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 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.

Site man­ager Robin Matthews is the mas­ter of Mar­alinga. He main­tains the vil­lage and leads the tours to the bomb sites.

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.

Aus­tralia’s atomic test­ing legacy.

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