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The world’s most deadly weapons were tested in this outback town – here’s why I visited it

I’m Joey Watson. For my new podcast, Secrets We Keep: Nest of Traitors, I travelled 15 hours to a secretive outback town. The podcast chronicles my three-year hunt for the spy who betrayed Australia.

During the Cold War, while the world was on the brink of nuclear war – an Australian spy turned to work for the enemy. They became a mole for the Soviet Union’s spy agency – the KGB.

In my investigation, I learnt that the KGB may have sent some of their best spies to Australia to target ASIO and recruit a mole.

I wanted to know why the KGB were so interested in Australia.

My inquiries led me to a tiny outback town six hours north of Adelaide. It’s called Woomera, built to house rocket scientists and soldiers.

They were working on the biggest weapons testing range in the Western world: the Woomera Prohibited Area.

From the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, both the West and the Soviet Union were doing everything they could to ensure that their weapons were more destructive than the other side.

When I visited Woomera, I met Russell Squire, a senior facilities manager, who told me about the town’s history.

“If you dig right into it, it is the old, you know, the sake of humanity was on the line,” Squires told me. “And it’s that whole nuclear deterrent thing that, you know, I got a big stick and, if you use yours, I’ll use mine.”

The area has a fascinating history. In 1947, an area larger than the UK was sectioned off to test missiles that would help defend Britain. Between 1953 and 1957, in the far reaches of the Woomera Prohibited Area, nuclear weapons were also tested – leaving an intergenerational legacy of contamination and destruction.

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In 1967, about 15 drive minutes south of Woomera, America built structures resembling giant golf balls at a facility they called Nurrungar. These ‘Raydomes’ communicated with US satellites to track missiles launched around the world.

“It needed to be on this side of the world to monitor defence satellites,” Squires says.

“These are the satellites that are sitting up there watching to see when launches occur.”

The experiments in the Woomera Prohibited Area made Australia a target for KGB spies.

The Soviets likely wanted to know about these weapons so they could counter them or steal the technology and make their own.

Woomera helped cement Australia’s place in a global intelligence network known as the five eyes– the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

This network still exists, and Woomera is still an active testing range.

“There’s a lot that goes on out here,” Squires says.

“And that whole secrecy thing is for a reason, you know like we’re trying to one-up the other guy, whoever that one other guy might be these days.”  

Listen to Secrets We Keep: Nest Of Traitors to hear Joey’s journey to track down an Australian Spy who was turned and worked for the enemy. You can hear it on the Listnr app or wherever you get your podcasts.