Review: Nuclear secrets and racist lies

by Liz Ross • Published 26 August 2022

Elizabeth Tynan, The Secret of Emu Field, NewSouth, 2022

The bomb caught us then at Twelve Mile… “Something wrong!”… bluish smoke rolled over…filled up the hills, the holes – rolled along the ground – to the tree tops… Right over the top of us…[1]

In 1953 Indigenous activist Jessie Lennon, her family and many others were suddenly exposed to fallout from the Totem I nuclear blast, part of British nuclear testing in central Australia. In her book, I’m the one that know this country, she recalls the horror, the bewilderment, the sicknesses, miscarriages and cancers that followed – and the anger and activism in the fight for compensation. Elizabeth Tynan follows up this story and many others in The Secret of Emu Field. Here she forensically and damningly documents the secrecy, the inadequate warnings, the total lack of care for the local Indigenous groups after the explosion, the lack of responsibility for civilian and military staff working at the test sites and the overall reckless testing of atomic weaponry, all for Britain’s imperial ambitions to become the third nuclear superpower.

“The wrenching irony and tragedy of Totem”, as Tynan reveals of the Emu Field detonations, “for both the Aboriginal people and the military personnel caught up in the tests were that the harm was caused in pursuit of technology that was soon to become obsolete” (p.63).[2]

Tynan’s brief covers the three British nuclear test sites, Monte Bello Islands, Emu Field and Maralinga, where various weapons components and bombs were tested in central Australia and off Western Australia’s coast, between 1952 and 1963. Emu Field is her second book covering the Totem I and II blasts. The first, Atomic Thunder (2016), dissects the better-known Maralinga Buffalo and Antler tests and a third, about Monte Bello and the Hurricane and Mosaic explosions, is still to come.

World War II saw the horror of atomic bomb devastation in Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Enough you would think to end nuclear warfare forever, but for the world’s imperialist powers – the USA and the USSR – it was the start of a Cold War nuclear arms race. Britain, though nearly bankrupt, was desperate to restore its position among the powerful nations, planning a nuclear future as early as August 1945. Foreign secretary Ernest Bevin said, “We’ve got to have this thing…whatever it costs… We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it”.[3] However, despite its wartime nuclear collaboration with America, Britain found itself shut out of any future joint projects, forcing it to look to its former empire for cooperation.[4]

When Canada rejected their overtures for testing grounds, Britain turned to Australia in 1950, attracted by the “vast, empty spaces” and availability of uranium. The Australian government welcomed the request (p.216). As The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin editorialised on 15 October 1953, “Almost overnight we have emerged as a prospective major supplier of the precious and coveted ore, source of the military power in the present and of industrial power in the not distant future” (quoted on p.235).[5]

The deal was secretly signed on 16 September 1950, with the Australians expecting an equal partnership. The British, however, proved reluctant or bluntly refused to share information, providing bland statements covering up the real purpose of the projects[6] (p.94). A secrecy that has continued.

The Australian government was just as determined to keep a lid on information reaching the general public and the press, enacting extra laws which severely limited access to all sites.[7] Prime Minister Robert Menzies only notified Cabinet after he’d agreed to the UK’s request, while limiting any involvement or information sharing for the project to a few ministers and defence chiefs.

So close to the bombing of Japan, however, Cold War warrior Menzies had to both assure Australians of the inherent safety of the tests and of the necessity to thwart the so-called Communist threat.[8] In one of his weekly Man to Man radio talks, he explained:

There is tremendous public interest in Atomic Bombs… Unfortunately there are scare stories, wild allegations and between you and me, a good deal of nonsense… But we must face the facts. And they are that the threat to the world’s peace does not come from the Americans or the British, but from aggressive Communist-Imperialism. In this dreadful state of affairs, superiority in atomic weapons is vital. To that superiority Australia must contribute as best she can. (quoted on p.200)

Despite his bluster, Menzies was well aware that atomic testing on Australian soil would be controversial. After formally agreeing to the tests, he asked British Prime Minister Clement Attlee not to announce the deal until after May 1951, the date of the upcoming Australian election. Labour’s Attlee agreed and Menzies won.

