Session 3 and 6 Abstracts and Description

Australia’s Nuclear History Practical ethical considerations in Space Traffic Management and access to space

  • Wayne Reynolds - The Australian Government’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons Capability in the 1950s
  • Elizabeth Tynan - British Nuclear Testing in Australia
  • Nic Maclellan - Voices from the South: Testimony from Operation Grapple
  • Alexander Brown - The Hiroshima Panels Australian Tour
  • Paul Brown - Creative Arts and Nuclear Weapons Politics

Organiser: Alexander Brown 

University of Wollongong 

The popular reception of television series such as Chernobyl (HBO/Sky UK) and Operation Buffalo (ABC) depicting the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and Maralinga nuclear tests in Australia respectively demonstrates strong popular interest in nuclear history. These fictionalised accounts of real events might cause us to think about the process via which the nuclear age is becoming history. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Australia's place in the nuclear age as both a testing site for nuclear weapons and as an exporter of uranium fuels for both nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation programmes has the subject of renewed scrutiny by intellectuals, artists and anti-nuclear activists. These panels return to the dawn of the nuclear age in Australia in the 1950s. We consider the relationship between the Australian government's nuclear policies, the British nuclear tests conducted in South Australia and the birth of the anti-nuclear movement. The first panel looks at Australian nuclear weapons policy and nuclear weapons testing in Australia and the Pacific. The second panel focusses on the cultural history of the nuclear age through an exploration of art and theatre works and their location in Australia's cultural landscape

Panel 1: Nuclear Weapons in Australia and the Pacific Chair: Liz Tynan

The Australian Government’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons Capability in the 1950s

Wayne Reynolds 

University of Newcastle 

There has been a tendency to view the British pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent as a waiting game for its inevitable rehabilitation with American strategy. ‘Nuclear planning in a vacuum’ is how John Baylis characterized British nuclear strategy after 1948. That is indeed what occurred in the years after the Suez crisis. In 1958, however, Britain detonated a thermonuclear device and obtained the conditions for restoring nuclear collaboration. Before leaving office, Eisenhower indicated what Australia’s role would not be – a major base for the rehabilitation of the alliance in the event of nuclear war which had been envisaged in 1946. In 1948 the United States gave an unmistakable sign of its displeasure of grandiose plans for reviving the British Empire as a great power when it banned sharing secrets with Australia. Britain was not included in the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 but had committed to a more substantial arrangement in the Australian, New Zealand and Malaya (ANZAM) Agreement in 1948. Unlike ANZUS, ANZAM planned for both regional and global war. Contingencies covered the dispatch of Australian four engine bombers to the Middle East and collaboration with the RAF in long-range strikes into the Soviet Union. A series of Anglo-Australian joint agreements from 1946 envisaged close collaboration in defence science; the construction of a rocket range at Woomera in South Australia; and the testing of nuclear weapons. Underlying it all was a bipartisan policy that Australia establish an atomic pile capable of producing power for industrial and defence purposes.

Wayne Reynolds, is an Honorary Associate Professor, at the University of New South Wales, ADFA. He has researched Australian foreign and defence policy with particular reference to the role of nuclear strategy. He is the author of Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb (MUP, 2000); a co-editor with David Lee of Australia and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1945–1974 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2013); a contributor with John Simpson of the study ‘Australia: A Potential Future Nuclear Proliferator?’ in Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century: A Comparative Perspective (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). Currently he has completed a book Defending the Anglosphere: Australia and Global Power 1956–2021; contributing a chapter on Australia to the forthcoming Cambridge History of the Nuclear Age; and editing a second volume for DFAT on the role of Australia in the development of nuclear safeguards.

British Nuclear Testing in Australia

Elizabeth Tynan 

James Cook University 

The era of British nuclear testing in Australia was extraordinary. Its secrets are still being uncovered and we may not discover them all. Indeed, Britain withdrew from public view a number of files in 2018, after they had been in the public domain for years. We do not know why. Could it be that the recent renaissance in interest in the British atomic test series has made some at Whitehall nervous? In this paper I examine the complex circumstances that led the British first to Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia, then Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia, to test their atomic weapons. The decision reflected the difficulties associated with the United States’ exclusion of Britain from nuclear weapons and energy R&D after World War II. Australia acquiesced without asking hard questions. Those hard questions only came decades later, and there are still many to be asked.

