SA’s notorious atomic testing sites at Maralinga, within the Woomera Prohibited Area, are now open to visitors.
Maralinga – its very name sounds ominous to Australians. Blasted and battered by nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s, this land has finally been given back to its traditional owners. But they don’t want to return – instead, they have opened the gates to paying visitors.
IT’S AMAZING HOW much you can lear n about someone from a handshake. Robin ‘Nobsy’ Matthews reaches out and swallows my soft urbanite hand in a giant paw. It grates like sandpaper and clamps like a vice. It tells of decades of hard physical labour in a tough environment. Then you look at the bloke himself and it’s like meeting the outback version of Santa Claus: grey-turning-to-white beard foresting much of a reddened face, eyes sparkling despite being in permanent shadow under a baseball cap.
And then he speaks. “Welcome to Maralinga.” It’s not what he says but how he says it. It’s a voice that crackles and sparks, and is coarse like the rough, harsh landscape that surrounds us. It speaks of camp fires, beers and roll-your-own cigarettes – some of the classic ingredients of an outback life.
Robin, in his 60s, is the site manager of the former atomic testing ground at Maralinga in western South Australia. His wife, Della, is a traditional owner of the land. Robin has been visiting Maralinga since the 1970s, in his former life as a truck driver.
“When I first came here in 1972 all the old records were still in the filing cabinets from the 1950s,” he says. “I love reading. I used to sit here at night for hours waiting for my truck to get loaded and just read all the old records and that piqued my interest about this place and its history. That’s where it all got started.”
In 1974 Robin’s new bride insisted he park the truck, but he was still called up to Maralinga by the federal police for handyman jobs, especially fixing the cantankerous diesel generators. “Working on the railroads, we could only afford a carton of beer a fortnight, and these blokes had pallets of it, so I was up here all the time,” says Robin with a laugh. “And that’s when I really started to get into the story of the place.”
Now, the gates of this infamous site are open to visitors and Robin is Maralinga’s first tour guide.
OFFICIALLY KNOWN AS Section 400, this 3300sq.km site was chosen as a permanent base to test and explode atomic bombs (see AG 83). It was 1953, and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was raging. Nuclear weapons had already been tested at the Montebello Islands, 80km off Western Australia, and at Emu Field, 180km up the road from here, but the British wanted somewhere with plenty of space to conduct their tests in complete secrecy. Maralinga, named after a Garik Aboriginal word meaning ‘thunder’, fitted the bill.
With support from the Australian government, the site was reconnoitred by outback surveyor Len Beadell.
IN 1967 ONE OF the first clean-ups of Maralinga’s most polluted sites was carried out by the UK’s Ministry of Supply. Named Operation Brumby, the project aimed to reduce plutonium on the surface by turning contaminated soil over and burying it. Discarded equipment and debris were buried in a series of pits, sealed with concrete and steel bars, and high mesh fences were erected around the most radioactive areas. In 1984–85, however, research by the Australian Radiation Laboratory revealed that contamination was far worse than originally reported, still at levels that prohibited human habitation. Three-strand fences were placed around the treated sites, but further tests showed contamination extended even beyond this second line of defence. In 1996–2000, a large-scale clean-up operation, costing more than $100 million, was launched by the Australian government. About 350,000 cubic metres of contaminated topsoil was removed and reburied in trenches. Some of the contaminated equipment in pits was dug up and reburied; the rest was to be electrocuted and fused into a giant block of glass, to stop the radioactive material from spreading. Towards the end of this procedure, however, the machinery exploded and the process was abandoned. The remaining untreated debris was buried under the solidified material and covered with soil.
Australia’s atomic testing legacy.
At the old hospital, where Maralinga site manager Robin Matthews lives, are photos of atomic tests that took place in 1956 and ’57. The crater is the result of the sole ground level detonation at the Marcoo site.
Site manager Robin Matthews is the master of Maralinga. He maintains the village and leads the tours to the bomb sites.