Done on the cheap, involving drastic compromises with safety, Emu Field’s Totem I and II devices tested options for mass-produced, smaller fission weapons. The explosions and a series of so-called minor tests left a radioactive time-bomb which the British walked away from, just as they did after the later Pacific tests.[9] Limited compensation and clean-up costs were extracted from the UK, but only after increased pressure from Australia arising from damning exposés in the late 1970s and the 1984 Royal Commission.

Even then, the clean-ups of all three testing sites were cursory at best, straight-out dishonest in most cases, continuing the enduring lies of those in charge.[10] At Emu Field the area was barely touched, though some equipment was removed at the time, including a tank used on-site to measure exposure to radiation. Still radioactive, it was sent to the Puckapunyal army base then shipped to Vietnam for the war there. In the latest decontamination work, undertaken in the 1990s, the pitiful $600,000 budget was underspent. Hundreds of thousands of radioactive trinitite glass fragments, buried vehicles and other decaying structures litter the area still.[11] There are almost no living creatures to be seen to this day.

Official statements repeatedly claimed there were no Indigenous Australians in the testing zones. This was a lie. Both governments were very well aware of their presence and as early as March 1953 had developed covering statements if questioned. For example: “…our reply should be that the Australian Government have satisfied themselves that no aborigine will come to harm” (p.60). They certainly knew about earlier Aboriginal opposition to setting up the Woomera Rocket Testing Range in 1946. Once again, as Tynan writes in her earlier book, Atomic Thunder, many hundreds of Indigenous people lost access to their homelands and traditional ways of life, “swept away from the desert test sites like detritus”.[12]

At a time when Indigenous Australians didn’t have the vote and were counted amongst the flora and fauna of the country, little care was shown to the local groups. And of those found in the area before or after the tests, some were forced to go to Yalata, a virtual prison camp, while others were removed with no regard for where they went.

Many died from the blasts. But among the survivors, some became lifelong activists. One Yankunytjatjara man, Yami Lester, went down this path after being blinded, speaking up for his people and his land. He was ridiculed by Ernest Titterton, one of the key Australian scientists overseeing the project, who called the allegations a scare campaign. His dismissed their concerns in racist terms, arguing that, “if you investigate black mists you’re going to get into an area where mystique is the central feature” (pp.132–4). Until his death he refused to acknowledge any harm done.

It wasn’t just that their current lives were destroyed, the Indigenous population lost much of their past. Priceless artefacts in the region, recording an early “Stonehenge” structure and evidence of a long-standing civilisation (estimated today as at least 50,000 years of continuous occupation) were destroyed as the sites were prepared for the blasts, or by the tests themselves. All of this was known to those in charge beforehand.

In a somewhat hollow victory, the lands of Emu Field (1996) and Maralinga (1984) were grudgingly handed back to the Tjarutja owners, more to shed the government’s responsibility than as a genuine land rights settlement.[13] Visits to the area require permission from the local custodians, but also from the Defence Department, as they are within the Woomera Prohibited zone, where dangerous weaponry is still tested.

There were no nuclear tests in the area from 1963, not just because the British decamped, but also due to the growing opposition to atomic weapons. Just a year into the tests, public opinion was turning, and by March 1956 a Gallup poll showed that the majority of Australians were against the tests. Politically the situation was changing too, as bipartisan support collapsed and in June 1956 the ALP Caucus belatedly voted to oppose future tests.

Internationally there was pressure for a nuclear disarmament treaty, with the development in 1954 and 1955 of a widely supported International Peace Campaign. In Australia the Communist Party, in line with the Soviet Union’s “peaceful coexistence” policy, also agitated against nuclear weapons.

The strength of the anti-nuclear campaigns meant the Australian ruling class was never able to develop a nuclear industry, much to the frustration of the country’s warmongers and nuclear power proponents. However with the current nuclear submarine project and a renewed push for so-called clean nuclear power, we cannot rest in our opposition.