The British conducted their testing with a greater emphasis on speed than on safety. The recklessness of some of the Australian tests carried is striking. British and Australia air crew flew through atomic clouds, particularly those associated with the earliest tests, without any regard for the safety of any of those involved. Also, some of the so-called ‘minor trials’ left many kilograms of plutonium-239 loose on the Maralinga range, a significant safety risk. All three test sites were abandoned without proper remediation. A Royal Commission in the mid-1980s marked a major shift in Australian attitudes to the tests.

Elizabeth Tynan is an Associate Professor and co-ordinator of the professional development program at the James Cook University Graduate Research School, where she teaches academic writing, editing and critical thinking skills to postgraduate researchers. She is a former science journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media. Her PhD from the Australian National University examined aspects of the British nuclear tests in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. Her book, Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, won the Council of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Australia Prize for a Book 2017 and the Prime Minister's Literary Award (Australian History) 2017. The follow-up book, titled The Secret of Emu Field, will be published in 2022. This book will investigate the history of the other British atomic test site in South Australia, Emu Field. She has also published media and communication textbooks for Oxford University Press as part of academic writing teams.

Voices from the South: Testimony from Operation Grapple

Nic Maclellan 


There is an extensive literature on the British atomic testing program in Australia between 1952–57, under Operations Hurricane, Mosaic, Totem, Buffalo, and Antler. There is, however, much less analysis of the subsequent UK program to develop more powerful thermonuclear weapons in the Pacific. Despite its support for the testing of atomic weapons in Australia, the Menzies government refused to allow Britain to test the hydrogen bomb in Australian islands or deserts. In response, during Operation Grapple, the UK government conducted a series of thermonuclear weapon trials in 1957–58, at Malden Island and Christmas Island in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (today, the Republic of Kiribati). Along with more than 14,000 British personnel, Operation Grapple involved contingents of Fijian sailors and soldiers, Gilbertese labourers, New Zealand sailors, and civilians from the UK Women’s Voluntary Service. However, the voices and perspectives of these participants are absent from state-commissioned histories of the UK tests and from most academic and peace movement accounts. This paper will discuss the challenge of combining and contrasting the official record with personal testimonies. The paper will look at these ‘voices from the south’ as part of a growing literature from nuclear survivors across Oceania: women from Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara indigenous communities in South Australia; Marshall islanders who lived through 67 atmospheric nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls; and the Maohi labourers who staffed the nuclear test sites of French Polynesia for 30 years.

Nic Maclellan works as a journalist in the Pacific islands. He is a correspondent for Islands Business magazine (Fiji), Inside Story (Australia) and other regional media. Nic has reported widely about the legacies of Cold War nuclear testing in the Pacific and the impact on nuclear survivors from Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and French Polynesia. His book Grappling with the Bomb (ANU Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the EPAA “Scholarly Book of the Year” in 2019.

Panel 2: Cultural Histories of the Nuclear Age Chair: Alexander Brown

The Hiroshima Panels Australian Tour

Alexander Brown 

University of Wollongong/University of Technology Sydney 

In 1958 a series of large-scale mural paintings known as the Hiroshima Panels were exhibited in Australia as part of a world tour. The paintings, which depict the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, were the work of Japanese artists Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi. After several successful tours in Japan, the panels received the World Peace Council’s World Peace Award in 1953. The award was the catalyst for a world tour that saw the panels exhibited extensively in both the socialist and non-socialist worlds. The Australian tour took place a little over a decade after the end of the Second World War and hostility towards Japan was still widespread. Despite angry letters to the editor published in major newspapers, the exhibition of the Hiroshima Panels attracted crowds numbering in the thousands in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and other cities. The exhibition became something of a mass cultural phenomenon and was covered in print media including the Australian Women’s Weekly and broadcast on ABC television. In 1949 the Soviet Union had carried out its first successful nuclear weapons test. Both the United States and Britain tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific in the 1950s. In response to this Cold War brinkmanship, peace activists in Australia and Japan developed a transpacific peace movement while wrestling with the living memory of military conflict. In this paper, I explore the Hiroshima Panels Australian tour in the context of a growing transnational peace movement.

