Elizabeth Tynan, The Secrets of Emu Field: Britain’s Forgotten Atomic Tests in Australia, NewSouth, 384pp, $34.99.

Book Review by Honae Cuffe.


In The Secrets of Emu Field: Britain’s Forgotten Atomic Tests in Australia, historian Elizabeth Tynan reveals the story of Britain’s burgeoning atomic capabilities, Australia’s own ambitions, and the Aboriginal communities who were harmed in the process.

Atomic bomb test, Emu Field, Great Victoria Desert, South Australia, 15 October 1953. National Library Australia.

Emu Field in South Australia’s prohibited Woomera Range Complex was the site of two British nuclear tests in the spring of 1953. The events at Emu Field – named for the emu claw marks dotting the 1.6-kilometre claypan that would later become a landing strip – have been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the story of Maralinga, to which Tynan herself has made an admirable contribution. Also forgotten is the black mist that rolled over Aṉangu country in the wake of the blasts and the harm caused to the Aboriginal people exposed to it.

The Secrets of Emu Field is meticulously researched, drawing on government documents from Australia and the UK, private papers, media reports, and the findings of the 1984–85 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia.

Tynan tells of the early Cold War politics and the United States’ extreme suspicion that led to the infamous McMahon Act, banning co-operation in atomic weapon development, even with close allies. Forced to operate independently from the United States, and desperate to prove its enduring great power status, Britain sought to secure its own atomic energy and weaponry capabilities. This led to the Anglo-Australian Joint Project and the development of the Woomera Range Complex, where long-range and nuclear missiles would be tested. Australia had its own designs, with the hope being that the Anglo-Australian Joint Project and the involvement of Australian scientists would lead to the development of its own atomic weapons and domestic manufacturing capabilities. The British government, however, guarded its nuclear secrets and Australia’s plans went unrealised.

In October 1953, the British government detonated two atomic devices at Emu Field under the Codename Operation Totem. The aim of Operation Totem was to determine how varying proportions of isotopes of plutonium would affect performance, the upshot of changes to the UK atomic infrastructure and the way it produced its fission weapons.

Interwoven with this grand Cold War narrative is a story of reckless determination by scientists and governments alike to proceed with the Totem tests despite an incomplete knowledge of the effects of nuclear weapons or how the meteorological and geographical conditions would impact the dispersal of the fallout. The 1984–85 Royal Commission heard of how radioactive particles fell into low lying mist and were “deposited as a black, sticky, and radioactive dust, particularly dangerous if taken into the body by ingestion or breathing.”

Neither the British nor the Australian authorities took adequate precautions to protect local Aboriginal communities against the fallout from the blasts. The British shifted responsibility to Australia to manage what one British official described as little more than “a public controversy.” As the assistant under secretary for Commonwealth relations, Neil Pritchard wrote at the time, “Needless to say we are assuming that no danger exists of the tests resulting in the death or injury of any aboriginal [sic.] inhabitants. But it is for the Australians to make sure of this and to take the lead in handling any public controversy.” Given the Australian government’s record of indifference to the wellbeing of Aboriginals, it is of little surprise that their only effort to keep local communities safe was to assign missionary and patrol officer Walter McDougall to stop the movement of people around Emu Field. Certainly, McDougall was knowledgeable about the local communities, but the task was insurmountable for one man. Tynan writes that the Totem tests were, in effect, “an uncontrolled experiment on human populations”.

The full story of what happened at Emu Field and the harm caused by the blasts remains unknown. This is the result of strict control by the British of all information pertaining to the Totem blasts, and Totem II, in particular. “The vacuum in the documentary record”, Tynan writes, “represents the very worst impulses of the British government, to control, deny and cover up its activities, even retrospectively and in relation to Australian territory, where Australians were affected.”

The Secrets of Emu Field is not the easiest book to digest, mired by dense details and attempts to build suspense. Nevertheless, it provides an insightful and much needed account of this episode of Cold War history and the legacy of colonial imperialism in Australia. Moreover, in the face of extreme secrecy, Tynan’s ability to craft a compelling narrative must be applauded.

As Australia continues to grapple with the damage wrought on Indigenous land and culture by mining, and the challenges of managing asymmetrical relations with great powers, the lessons of Emu Field could not be more important.

Honae Cuffe
Honae Cuffe

Dr Honae Cuffe is a Research Officer at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Newcastle, where her research explored Australia’s foreign policy tradition from the interwar period until the early Cold War, focusing on the channels pursued by Australia to integrate national interests within the strategic outlooks of both regional powers and great powers, and the parallels in contemporary affairs.