Atomic Totem: Australian Settler Nuclearism, the Disavowal of Aboriginality and Morbid Reconciliation

  • Annelise Roberts (Author)


Although the actual welfare of nearby Aṉangu populations was so clearly disregarded throughout the period of British nuclear testing in South Australia in the 1950s and 60s, curiously, the aesthetics of the nuclear testing project itself were awash with Aboriginal-derived symbolism, imagery, and language. From the names of testing sites and operations, to the declaration by a member of the surveying crew to the media that a mushroom cloud was “a perfect portrait of a myall blackfeller written with atomic dust,” the nuclear testing was repeatedly associated with Aboriginality. This was not a practice unique to Australia; as Jessica Hurley notes, other nuclear-armed nations shared this “compulsion to name nuclear laboratories and technologies after [Indigenous] nations, practices and spaces” (2018, 97). In this essay, I draw on a range of textual sources—a memoir by government surveyor and raconteur Len Beadell, as well as less traditionally ‘literary’ texts (such as place-naming practices)—to examine the ways in which this appropriative act points to a complex process of disavowal that takes place in the settler imaginary. Focusing on the mid-century Australian context, I find that where the existential anxieties of the nuclear age meet the unconfronted violence and dispossession of colonialism, confused and uncanny visions arise; partial acknowledgements of the primacy of First Nations’ claims to country arise in the moment at which all the possibilities of nuclearism—megadeath, the new atomic potential for massive violence and destruction—are also present. In this field, a strange and morbid vision of settler/Indigenous reconciliation emerges from the settler cultural imaginary.


British nuclear testing in Australia, disavowal, totemism, nuclearism, settler imaginary, reconciliation