In Montebello Islands, Western Australia Islands

Who would ever thought that the oceanic paradise of Montebello islands in Northwest Australia was once a place of destruction and total annihilation? There’s only one way to find out: let’s rewind time back to the days of the Second World War.

The Race for Nuclear Prowess

After the 1932 theoretical discovery of the nuclear fission, the World’s Superpowers were racing to develop their own nuclear weapons. Britain and Canada cooperated in the first nuclear weapons project code named Tube Alloys, and just after sometime in 1939, the United States joined the race through its own undertaking called the Manhattan Project. However, considering high cost of development and for the fact that they could possibly used the weapons against each other, these countries agreed to become allies. This special partnership was formalized through the signing of the 1943 Quebec Agreement where the US and their allies will concentrate nuclear weapons development under the Manhattan Project.

Everything went well, until these circumstances arrived:

  • The US failed to provide updates and results of the Manhattan Project despite the successful detonation of the Trinity Bomb in July 1945 over the deserts of Mexico and the infamous Fat Man Bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945.
  • Soviet spies were able to penetrate the Manhattan Project and was able to develop their own nuclear weapons with its first nuclear bomb named “First Lightning”.
  • The US terminated the special partnership with Britain and Canada after Japan surrendered and ended the Second World War.

In fears of losing its Superpower status, Britain proceeded with its own nuclear weapons development in 1947 coined as High Explosive Research.

Britain needs a Nuclear Testing Site

After years of painstaking planning and re-designing, Britain finally has a nuclear weapon. Specifically, it was a plutonium-implosion type of nuclear weapon. However, Britain needs to test it but it could not find any site in Britain, or perhaps other parts in Europe, due to human population.

Another problem went on the tables and the question back then was: Where to test it?

Britain’s first choice was the Bikini Atoll of Marshall Islands since the US has already been testing their nuclear weapons in this remote part of the Pacific Ocean. However, as expected due to their past and severed relationship, the US did not conform to this proposal. With this, alternative testing sites where prospected with the following conditions:

  • The area should be isolated with no human settlement within a 160 kilometers (100 miles) radius
  • The area should be large enough and can accommodate several nuclear detonations over a span of time
  • The area should have prevailing winds that will blow the radiation fallout to the sea
  • The area should be away from shipping lanes
  • The area should allow construction of a temporary camp and a base camp at least 16 kilometers (10 miles) and 40 kilometers (25 miles) respectively away from the main detonation area.
  • The area should be ready for use by the middle of 1952

While Canada was prospected to be a candidate site, the Royal Navy of the British Empire suggested that Australia has a site in its northwestern region that might have all these requirements and was particularly pertaining to the Montebello islands.

Australia favoring Britain’s Nuclear Testing Proposal

The first move of Britain to persuade Australia in its nuclear test plan was in the form of a formal writing. Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom back then requested Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, if such undertaking would be possible on their territorial soils.

At first, the request seems to be abusive as the two countries are known to be trading partners, and by doing so, would significantly damage the host country. However, as Australia back then, is at the peak of cultivating a community of Great and Powerful Allies while addressing the expanding Communism in Asia, Australia finally agreed to Britain’s proposal in May 1951.

October 3, 1952: The Day Aussie Skies went Red

After Winston Churchill was put into Office in December 1951 as the New Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, work underwent on the final decision for Britain’s First Nuclear Detonation. Just after two months of holding position, Churchill announced that Montebello islands in Australia is the chosen site and that the testing would be done before the year ends, thus Operation Hurricane was born.

Photo courtesy from

Preparations immediately commenced and the nuclear warhead was finally assembled at an island located on the east coast of England. The plan was to board the nuclear warhead on a surplus warship where an 86 meters (283 feet) River-class Frigate named HMS Plym was commissioned to carry her. Finally on June 5, 1952, HMS Plym together with her escorts sailed out to sea for Australia.

After 8 weeks of sailing, HMS Plym and her escorts arrived at Montebello islands. Navigating around islets and lagoons, HMS Plym finally positioned herself and dropped anchors just 365 meters (1,200 feet) off the bay of Trimouille island.

October 3, 1952 was described to be a fine and sunny day in Montebello islands. However, at exactly 7:59am local time, KABOOM. Britain became the third country to detonate a nuclear bomb.

The Nuclear Fallout of Operation Hurricane

The nuclear bomb that was detonated on the morning of October 3, 1952 in Montebello islands was a 25-kiloton warhead that yielded a mushroom cloud of over 4.5 kilometers (2.7 miles) high. As expected, HMS Plym that carried the bomb was completely powderized and the impact zone left an underwater crater as wide as 300 meters (1,000 feet) and 6 meters (20 feet) deep.

Every living organism near the perimeter of the impact zone was totally annihilated. According to one of the UK Nuclear Test Veteran, he can clearly recall seeing thousands of dead sea turtles floating lifeless on surface water while some were washed up along the beach.

Photo courtesy from

Military servicemen and some scientist who were on the temporary and base camp monitoring the after effects of the nuclear test were not spared from the radiation fallout. Many of them died within months while the survivors suffered from cancer and other radiation-related illness. In fact, there was a controversy that considers them to be an experimental guinea pig where medical professionals back then can thoroughly study the illnesses related to a nuclear fall-out.

Now if you think that the nuclear fallout was contained within the perimeter of Montebello islands, then records suggest that you may need to think again. The temporary effects of the fallout reached as far as the other side of Australia, particularly in the east coast of Brisbane, but only in minute levels.

Having all the knowledge on the negative effects of a nuclear fallout, you cannot get rid but ask the question as a prerequisite information before you proceed with your island vacation: Is there still radiation in Montebello islands? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. But not as compared as before. Nuclear radiation are now in its minimal level and confined within the impact zone. However, this does not imply that you will not take precautions when you visit Montebello islands. There are several huge billboards scattered in areas where radiation still exist. Please do follow the instructions indicated and give extra attention not to dug up the soil as most of the contaminants are already trapped and settled on the ground.

Aussie Skies went further Red

If you think Operation Hurricane was enough to produce valuable data in making measures for a nuclear fallout in exchange for massive environmental destruction, then records again suggest that you may consider rethinking. Operation Hurricane was not the first and last as several succeeding nuclear test were conducted in Australian soils, as follows:

  • Operation Totem (T1 and T2 Bombs)

Date: October 14 and October 26, 1953 respectively
Area of Detonation: Emu Field, South Australia
Yield: 10 and 8 kilotons respectively

Photo courtesy from The Nuclear Weapon Archive

  • Operation Mosaic (G1 and G2 Bombs)

Date: May 16 and June 19, 1956 respectively
Area of Detonation: Montebello islands
Yield: 15 and 60 kilotons respectively

Photo courtesy from The Nuclear Weapon Archive

  • Operation Buffalo (One, Marcoo, Kite and Breakaway Bombs)

Date: September 27, October 4, October 11 and October 22, 1956 respectively
Area of Detonation: Maralinga Range, South Australia
Yield: 15, 1.5, 3 and 10 kilotons respectively

Photo courtesy from Australian Screen

It could have been tested in Nevada, United States

The series of nuclear test conducted in Australia could have been done in the deserts of Nevada if the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement have been signed earlier. This bilateral partnership was only signed last July 3, 1958 directing all nuclear tests to be conducted at the Nevada Test Site in the United States.

Before we end this article, you can reflect and ask yourself: What if all nuclear test were done in Nevada? Would it make it Australia better today?

For more information, please read our related article about Montebello Islands.



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