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MARALINGA, THE FIRST BRITISH ATOMIC EXPLOSION, SOUTH AUSTRALIA

The airmail cover had a single green1/- ‘Lyre Bird’ stamp and a strip of four 4d lake-coloured QE 2 stamps cancelled with a non- circular ‘running’ cancel of Sydney/N.S.W. with the date 21. 10. (the year not legible). The 4d stamp was issued 13 March 1957, which was 6 months after the first Maralinga atomic explosion. There was a printed example of an atomic explosion, and the cover was addressed to Dr. E.E. Massey, Defence Research Board, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, as well as a ms. ‘10' in a circle, with the reverse not seen (Figure 1).

On September 27, 1956 the first explosion in a British series of atomic explosions took place at Maralinga, South Australia. This series of explosions was christened "Buffalo". Bruce A Bolt was on the Nullabor Plain as one of a group of seismologists making use of the British atomic test to study the earths crust. Seismographs were installed westward from the Maralinga test site along the railway line to Perth. Bolt had placed a seismograph at Cook, 140 kms from the shot point (Figures 2 & 3).

The Buffalo atomic tests were the fourth in a series conducted in Australia. In 1952 and 1956, the British had fired atomic bombs on the deserted Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. The western region of South Australia had also been used in October 1953, for the testing, by the British Atomic Testing Energy Authority, of two small atomic devices above the ground, at Emu Field. The Buffalo tests of late 1956 were larger bombs with different triggers and simpler mechanisms were fired at the new site of Maralinga. The name by coincidence means "Fields Of Thunder".

Sir William Penney arrived in Australia early September 1956 to supervise the tests. Penney was associated with British nuclear research since its early days; he had flown in an observation plane for the Nagasaki atomic bomb drop, he was also in Australia during 1952 for the Monte Bello test. Sir William stated at a news conference in Sydney that the tests would not involve big explosions, but that was not to state that small weapons would not have a tactical role to play during the times of war. The Maralinga tests would be for measurement research, others would determine the behaviour of military equipment and buildings when subjected to explosive forces.

With close cooperation with the British on defence matters the Australian government at the time was led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies. The opposition Labor party opposed Menzies Liberal party Country party policies on allowing the atomic tests in Australia. Deep divisions in the Labor party prevented much affective resistance, the Labor party caucus voted to only send a small group of observers to Maralinga.

Environmental hazards from the nuclear explosions appeared to be taken seriously by the Australian government and scientific circles. An Australian Weapons Safety Committee was established to examine the dangers from radioactive fallout and give the all clear on weather conditions for each test. The committee published open reports in the Australian Journal of Science. The articles explained the actions taken ensuring the safety of the public; these were similar to those already in place in the United States for air, tower and surface bursts in Nevada.

Arrangements were made for measurements of radio-iodine concentrations in the thyroid glands of sheep and cattle, where iodine in digested fodder is quickly concentrated. Radioactive levels were tested in rain, mud and water reservoirs. Sampling of radioactive dust was carried out by the simple method of exposing the sticky surface of gum films to the open atmosphere. By the time of the Buffalo tests of 1956, the Australian fallout network had been expanded to eighty-six stations.

The weather was at first unfavourable at Maralinga for the initial test in Spring 1956. Some 1500 scientists and soldiers were waiting for this first test. On a clear spring day, the first explosion was ignited. Only near the detonation point was ground motion felt, but people living hundreds of kilometers away heard the sound waves through the air. At Cook two or three distinct blasts were heard about 12 to 13 minutes after the detonation flash. At Kingoonya, 400kms from Maralinga, there was an explosion like a clap of thunder, shutters rattled and houses shook. On the coast, 300kms away at Ceduna, two large bangs rang out- like sticks of dynamite going off.

The first atomic bomb in the Maralinga series was about equal in power to that which destroyed Hiroshima. The device had been suspended from a 110 metre tower. The most distant seismograph known to have recorded it was at Southern Cross, 1000kms away.

The findings on Dr. E.E. Massey were quite limited to his academic credentials of B.A. PhD, and his 3 publications were concerned with the effects of atomic explosions on plants and animals used as foods. An abstract of an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal published by Dr. Massey in 1967, volume 96 (4) pp. 204-206 on The Radioactive Contamination of food following Nuclear Attack is seen in Figure 4.

His most important article was prepared for the Canadian Government as a 34 page submission on Nuclear Weapons Effects has a spectacular frontispiece as shown in Figure 5.

This paper was extracted from the website http://allshookup.org/quakes/oztestmp.htm which goes into much more detail than is covered in the present article.

 
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