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Cover of book: The Secret of Emu Field: Britain’s forgotten atomic tests in Australia

Elizabeth Tynan
The Secret of Emu Field: Britain’s forgotten atomic tests in Australia

When we recall the British atomic bomb tests in Australia, most of us think of Maralinga, still a byword for imperial indifference to Country and people. Few remember Emu Field – even though, as Elizabeth Tynan shows, the 1953 Totem 1 and Totem 2 detonations there manifested an almost identical hubris.

After Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the postwar blasts in Nevada, the newly confident Americans denied even close allies access to their atomic research. Desperate to prove that Britain remained a great power, Winston Churchill approved a nuclear weapons program that his country could scarcely afford.

The British never considered testing their “austerity bomb” at home. They selected Australia, partly because of its geography and partly because of the forelock-tugging deference of the Menzies government. Symptomatically, the Australian military personnel constructing the Emu Field base in the South Australian desert paused for a uniformed parade to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s ascent to the imperial throne.

Menzies might have dreamed of joining the nuclear club but Britain shared almost no information with the locals it treated as gullible bumpkins. The press received, both from the Australians and the British, outright lies about the operation – a probably unnecessary measure given that “a remarkably obedient and loyal media […] took up the cause with alacrity, without insider knowledge or investigative verve”.

Though Emu Field seemed isolated to Europeans, the base occupied an important place on the traditional lands of the Anangu people, to whom both British and Australian officials paid only the most cursory attention.

The 1985 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia heard evidence from Indigenous people about how, after scientists failed to predict the meteorological dispersal of the blasts, a sinister dark mist rolled over Aboriginal settlements at Marla Bore, Mintabie Opalfield and Wallatinna and Granite Downs stations. Likewise, the 2003 Clarke report into veterans’ entitlements documented the various RAAF personnel ordered to fly directly into the fallout.

We still don’t fully understand how the atomic blasts harmed those exposed to them, in part because so much information – particularly about Totem 2 – remains classified. The government’s traditional indifference to Indigenous people also meant that it lacked any baseline data against which to measure their ongoing health.

The Secret of Emu Field provides a definitive account of what Tynan calls “an uncontrolled experiment on human populations”. It’s not the easiest of reads, occasionally bogged down by detail and repetition. Yet, given the heightened tension between nuclear powers today, a story of what atomic weaponry did to ordinary people in the last Cold War could not be more timely or important. 

NewSouth, 384pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "The Secret of Emu Field: Britain’s forgotten atomic tests in Australia, Elizabeth Tynan".

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Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and award-winning critic.

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