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The Bomb: Developing & Testing

Emmett Sullivan essays Britain’s atomic and nuclear testing in the 1950s, and comments on its legacy.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Let’s come back to consider the development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent itself. By 1952, we had an atomic bomb. By 1957, we had a hydrogen bomb. Now, Graham Farmelo in his recent book Churchill’s Bomb makes some various suggestions about the development of the weapons and why Britain wanted to push this idea forward of its own independent nuclear deterrent. Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, commissioned the programme, but Winston Churchill, coming back into power as Prime Minister in 1951, and the legacy he left through to 1955 and beyond, suggested that for Britain to be a credible force in future negotiations, it needed to be an atomic weapon state.
It did, for example, effectively guarantee it a permanent place on the UN Security Council. Now, behind us is the first operational thermonuclear weapon, a 1-megaton Yellow Sun free-fall nuclear bomb. And we mentioned the Valiant was the aircraft that was used to test these weapons by dropping them. One of the longer running issues which comes out of the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond is the legacy of nuclear testing. Now, the effects of radiation and the terrible consequences of using an atomic bomb were known at the time that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki targets were attacked in 1945.
So we see America and Britain and France and the Soviet Union testing nuclear weapons, both atmospheric tests and underground tests, knowing that there is going to be a legacy from using those weapons. If you go back to, say, the Americans in 1954 and the Castle Bravo test that went wrong, the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon 5 fishing boat and the fatality there of one of the Japanese sailors suddenly started a level of debate in Japan about their status as a victim of nuclear weapons.
Britain used Pacific Islands, but it also used the mainland of Australia through areas which are largely desert with the promise that Britain would share some nuclear secrets with the Australians in return for the use of their territory. And there is a legacy - were the lands were cleared properly of the indigenous population, whether the British members of the armed forces were deliberately exposed to radiation during that time. So we have a dark period in the decisions of a number of western governments and the Soviet Union itself, as to exactly what sort of risks they’re going to expose their population and the population of others by detonating nuclear weapons.
And I think this is something we might want to just pause on and think back. Although only two nuclear weapons have been used in anger, before the end of the 20th century, nearly 2,050 nuclear weapons had actually been detonated, and that’s something I’d like you to just think about before we move onto the next stage of the course.

The Bomb: Developing & Testing

When thinking about this topic, here are the questions we came up with to frame the discussion:

  1. Britain’s first atomic test came in 1952. Following Graham Farmelo’s recent book, are we right to talk about ‘Churchill’s bomb’?
  2. By 1957 Britain had a hydrogen bomb: did this keep Britain a place at the negotiating table?
  3. What has been the international relations legacy of Britain’s atomic testing programme?

A note on a date in the video

In this video, Emmett meant to date the incident to 1 March 1954, at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, under codename Operation Castle. [In no way is it becoming humiliating being corrected by my own dissertation student – Em.]

Please consider your responses to this video step, and add them to the comments below, or the following discussion.

The Bomb: Developing and Testing by Lauren Semple and Emmett Sullivan

Britain tested its first independent atomic weapon on 3 October 1952 at the Montebello Islands, West Australia under codename Operation Hurricane. The bomb they detonated had similarities to the Fat Man used in Nagasaki, as several scientists who worked on the project had previously been part of the Manhattan project prior to the McMahon Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Britain’s first hydrogen bomb was tested on 15 May 1957 on the largely uninhabited Christmas Islands in the Pacific and was dropped by a Valiant bomber. British scientists took around two years to develop the weapon.

The U.S. Castle Bravo test was the most powerful hydrogen bomb the United States ever detonated. It took place on 1 March 1954, at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, under codename Operation Castle. The radioactive fallout from the tests fell on residents of the nearby islands of Rongelap and Utirik; however, the islanders were not evacuated until three days later. The crew of the Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon Five, were contaminated by radioactive fallout, which killed one crewmember. This sparked fierce debate worldwide, and in Japan in particular, over the effects of nuclear weapons in the country – the first Japanese discourse on nuclear testing to appear since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings nine years earlier.

The legacy of the testing in Australia can still be seen today. In Maralinga in South West Australia, Britain tested seven nuclear weapons, including two major tests, Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler. The site was chosen due to its apparent remoteness from the populous; however there were still indigenous communities living there. Neither the British or Australian governments paid adequate attention to warning the vulnerable indigenous people of the effects of the radiation emitted from the tests. They had no protective clothing against radioactive fallout; they ingested food contaminated with radioactive material; and there was a significant language barrier, which prevented the locals from reading warning signs.

As we saw from the quiz at the beginning of this course, by the end of the twentieth century, while only the ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ had been dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an act of aggression, by the end of the century, 2053 nuclear bombs had been tested worldwide. If you missed it the first time, or would like to watch it again, here is a disturbing visual representation. We can see that the Nuclear Arms race begins to gain substantial momentum in the 1950s. This is the opening video of the Royal Holloway course on ‘The Bomb’ – most students cannot believe that 2000+ atomic and nuclear explosions have taken place

This article talks about the impact of nuclear testing in Maralinga in more detail. Operation Grapple also was criticised as veterans were reportedly suffering from exposure to radiation during the tests. This website for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association is helpful if you would like to explore in depth the effects of nuclear testing on veterans. The ‘month to go’ e-mail referenced this critical study as well: ‘A toxic legacy: British nuclear weapons testing in Australia’, from The Australian Institute of Criminology.

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