Knowing who our enemies are is crucial for our continuing battles. While critical of the Australian ruling class, many, including Tynan, see Australia as a lapdog, vassal or “atomic banana republic”, mindlessly led by great and powerful friends, the UK or US. This leads her to using such concepts as “nuclear colonialism”,[14] seeing Australia as a colonial outpost rather than as the imperialist, capitalist state it has been for most of its existence. For the alternative, Marxist understanding of Australia’s capitalist imperialist role, two books by Tom O’Lincoln[15] spell out this important distinction.

Menzies, as well as being the “lickspittle Empire loyalist” he undoubtedly was (p.372), saw the potential of a nuclear weapons and power-based economy to fuel ambitious post-war reconstruction plans. Projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Woomera Rocket Range, ramping up investment in education and expanded resource exploration were all part of an integrated charging-up of Australian capitalism.[16]

This book is an essential part of an expanding body of work, art, music, documentaries, scientific research, personal memoirs and so on, that adds up to a totally damning picture of Australian and British complicity, cover-ups and dangerous recklessness that has resulted in the destruction of Indigenous Australian and military and civilian personnel’s lives, leaving a toxic legacy for us all. In Alistair Hulett’s moving song he concludes, in words just as applicable to Emu Field:

Out on the plains of Maralinga

What happened there was a bloody disgrace

Out on the plains of Maralinga

It was total disregard for the whole human race.[17]


Green, Jim 2014, “The nuclear war against Australia’s Aboriginal people”, The Ecologist, 14 July.

Hulett, Alistair 1992, “The plains of Maralinga”, from the album Dance of the Underclass, Red Rattler Records.

Lennon, Jessie 2011, I’m the one that know this country!, Aboriginal Studies Press [2nd edition].

Maclellan, Nic 2017, Grappling with the bomb. Britain’s Pacific H-bomb tests. ANU Press, Pacific Series.

O’Lincoln, Tom 2011, Australia’s Pacific war. Challenging a national myth, Interventions.

O’Lincoln, Tom 2014, The neighbour from hell. Two centuries of Australian imperialism, Interventions.

Reynolds, Wayne, 2000, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb, Melbourne University Press.

Tynan, Elizabeth 2016, Atomic Thunder: the Maralinga Story, NewSouth.

[1] Lennon, p.88–9. Emphasis in the original.

[2] The tests at Emu Field were for fission bombs that split uranium or plutonium, as with the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1954 the UK Cabinet decided to develop fusion or H-bombs, which forced elements like hydrogen to fuse and resulted in more powerful explosions.

[3] Quoted in Tynan 2016, p.115.

[4] The McMahon Act of 1946 excluded Britain and other countries from nuclear cooperation, over a British spy scandal. The British thought it was a commercial decision to corner a lucrative market in nuclear weaponry and energy. The Act was amended in 1958 to let the British back in. Tynan 2016, p.98.

[5] Reynolds 2000 expands on the expected industrial bonanza the Australian ruling class planned for.

[6] The official British description provided to the Australians was that Emu Field tests would “determine certain characteristics of fissile material”, with no other detail provided.

[7] The top-secret Woomera Rocket Range’s prohibited area was extended to Emu Field in March 1953, just months before the October test. Secretive D-notices which restricted press reportage were established for the first time by Menzies. Sydney’s Daily Mirror, an anti-Liberal publication, was one of the few mainstream papers that consistently questioned the tests.

[8] In 1953 the Communist Party of Australia was already campaigning against the British tests and H-bombs.

[9] Maclellan 2017.

[10] Although some expressed regret afterwards, they suffered no penalties.

[11] Trinitite contains trapped radioactive materials including plutonium (pp.84–5). The “minor” Kitten tests at Emu Field caused chemical and radioactive contamination.

[12] Tynan 2016, p.34.

[13] Green 2014.

[14] Tynan 2016, p.23, references Jennifer Viereck’s definition of nuclear colonialism as “the taking (or destruction) of other people’s natural resources, lands and wellbeing for one’s own, in the furtherance of nuclear development”.

[15] O’Lincoln 2011 and 2014.

[16] See Reynolds 2000.

[17] Hulett 1992.

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