On 3 October 1952, the UK detonated its first atomic bomb and became the world’s third nuclear power. It was the first of 45 nuclear weapons detonated by the United Kingdom across Australia, Kiritimati, and the United States. 

There were over 22,000 British service personnel at these tests and an unknown number of local people - many of whom claim they were exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. 

America, France, Russia, and China have accepted culpability for hurting their nuclear veterans. But the British Government has not. 

They say: "The MOD does not accept that participants at the UK atmospheric nuclear test and weapons experiments were, as a result, exposed to ionising radiation that adversely affected their health." 

The nuclear tests did their job. They ensured that Britain has kept place at the top table of world politics to this day. But 70 years on, the legacy of those test is still up for debate.

The forgotten history of Britain's nuclear weapons tests


Voice over: "This is it. This is the moment the UK became a nuclear power. The first of 45 nuclear weapons detonated by the United Kingdom between 1952 and 1991, across Australia, Kiritimati, and the United States. There were over 20,000 British service personnel at these tests and an unknown number of local people - many of whom claim they were exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. 

America, France, Russia and China have accepted culpability for hurting their nuclear veterans. But the British Government has not."

Susie Boniface: "The British government today in 2023 is the only nuclear power on planet Earth which says there was no harm done by nuclear weapons. The only nuclear power we don't know about is North Korea. That's not a good club to be in I would suggest."

Voice over: "The nuclear tests did their job. They ensured that Britain has kept its place at the top table of world politics to this day. But 70 years on, the legacy of those test is still up for debate."

Archive footage: "That lethal cloud marks the achievement of British science and industry in the development of atomic power."

"Here are the spectators and there is the fantastic flash."

"A silence settles once more over Maralinga."

Voice over: "1945 was the beginning of a new age. Nuclear bombs had helped to end the Second World War and for Britain to remain a global power – it had to build atomic weapons of its own. The British had much of the scientific knowhow, but what they needed was a place to test them.

Britain was too densely populated. So, after canvassing the empire. An agreement was reached with Australia, whose government believed that it would help them get ahead on nuclear technology themselves. Dr Becky Alexis Martin is the principal investigator of the Kiritimati Atomic Epistemic Justice project."

Dr Becky Alexis Martin: "Nuclear weapons test sites were selected because they were far away from the British public, they were out of sight and out of mind. But of course the big issues that these areas were populated for Aboriginal communities and the communities of Kiritimati, neither were taken into account."

Voice over: "The locations chosen had little to no infrastructure, meaning British service personnel would have to be flown or shipped out in their thousands to build it. Soon questions arose within the British Government on how to keep them safe during the testing. When informed of the risk Prime Minister Anthony Eden responded, "A pity, but we cannot help it." The need for nuclear weapons was too great. 

Susie Boniface has covered Britain’s nuclear Veterans since 2002."

Susie Boniface: "Mary Curie's coffin all right is lined with lead. They know, they knew a long time ago the minute they found plutonium and uranium, they knew it was pretty bad Juju. But what they didn't know then and what they do know now is that there is no safe limit to radiation."

Voice over: "Personnel were given a daily radiation limit, which changed depending on their role. Those closest to the forward area had higher limits, but they also had better safety equipment like radiation suits. Those who were farthest from the tests had lower limits, and usually simply worse shorts and boots. On the 3rd of October, 1952, Britain's first atomic bomb was detonated at Montebello off the Australian west coast. Thousands of lives were changed in an instant. The test, codenamed Operation Hurricane, was successful and Britain became the world’s third nuclear power. To test their exposure to radiation, the men watching the tests were given photographic film strips. These tested for Gamma and Beta radiation."

Susie Boniface: "Those badges didn't work in the heat, they didn't work in the cold, they frequently weren't developed properly. Most of the dose badges show a nil dose. But that's not surprising because the one thing those badges did not measure was Alpha radiation."

Video footage: "The most widespread danger from nuclear explosions is fallout."

Voice over: "Alpha particles are weaker than Gamma and Beta, they cannot penetrate human skin. But if inhaled or swallowed they are also too weak to leave the body and can therefore cause severe damage. They usually take the form of dust sucked into the bomb, made radioactive and then dispersed by winds, otherwise known as fallout.

