Elizabeth Tynan

Of the many pernicious legacies of colonialism, Australia’s servility in the face of Britain’s nuclear arms aspirations is one of the most under-reported and most consequential. In this week’s episode of The ABR Podcast, Elizabeth Tynan reads her essay tracing the clandestine history of, and fallout from, the agreements that allowed the British to test atomic weapons at various sites in South and Western Australia after World War II. By highlighting the Menzies government’s eager consent and the Australian media’s compliance, Tynan shows that far from being a passive victim, Australia was largely complicit in tests that wrought havoc on large tracts of land and on the Indigenous communities who lived there.

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When I was launching my book Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story in 2016, one of the guests put it to me that the name Maralinga should be just as recognisable in Australian society as Gallipoli. This comment suggested that the British tests had a broader meaning that spoke to a national mythology and were not just interesting historical events.

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In 1953, the British government conducted the Totem nuclear weaponry tests at Emu Field in South Australia. It was an inhospitable environment for non-Indigenous visitors. One London-based administrator called for the Australian military to remove all flies from the site. These tests earned part of a chapter in Elizabeth Tynan’s award-winning Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story (reviewed by Danielle Clode in the March 2017 issue of ABR). Now Tynan has expanded the Totem story into a book that purports to uncover the secrets of what happened there and why.

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Maralinga is a name familiar to most Australians as the site of British nuclear testing in the 1950s. Less familiar are the earlier tests at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia and Emu Field in South Australia. All have left a toxic legacy in our history.

Elizabeth Tynan’s finely researched book on the history of Maralinga and its precursors brin ...