Trip to Maralinga, August 2013 – 3. Exploring Maralinga

Sunday, Jul 06, 2014 at 16:23


The whole crew rose a bit late the next morning, and to our surprise we found that we were shrouded in thick fog that took a while to clear. The plan for today was for Robin to show us some features of Maralinga closest to the village. But our scheduled 10am start ended up being 11.30 as some issues were sorted out, and there was another stop as we were heading out of the village - we spied a thorny devil sitting on the bitumen so we stopped for a look. Robin said they are common in that particular area.

We headed towards the aerodrome, taking time to see the concreted channels that carry rainwater from the vast expanse of the concrete runway and apron areas into a dam from where it is pumped into big holding tanks. The runway is all concrete, 2.5km long and 16 feet thick, strong enough for the biggest of planes to use and even the space shuttle, should the need have arisen. It is still used, with newly installed solar powered lights ready to guide in visitors or the flying doctor. But there were no planes about today so we all drove down the airstrip. The vegetation either side was slashed to discourage animals, especially camels from getting too close. There is a small terminal building now looking rather dusty and forlorn. We were intrigued by the shell of an old Troopy specially modified to measure radiation contamination levels. There are huge parking bays for planes that were contaminated by radioactive fallout and as contaminated vehicles were not allowed to drive on bitumen roads there were special washdown areas for vehicles.

After lunch we visited the firing range and from there walked up onto a low sandhill that gave us views south over the vast expanse of the Nullarbor plain and to the coast lost in haze beyond. From there we went to see the concrete cricket pitch and the football field that was kept green by being watered with recycled water from the treatment system. There we saw the remains of the officers mess and indications of the sharp divisions that existed between officers and other ranks.

We were back in Maralinga in time to meet the supply truck bringing grocery orders from Ceduna supermarket. We had placed our orders with Robin as we drove in to Maralinga yesterday, and fresh bread, fruits, vegetables, meat and other basic supplies were very welcome. Ros ordered a quantity of sprouts - and ended up supplying Brussels sprouts to whoever could use them.

Robin then had to take the supply truck on to Oak Valley, as “men’s business” there meant that the young uninitiated aboriginal man who had driven the supplies up from Ceduna could go no further. So we spent the rest of the afternoon around camp, chatting and relaxing. The day had been warm and sunny – T shirt weather, good for wearing our trip T shirts done by Michelle.

Next morning was mild and there was no fog. We set off early for the tour of the range. Our first stop was at the Tietkins’ wells nos 1 and 2, where Robin told us the story of how the wells were made. They were dug by Russian sailors who were enticed there by an unscrupulous landowner, who left them there to fend for themselves with no pay and little more than quantities of booze for sustenance. The wells were dry and the only potable water in the area comes from Len Beadell’s bore.

The British nuclear test program ran from 1952 to 1963, at the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australia coast, and at Emu Field and Maralinga in the Great Victoria desert (in SA). A total of 12 “mushroom cloud” bombs were exploded: three at Monte Bello, two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga. These were the major trials.

The tests that had a far greater consequence in terms of radioactive contamination were the 12 Vixen B tests, held at Maralinga. The Vixen B tests took place amid total secrecy in 1960, 1961 and 1963. These experiments used TNT to blow up simulated nuclear warheads containing a long-lasting isotope of plutonium. Vixen B scattered 22.2kg of plutonium-239 around the Maralinga test site known as Taranaki. This isotope of plutonium has a half-life of over 24,000 years.

The British carried out some clean-up operations after Vixen B. Unfortunately the report about the clean-up contained many errors and resulted in ongoing confusion and misinformation about plutonium contamination at Maralinga. Finally in the late 1990s, after a Royal Commission the Australian government carried out a clean-up of the Maralinga test site. Most of the residual plutonium was buried deep underground, and covered with concrete. However, it will remain toxic for many thousands of years.

We saw the many signs warning of radiation around the forward site. At the Taranaki site the bomb was suspended under barrage balloons and that site was later used for experiments that created a lot of “dirty” radiation products. This area was the site of the massive cleanup in the 1990s. Huge pits 140 feet deep were dug and all contaminated material, including topsoil and even the machinery used for the cleanup was dumped in the pits and covered with about 45 feet of clean fill. We had lunch at two big sheds left standing after the clean-up. Attempts had been made to revegetate the site using various methods; one technique using seeds of local trees and shrubs glued to long strips of paper had been very successful.

At some test sites the bombs were placed above ground on towers. The heat of the explosion caused surrounding sand to melt and vitrify and the resultant glassy nodules – black at one site, green at the other are still there. The final site that we visited was a ground based explosion that made a crater 140 feet deep all surrounded by quantities of shrapnel and the remains of cables and metal boxes in the ground; their possible function gave rise to much speculation among the technically literate members of the group.

All this made for a very interesting day, made more so by Robin’s knowledgeable commentary and seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes. We finished our day by refuelling (our Troopy being the sole petrol vehicle, from drums using a rotary hand pump - there is a bowser for diesel) in preparation for the next stage, a trip out into the desert on little used tracks that up to now have been off limits to tourists.

Post Script: The background to the development of the atomic bomb is interesting, not least because most of it was cloaked in extreme wartime secrecy. While the American development of "the bomb" (the Manhattan project) at Los Alamos has become fairly well known, the ongoing British work is less well known. There is a good article at that gives some insight into the British work that eventually led to the Maralinga tests.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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