Taranaki and was the highest yield nuclear explosion conducted at Maralinga, with a yield of 26.6 kilotons and detonated from balloons suspended 300 metres above the site.
To win public support, the 7 major tests were given some publicity, but what the general public did not know at the time, was that a series of around 700 Minor test were taking place and these minor tests were carried out in absolute secrecy from June 1955 through to May 1963, and it was these tests that left the dangerous legacy of radioactive contamination at Maralinga.
Minor or Safety Tests
The series of four minor trials codenamed Kittens, Tims, Rats and Vixen took place and were designed to experiment with plutonium, uranium and beryllium.
Operation Kittens involved 99 trials that were conducted at Maralinga and Emu between 1953 and 1961. Those tests were used in the development of neutron initiators using polonium-210 and uranium and created large amounts of radioactive contamination.
Operation Tims were conducted between 1955 and 1963 and involved 321 trials of uranium and beryllium tampers as well as studies of plutonium compression.
Operation Rats were carried out between 1956 and 1960 and involved 125 trials that investigated explosive dispersal of uranium.
Operation Vixen was carried out in two stages, with Vixen A trials taking place between 1959 and 1961 and investigated the effects of an accidental fire on a nuclear device which burnt or was subject to a non-nuclear explosion and involved the use of around 1 kilogram of plutonium. Between 1960 and 1963, twelve Vixen B Trials were conducted in an attempt to discover the effects of high explosives detonating a nuclear weapon in a fire and used 22 kilograms of plutonium, simulating the effects of a typical aviation accident. It was these tests that created the major radiation problems, with the tests producing jets of molten, burning plutonium which extended for hundreds of metres into the air.
When the Maralinga site stopped testing in 1963, the area was littered with high levels of radiation that was unsafe for any form of life and in 1967; the first attempt at a clean-up took place under the code name of Operation Brumby. The clean-up consisted of the turning over of the contaminated soil and mixing it with clean soil, as well as construction of 22 concrete capped pits that contained the remains of the firings, including plutonium contaminated fragments.
In late 1985 the McClelland Royal Commission into the tests delivered its report and found that the site still had significant radiation hazards, with emphasis on the Taranaki site where the Vixen B Trials were carried out. By 1991 the report plan was approved and in 1996 the second clean-up of the sites commenced at a cost of $108 million dollars and was completed in 2000. In the worst contaminated areas, 350,000 cubic metres of soil and debris were removed from an area of more than 2 square kilometres and buried in trenches
The areas where Robin takes all visitors on the Range Tour were areas that were cleaned up during the Clean-ups and tests show that the area is safe for visitors. There is still an area of around 100 square kilometres within the 3200 square kilometre Maralinga area that is still contaminated above safe limits as set out by the Government and I would like to stress that this area is a very long way from the Range Tour. To put your minds at ease, please click on this link to hear firsthand what Alan Parkinson has to say about Maralinga back in October 2008.http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2008/10/24/2400035.htm
Ceduna Police 08 - 8626 2020
Emergencies – (Police, Ambulance, Fire) 000
Ceduna Visitor Information Centre 1800 639 413
DENR Ceduna Office 08 - 8625 3144
Maralinga Tjarutja Permits Office 08 - 8625 2946
Maralinga Village 08 - 8670 4089
Nullarbor Roadhouse 08 - 8625 6271