“Fear in a handful of dust”: the legacy of Maralinga

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. T S Eliot

The dusty plains of the Maralinga lands in outback South Australia held a secret for a long time before most Australians found out. Australian land had been contaminated by one of the most toxic materials known – a particular form of plutonium that takes tens of thousands of years to die away. Even now, few people know the story of Maralinga. The absence of media coverage and public debate created a gap in most people’s understanding of what happened there, making it a uniquely tangled national issue.

Democracy depends upon journalists who are capable of finding out the truth behind the governmental smokescreen, and whistle-blowers to reveal the secrets. In Australia, we had no contemporary investigative journalist or whistle-blower to tell the population about the aftermath of the tests in the South Australian desert, and the government of the day, unwatched, got away with it. Over time, the story finally emerged and a clean-up was carried out, but in doing so, raising many issues about democracy, Australian sovereignty, nuclear colonialism and the role of media in keeping governments accountable.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the nuclear arms race began. The US turned away from its erstwhile ally and refused to co-operate with Britain on nuclear weapons development. The British had to devise their own bomb development program, and they settled on Australia as a testing site. The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, was only too happy to agree.

The British nuclear test program was spread over 11 years, from 1952 to 1963, and took place at three locations: the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia, and Emu Field and Maralinga in the South Australian desert. A total of 12 “mushroom cloud” bombs were exploded: three at Monte Bello, two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga. The tests that had more far reaching significance than the major trials, however, were the radiological experiments known as Vixen B that were only held at Maralinga. Vixen B involved blowing up a long lasting form of plutonium using conventional explosives and leaving most of the residue on the open range.

In total, Vixen B scattered 22.2 kg of plutonium-239 around the test site. The extreme persistence of radiation and the threat of cancer by inhaling dust at the site made it especially dangerous. The Vixen B tests took place amid total secrecy in 1960, 1961 and 1963 and received no media coverage at all until the late-1970s. They were only fully uncovered in a landmark piece of scientific investigative journalism in 1993.

Australia was not a nuclear power. The country was in a highly ambiguous position – the staging ground for nuclear weapons testing carried out with great secrecy and control by another nation, the “mother country” herself. This made Australia, at least initially, curiously powerless and inept in dealing with the tests, particularly Vixen B. The mysteries of Maralinga continue to haunt Australia as the dust of Maralinga continues to swirl.

Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on Monday 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door. 

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About Liz Tynan

Dr Liz Tynan is a senior lecturer at the James Cook University (JCU) Graduate Research School in Townsville, Australia. Her PhD in science communication from the Australian National University (2011) examined aspects of the British nuclear tests in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. She is a former journalism academic with a background in both print and electronic media, and a long-standing speciality in science writing and editing.

4 thoughts on ““Fear in a handful of dust”: the legacy of Maralinga

  1. Reblogged this on Tait Memorial Trust: we are sharing this post because we believe that Ruthless Jabiru are performing a work which has great significance to us all. The article written by Dr Liz Tynan is beautifully written and captures the madness of the time. Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door.

  2. Thank you to the Tait Memorial Trust. I am glad that you enjoyed the blog post. Like you, I believe this issue is of great significance. Enjoy the wonderful performance on 14 October. I wish I could be there too!

  3. Thanks Liz for sharing your thoughts as a scientific journalist. As you can imagine, I’ve been talking to people about Maralinga on a daily basis to cast a backdrop for our performance. So many people know so little about what went on, and all seem embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. It’s liberating to consider that it’s not ourselves as a population who have been negligent, but the channels that we rely on to unearth and deliver us the facts.

    • Yes, this is a striking example of extreme information control by two governments, and corresponding incapacity by the contemporary media. Few people knew what went on, even for many years after the test series ended. Personally, I think that what happened at Maralinga is unjustifiable, particularly the issue of leaving the plutonium contamination on the ground for many years. I am so pleased that the Maralinga performance in London will raise consciousness of an important issue.

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