In 1953 testing moved inland to Emu field and later Maralinga in South Australia, where significant Aboriginal populations lived nearby. These people were nomadic, they had lived on the land for 1,000s of years and suddenly found parts of it fenced off with little to no explanation."

Dr Becky Alexis Martin: "They were forcibly displaced from their traditional lands during the testing. They lost their homes, sacred sites, and connections to the land. There was very little warning and informing, they did not understand what was about to happen. So it was an incredibly shocking and very frightening event for the communities."

Voice over: "It was here in South Australia where fallout would spread from the testing sites. After 1953's Operation Totem and now Infamous black mist or puyu descended on the local area. The oily substance clung to trees and the earth for days afterwards."

Dr Becky Alexis Martin: "Aboriginal communities are very in touch with their environment and as part of this they make their bush bread through kind of using the natural heat of the earth to bake this bread. If you've got fallout from the nuclear weapons tests and you're baking bread on the ground then it increases the likelihood that you're going to ingest radio isotopes when you eat your bread."

Voice over: "According to an Australian inquest from 1984, later tests demonstrated “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism” and that “if Aborigines were not injured or killed as a result of the explosions, this was a matter of luck”. Accounts from service personnel are similarly alarming.

Susie Boniface: "At Op Mosaic which was 1956 there was a warship a destroyer called HMS Diana which was ordered twice to sail through fallout. Op Buffalo, which later on in 56 couple of months later, men were ordered to walk, crawl, and run through fallout to see how much stayed on their uniforms. Particularly at Grapple they were ordering air crews to fly sampling missions through the mushroom clouds in order to take samples to see how good the weapon was for the scientists to analyse. There were shocking things that happened at every single one of the tests."

Voice over: "In a factsheet aimed at veterans, the MOD says: “The protection, health and welfare of those involved was a vital consideration. The tests were carried out to the highest contemporary radiological standards."

With public pushback mounting and the British pursuing much larger hydrogen bombs, the Australian Government ended nuclear testing on their shores in 1957. Instead, British experiments moved to the Pacific Island of Kiritimati in Operation Grapple. The bombs detonated there were, in some case, 100 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The local people remember them well."

Dr Becky Alexis Martin:  "They remember being and put onto a boat and you know taken out to watch a Disney film to distract them. You know, a Disney film does not obscure the sound of the blast of a Megaton nuclear weapon test. You know a tarpaulin does not obscure the blinding flash of a hydrogen bomb. These experiences were seared into their memories for the rest of their lives."

Voice over: "For personnel the risk went beyond radiation. For instance, such was the insect problem on the base on Kiritimati, that crop dusters sprayed the pesticide DDT over the island every week. DDT is now known to be a human carcinogen which also severely impacts the environment. In 1961, British testing moved to the Nevada Test Site in the United States where it would remain until testing ceased in 1991. But while British service personnel were able to leave the testing grounds, the local people of Australia and Kiritimati were left to deal with the consequences."

Dr Becky Alexis Martin:  "Immediately after the nuclear weapons tests, birds fell from the sky and dead fish washed up on the beaches. The ionizing radiation remained in their environments so they had to coexist with this contamination. All the military infrastructure was left in place for many years and since then the Republic of Kiribati is one of the poorest nation states in the world, it has a lifespan of 66, and this is a part because of the ongoing consequences of militarisation and abandonment."

Voice over: "Upon arriving home, British veterans too began to notice problems. Today, they self-report that their children have 10x the normal rate of birth defects, while their wives report 3x the normal level of miscarriages."

Susie Boniface: "I had one widow once, I think she's passed away now, but her husband was a cloud sampler. And I remember speaking to her about it in a, in a break in the court case once years ago and asked her how many children she had lost and she said I think in all I lost 12 babies and she just burst into tears."

Voice over: "The British Government denies that any harm was caused by its nuclear testing. The most recent MOD study found that veterans are 2% more likely to die of cancer than a control group of similar veterans. But the study’s authors say that, given their film badges showed such low doses – radiation is unlikely to be the cause.

