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Cold War exhibition tries to airbrush Britain’s dark history of nuclear testing

A new exhibition about the Cold War recently opened at the UK National Archives at Kew in south-west London. Protect and Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed seeks to tell the story of how the years of high nuclear tensions affected the UK, from spy paranoia to civil defence posters to communications at the heart of government. Typical of any exhibition with a vast history at its disposal, curatorial choices have to be made. As the agency’s principal records specialist explains:

We came to the view that one half of the exhibition should be themed as a government bunker, and the other half should reflect the impact of the Cold War on the home, with a particular emphasis on how much the Cold War affected popular culture – whether pop music, literature, films, games and toys.

One consequence of this approach is that an extremely important facet of Britain’s Cold War has been almost entirely airbrushed from the story. There is barely anything in the exhibition about the 45 atomic and nuclear weapons detonations carried out by the British: 12 in Australia from 1952-57, nine in the central Pacific in 1957-58, and a further 24 alongside the Americans in the Nevada desert until as recently as 1991. The effects on the health of all this testing on indigenous people and some 22,000 British servicemen who were sent as observers is still being researched.

The Cold War exhibition includes three photos showing the atmospheric effect of the 1952 detonation off the Montebello Islands off north-western Australia. There is one additional picture of the hydrogen bomb that was exploded near Christmas Island in May 1957, the first of the central Pacific series, which persuaded the US to resume nuclear collaboration with the UK. And that’s about it. Worse, the exhibition includes a map of the global impact of the nuclear era in which the test locations in Australia are obscured by lettering – not least Maralinga, an important Aboriginal area in which seven detonations took place.

Files under review

My understanding is that decisions about the content of the exhibition were finalised late last year. Interestingly, this was around the same time as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the public body with ultimate responsibility for the UK’s nuclear legacy withdrew records from the National Archives relating to 1950s nuclear weapons tests that had been declassified decades ago, pending a “security review” by the Ministry of Defence and Atomic Weapons Establishment. Specialists in this field have long complained about the many files concerning British testing that have remained secret, which makes the withdrawal of declassified files all the more unsettling.

National Archives headquarters at Kew, London. diamond geezer, CC BY

The National Archives is advising anyone who wants access to these reclassified files to request them via a Freedom of Information application. However, Elizabeth Tynan – the author of Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, and winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2017 – tells me she was informed in March by the agency that the review had not been completed in relation to the records and “it is not clear at this stage how much longer” this would take. The reply continued:

We are however hopeful that many of the records will eventually be restored to public access and as soon as we have any information we will let you know. Please accept our apologies once again for the continued delay.

The NDA has said only that the purpose of the review is to “ensure that it is appropriate for the records to remain in the public domain,” and that “it is anticipated public access will be restored to the vast majority of documents”. According to one source, the NDA may be moving some of these records to northern Scotland.


British Pacific test, 1957. Tim Pruyn, CC BY-SA

The omissions at the London Cold War exhibition are a reminder about the UK’s low-key approach to its weapons testing history. The story doesn’t only need to be properly told at this exhibition, it needs a permanent public space. Yet no existing museum dedicated to Britain’s wars is interested in giving it house room – not even the records and memorabilia of all the military personnel sent to observe the tests. A number of years ago I was quietly told while walking down a corridor in one major institution not to offer it my own records because “they will end up in the skip”.

My years working in this field indicate to me that successive governments seem to want the story of British nuclear testing to die off naturally. But surely, at the very least, the point of the National Archives is to preserve the records to ensure that it is never allowed to be forgotten.

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