The McMahon Act (actually The Atomic Energy Act of 1946), placed the managements and development of nuclear technology in the United States under civilian as opposed to military control where it had to been up to then.

One provision of the Act was a ban on the release of atomic technology to other states - even to Britain, which contributed personnel and technical information to the Manhattan Project. As a consequence Churchill (in secret) initiated a programme to build Britain’s own bomb.


Britain and the Commonwealth
During the 1950s and early 1960s British and Australian governments intentionally used soldiers and civilians as human guinea-pigs in nuclear tests.

The MoD's denial that there was any plan or intention to expose the 16,000 Australian troops and civilians and 22,000 British servicemen to harmful radiation has been challenged by documents found in the Australian National Archives.

According to these documents, in 1956 the British military established an indoctrinee force of 280 soldiers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, who were indoctrinated on the effects of atomic weapons. In one test they were stationed eight km from the blast, and then taken to the target point over the next two days, to be covered in dust.

The MoD eventually confirmed that trials had taken place, though they insisted that it was the clothing, not the men, that was being tested.

Further documents revealed plans to expose up to 1,750 troops to atomic blasts from September 1959. One document, headed Operation Lighthouse, Secret Guard, states: 'The Australian Services are desirous that during the Lighthouse series, an indoctrination force of approximately 1,750 troops take part in an exercise involving construction of a trench system (upwind from ground zero) including command post, troop accommodation and weapon pits, and that the system be occupied during the explosion. All participating troops to be blood counted before arrival on site.' The Lighthouse series did not proceed, but the documents suggest that similar experiments would have taken place in the earlier tests.

Typical of the health consequences suffered by victims of the blasts is Rick Johnstone, a former airforce mechanic and head of the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association. After spending 11 years in the courts, he became the only veteran to win a court case against the Australian government. He has heart disease, vascular disorders, leukaemia, numerous carcinomas, calcified tendons and prematurely aged skin and sweat glands. His sons had birth defects - one did not develop any teeth and had chronic skin problems, while another had a harelip and an irregular palate.

The British tests were conducted between 1952 and 1963, first at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia and then at Emu Field and Maralinga in the South Australian desert. At Maralinga, Britain secretly moved from atomic explosions to detonating thermonuclear devices.

The tests were a bid to catch up militarily with the United States after World War Two, and with the Soviet Union, after the USSR exploded its first nuclear weapon in August 1949. Britain had to built its own test sites in Australia after the US Congress passed the 1946 McMahon Act to outlaw the passing of classified atomic information to any other country, despite British scientists being at the centre of the development of America's first atom bomb.

Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies willingly provided whatever the British government wanted, with no questions asked. He gave permission for the tests without even consulting his cabinet ministers, let alone parliament. Responding to a parliamentary question in 1953, he declared that the tests would produce 'no conceivable injury to life, limb or property' and that they were essential to the 'defence of the free world'.

One result of the tests was an amendment to the McMahon Act, which enabled Britain to obtain access to testing sites in Nevada.  'Small' tests, codenamed Vixen, continued at Maralinga. These trials have left almost 24 kilos of plutonium, with a half-life of 24,000 years, scattered around a huge area.

One test in 1953 precipitated a poisonous cloud trailing fine, sticky dust that drifted over Aborigines living around Wallatinna and Wellbourne Hill stations. The cloud's smell made people vomit. It was so concentrated that air force crews could locate it visually at night. Various illnesses ensued. Officials later noted that predictions had underestimated the bomb's contamination by a factor of three and its power by a factor of two.

In 1957, Charlie and Edie Milpuddie and their two children strayed into a bomb crater before a decontamination team found them. The father and son registered as radioactive. The mother and daughter were not checked. They were simply showered in the team's caravan, put in a jeep and driven 200km away. The Australian Minister of Supply ordered their hunting dogs shot, as they had not been decontaminated. Edie Milpuddie was pregnant. At Yalata, she gave birth to a dead child. Her next child was born four years later, and died aged two, of a brain tumour. No follow up medical checks were performed on the family until 1985, 24 years later. By that time, Charlie Milpuddie was dead.

Facing mounting evidence of harm to servicemen and Aborigines, as well as long-term contamination of wide areas, the Australian Labour government established a limited Royal Commission in 1985, but even its recommendations for decontamination of test sites and some compensation for radioactivity victims were largely ignored by successive Australian and British governments.

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