After all the excitement over the past weeks, it almost feels a bit underwhelming to look at the news and not see a constant update of where a tiny radioactive capsule may be. (Huge round of applause to the talented team that found it!)
But WA’s nuclear history goes back much further than our relatively recent propensity for digging stuff out of the ground.
On October 3, 1952, Britain detonated a 25 kilotonne plutonium implosion device in the Montebello Islands, approximately 125km off the coast of Dampier.
The detonation was a nuclear test, undertaken as part of Operation Hurricane. Britain’s first test of an atomic device, the event marked Britain’s place as the third nuclear power alongside the USA and Russia.
Four years later in May and June of 1956, two more detonations (16kt and 60kt respectively) occurred as part of Operation Mosaic.
As well as in the Montebello Islands, British nuclear testing also took place in the ’50s at two other sites within South Australia: Emu Field and Maralinga.
Following the detonations at Montebello Islands, WA Museum taxidermist and naturalist Kenneth Buller (pictured below in 1967 with a taxidermy dodo!) was sent as part of a 1959 expedition to assess the impact the testing had on the archipelago’s flora and fauna. Many photos from that expedition – as well as photos by witnesses to the detonations – can be found within the State Library of WA’s impressive collection. We thought we’d show you a few here!
Armed with just a Geiger counter and no physical protection, the team found a desolate landscape on the islands – luckily, though, they couldn’t detect any long-term effects in the island’s returning flora and fauna. Remaining superstructure debris, however, remained dangerously radioactive.
In a 1988 interview, Buller is quoted as saying:
“It looked pretty horrifying, you know. Any living thing would have been completely burnt – would have been unrecognisable. The ground It looked like burnt desert. Like some terrible volcanic fire had hit it. Very much like Krakatoa – all burnt pink, pinky-white like that ash.”
Remains of nuclear testing at Montebello Islands.
Children viewing the Operation Hurricane mushroom cloud from the beach at Onslow in 1952.
Jokesters Bill Rooney and Cliff Ross in 1952 with a fake bomb – actually a deloused mine, shipped from Perth to Onslow by Beadon Hotel owner Chris Ross and placed in front of the pub.
The mushroom cloud of Operation Mosaic in 1956 seen from Mardie Station, in between Onslow and Karratha.
1958 May Day procession in Fremantle, protesting nuclear weapon tests.