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South Australia
Red Earth Desert.jpg
Landscape of Maralinga site

Maralinga in the remote western areas of South Australia was the home of the Maralinga Tjarutja, a southern Pitjantjatjara Indigenous Australian people. Maralinga was the site of the secret British nuclear tests in the 1950s. The site measures about 3,300 km² in area.

In January 1985, the Maralinga Tjarutja native title land was handed back to the Maralinga people under the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act, 1984 passed by both houses of the South Australian Parliament in December 1984 and proclaimed in January 1987.

In 2003 South Australian Premier Mike Rann and Education Minister Trish White opened a new school at Oak Valley replacing what had been described as the "worst school in Australia". In May 2004, following the passage of special legislation, Premier Rann handed back title to 21,000 square kilometres of land to the Maralinga Tjarutja and Pila Nguru people.

The land, 1000 km northwest of Adelaide and abutting the Western Australia border, was called the Unnamed Conservation Park. It is now known as Mamungari Conservation Park. It includes the Serpentine Lakes and was the largest land return since Premier John Bannon's hand over of Maralinga lands in 1984. At the 2004 ceremony Premier Rann said the return of the land fulfilled a promise he made in 1991 when he was Aboriginal Affairs Minister, after he passed legislation to return lands including the sacred Ooldea area (which also included the site of Daisy Bates' mission camp) to the Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Under an agreement between the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia, efforts were made to clean up the site before the Maralinga people resettled on the land in 1995. They named their new community Oak Valley (29°24′04″S 130°44′20″E / 29.401°S 130.739°E / -29.401; 130.739 (Oak Valley)); it is approximately 128 km NNW of the original township. The effectiveness of the cleanup has been disputed on a number of occasions.

The population is generally around 23–50. During special cultural activities with visitors from neighbouring communities, it rises to 1,500 people.

Nuclear tests and cleanup

Maralinga was the scene of UK nuclear testing and was contaminated with radioactive waste in the 1950s and early 1960s. Maralinga was surveyed by Len Beadell in the early 1950s, and followed the survey of Emu Field, which was further north and where the first two tests were conducted.

On 27 September 1956, Operation Buffalo commenced at Maralinga, as Emu Field was found to be too remote a site. The operation consisted of the testing of four fission bombs. Two were exploded from towers; one at ground level and one was released by a Royal Air Force Vickers Valiant bomber from a height of 30,000 ft (9,144 m). This was the first launching of a British atomic weapon from an aircraft.

Operation Antler followed in 1957. Antler was designed to test the triggering mechanisms of the weapons. Three tests began in September. The first two tests were conducted from towers; the last was suspended from balloons. Yields from the weapons were 1 kiloton, 6 kilotons and 25 kilotons respectively.

Participants in the test program were prohibited from disclosing details of its undertakings. Risking incarceration, nuclear veteran Avon Hudson became a whistle-blower and spoke out to the media in the 1970s. His disclosures helped pave the way towards a public inquiry into the tests and their legacy.

The McClelland Royal Commission of 1984–1985 identified significant residual contamination at some sites. British and Australian servicemen were purposely exposed to fallout from the blasts, to study radiological effects. The local Aboriginal people have claimed they were poisoned by the tests and, in 1994, the Australian Government reached a compensation settlement with Maralinga Tjarutja of $13.5 million in settlement of all claims in relation to the nuclear testing. Previously many of these facts were kept from the public.

Despite the governments of Australia and the UK paying for two decontamination programs, concerns have been expressed that some areas of the Maralinga test sites are still contaminated 10 years after being declared 'clean'.


  • Temperature from 6.5 °C in winter to 44.7 °C in summer; overnight minimum of -3 C in winter.
  • Rainfall average 0.75 mm – 1.25 mm
  • Parkinson, Alan 2007. Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up
  • Mattingley, Christobel; Yalata & Oak Communities. 2009. Maralinga: The Anangu Story. Allen & Unwin – a children's book about the history and culture of the region, the nuclear testing controversy and the region's original owners
  • Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements (ATNS) project at the Indigenous Studies Program, The University of Melbourne
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