October 3, 1952 – First British Nuclear Test

On this day in history, the United Kingdom became the third country, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to carry out a successful test of nuclear weapons. This first British test, code-named “Hurricane,” was conducted at the Montebello Islands in Western Australia.

Operation Hurricane was specifically designed to test the effects of a nuclear weapon theoretically smuggled into a British harbor onboard a ship. For this purpose, a 25-kiloton plutonium implosion bomb was detonated inside the hull of the frigate HMS Plym, anchored in a lagoon between the Montebello Islands, an archipelago off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia.

The mushroom cloud resulting from the Operation Hurricane detonation

The mushroom cloud resulting from the Operation Hurricane detonation

The United Kingdom had begun its atomic weapons program in 1947. The government requested Australia to provide a permanent nuclear test site, and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies agreed.

Between 1952 and 1957, the UK conducted a total of twelve atmospheric nuclear tests on Australian territories at the Montebello Islands, Maralinga and Emu Field. Following a 1958 agreement with the United States, both countries subsequently cooperated on the development of nuclear weapons and all British tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site in the US.

Map showing nuclear test sites in Australia

Map showing nuclear test sites in Australia

The impact of British testing in Australia remains a matter of contention.

A Royal Commission established by the Australian government in 1984 to study the effects of British nuclear testing concluded that the Montebello Islands were a particularly unsafe and inappropriate location for nuclear testing and that the “presence of Aborigines on the mainland near Montebello Islands and their extra vulnerability to the effect of fallout was not recognized.”

The McClelland Royal Commission on the Health and Environmental Impacts of Nuclear Testing in Australia, published in 1985, reported:

Scant attention was paid to the location of Aborigines during the Hurricane test. The Royal Commission found no evidence to indicate that any consideration was taken of their distinctive lifestyles which could lead to their being placed at increased risk from given levels of radiation.” (Report, 5.4.1)

The British also were lax in informing white Australian ground personnel of the full extent of the dangers. Even British service personnel were not adequately protected. You can read the full report here.

During the 1990s, the Australian government received $45 million (in U.S. dollars) as compensation from the UK to rehabilitate the test sites and to compensate indigenous people.

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