“Yes, there is still radiation here,” Mr. Matthews said as he drove a minibus to the sites where the Australian and British governments dropped seven bombs between 1956 and 1963, which dotted the earth with huge craters and poisoned scores of Indigenous people and their descendants.
Back then, the government placed hundreds of human guinea pigs — wearing only shorts and long socks — in the front areas of the test zones. The effects of large doses of radiation were devastating.
The first nuclear test was conducted in September 1956, two months before the Melbourne Olympics. That blast — as powerful as the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan — was the first of seven atomic bombs set off here.
But it was the so-called minor tests that were the most harrowing. Carried out in secret, the tests examined how toxic substances, including uranium and plutonium 239, would react when burned or blown up. To ensure tourists’ safety in the area, a zone was cleaned up by radiation scientists at the cost of more than 100 million Australian dollars, about $77 million.
In early 1957, Edie Millpuddie and her family were traversing the Great Victoria Desert plains. “The Millpuddies needed shelter for the night, and they came across this enormous hole where the ground was still warm,” Mr. Mathews said. “They drank rainwater from the bottom and lit a fire. All the rabbits in the area seemed disoriented; they were easy pickings for dinner before the family went to sleep in the crater.”
Two weeks later, Ms. Millpuddie delivered a stillborn baby.
Later, her surviving children’s children would all be born with “physical and mental deformities,” Mr. Matthews said. “This all happened right where we’re standing.”
Survivors of the blasts, their children and grandchildren suffered from cataracts, blood diseases, arthritic conditions, stomach cancers and birth defects. In the 1980s, a Royal Commission investigating the tests awarded Ms. Millpuddie 75,000 Australian dollars.