However, other studies have produced different results. This one comes from Massey University in 2005. It tested the DNA of 50 New Zealand Servicemen present for Operation Grapple. The study found that the veterans had similar DNA damage to the clean-up personnel at Chernobyl.

The British Government rejects these findings, for them correlation does not equal causation. Proving indisputably that British nuclear weapons caused specific health effects is almost impossible without better data having been captured at the time. However that data, may finally be beginning to emerge."

Susie Boniface: "Someone sent me a memo which was about the blood counts taken of a squadron leader called Terry Gledhill. He had the same kind of blood problem that you'd expect to see in a cancer patient who was receiving radiotherapy."

Voice over: "What emerged were memos from Whitehall ordering blood and urine tests from the soldiers. These included everyone at Maralinga and 25% of the personnel on Kiritimati. However, veterans claim that they have been denied access to those test results."

Susie Boniface: "Those badges only show two types of radiation that were on the outside. The blood and urine shows the third and more pernicious type of radiation which once it's inside is very difficult to get rid of and can cause huge, huge damage. So either everyone at those tests disobeyed orders or they've just been sat on or destroyed or something else done with them."

Voice over: "This is a developing story. But as of the making of this video, the British Government has said they hold blood data for only “a small number of individuals” and that “No information is withheld from veterans.” As for the local people of Australia and Kiritimati, they too anecdotally report higher levels of cancer, respiratory illnesses and other chronic conditions. But no epidemiological studies have ever been taken to understand the impact of testing on their health. Though the science is inconclusive, Becky and Susie believe that British nuclear testing has had undeniable impacts far beyond health.

Dr Becky Alexis Martin: "I think justice for both communities, future support with health, with environment, with wellbeing and recognition and apology as well. I think both communities want and neither communities received an apology."

Susie Boniface: "They worry, they fear, they doubt, they're just left with this overarching cloud. That's the best way of describing it it's like the mushroom cloud is still there."

Voice over: "The decisions taken in Westminster so long ago have left a lasting legacy. In July of this year British nuclear veterans began to receive medals for their service, a symbol of the British Government's position that nuclear tests helped to keep Britain safe. But for many of the people who are at those tests and their descendants, those decisions will continue to be questioned."

Related content

Trinity Bomb detonation, showing large yellow cloud made by the explosion of the atomic bomb
IWM Duxford

The history of Britain's nuclear weapons

In the late 1940s, Britain was desperate to enter the arms race. And by 1952 it succeeded, becoming the third nuclear power in the world. But why did Britain want nuclear weapons when already close allies with the US? And why do they still have them today? Curator Paris Agar answers these questions in this video.

Black and white portraits of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Werner Heisenberg in the foreground, with an orange and yellow nuclear explosion in the background behind them.
© Wikimedia commons
Second World War

Oppenheimer and the race to build the atomic bomb

As the Second World War began, so did the race to build the atomic bomb. Germany began with an overwhelming head start, but in 1945 the Allies beat them to it. So why couldn’t Germany keep up? This is the story of the world’s first Nuclear Arms Race.

US President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, in front of a world map showing nuclear strike targets.
© World map: vemaps.com. Biden: public domain, Putin: Владимир Путин 02.
Second World War

How afraid should we be of nuclear war?

By the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war felt imminent. With the end of the cold war, that threat seemed to fade away. But renewed concerns have emerged in recent years. 

What exactly is the threat of nuclear war today and should we be more concerned about it? 

Cold War

Would you push the nuclear button?

It’s the big question put to candidates in the build up to every election: would you push the nuclear button? But the reality is far more complex than the question suggests.

Photograph depicting the aftermath of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima.
© IWM MH 29447
Second World War

Voices of War: Hiroshima

Listen to our soundscape and reflect on what happened when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. 

Second World War

Voices of War: Nagasaki

On 9 August 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Listen to first-hand accounts of what happened in Nagasaki, taken from IWM’s extensive sound archive and the archives of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

A bomb thumbnail
Second World War

Why were Atomic Bombs Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 brought an end to the Second World War, but at a terrible cost to the Japanese civilian population, and signalling the dawn of the nuclear age. What had led to the fateful decision to deploy these new weapons of mass destruction?