Alexander Brown is an Honorary Associate at University of Technology Sydney. He recently completed a post-doctoral research fellowship funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at Japan Women’s University, where he conducted research on the transnational history of anti-nuclear movements in Australia and Japan. He is the author of Anti-nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo: Power Struggles (Routledge 2018).

Creative arts and nuclear weapons politics

Paul Brown 

University of New South Wales 

This paper reviews Australian developments in the creative arts response to the nuclear age. The context is the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty entered into force in January 2021, with the first conference of the states parties to take place in January 2022. Australia is not a signatory. In Australia, the relationship between artists and nuclear politics takes many forms – including representation of the direct bomb-test experiences of indigenous communities and of nuclear veterans, artworks that explicitly assist campaigns against waste repositories and other nuclear industry, and specific linkage between artists and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Taking a practitioner perspective, the paper gives focus to Australian performance-based artworks that have emerged over the last two decades, including verbatim theatre, radio, filmed storytelling and immersive forms that cast the audience as performer. By re-imagining nuclear weapons and their consequences, these artworks contribute co-production of nuclear knowledge between artists, scientists and communities.

Paul Brown holds an honorary position in the School of Humanities and Languages at UNSW. He has published in fields of geology, environmental humanities, eco-criticism, creative arts practice and science and technology studies. Paul is the author of Aftershocks, verbatim theatre about the Newcastle earthquake and of the documentary film Sixty Thousand Barrels. In 2003-06, he developed the verbatim play Half a Life with Australian and British nuclear veterans, and in 2014-18 he was the Creative Producer for the Nuclear Futures creative partnerships initiative, linking artists with atomic survivor communities. He is a current Synapse resident with the Australian Network for Art and Technology, and co-ordinator of 'Recovery', an eco-arts project with Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute. This year he is collaborating with Anangu painters for the exhibition Art in the Nuclear Age: from Hiroshima to Now at Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney.

Black Mist Burnt Country: Testing the Bomb – Maralinga and Australian Art

JD Mittmann 

Burrinja Dandenong Ranges Cultural Centre

Above: Maralinga test 1957, ABC News.
Below: Terence Edwards (Pitjantjatjara, b.1982) End of Ooldea Mission, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 40 × 50 cm, Produced for Maralinga, The Anangu Story by Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, first published by Allen & Unwin in 2009 © Maralinga Tjarutja Inc. representing the Oak Valley and Yalata Communities, 2009
Above: Maralinga test 1957, ABC News.
Below: Terence Edwards (Pitjantjatjara, b.1982) End of Ooldea Mission, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 40 × 50 cm, Produced for Maralinga, The Anangu Story by Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, first published by Allen & Unwin in 2009 © Maralinga Tjarutja Inc. representing the Oak Valley and Yalata Communities, 2009

In the 1950s and 1960s the British Government conducted 12 atomic tests in Australia with the permission and support of the Menzies Government. The test program had a significant direct impact on Indigenous populations in the area and resulted in radioactive fallout across the continent. Despite the significance of the tests and their ongoing health and environmental consequences (cancers amongst Indigenous and veteran communities, contaminated lands) the history of Australia’s role in nuclear arms race is little understood. The history of the Montebello, Emu and Maralinga tests is not mainstream knowledge.

I suspected that much when I set out to curate an arts exhibition that told the story through the artworks of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. Titled Black Mist Burnt Country: Testing the Bomb – Maralinga and Australian Art the exhibition toured nationally from 2016–2019 and was seen in ten public galleries and museum across the country, including the National Museum of Australia. It was seen by more than 100,000 visitors. The exhibition presented a broad survey of creative responses in the visual arts from the post-WWII period until the present day, including works in all mediums ranging from painting, screen printing, sculpture, photography, mixed media, video, new media to music. A program of public talks, panel discussions, tours and screenings accompanied the exhibition and was presented at various venues, as well as an extensive exhibition catalogue and stand-alone website providing additional information and resources. An educational resource was developed for year 9–12 students.

JD Mittmann is Curator & Manager of Collections at Burrinja, the Dandenong Ranges Cultural Centre in Upwey, Victoria. He has produced the award-winning national touring exhibition Black Mist Burnt Country (2016-19). He has a MA (TU Berlin) and is a Victorian College of the Arts alumni. He is currently establishing an oral history project documenting the history of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and producing a related podcast documentary series.