Unusual secrecy around 1950s nuclear testing
Between 1952 and 1957, Britain tested 12 nuclear weapons in Australia – on the Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast, and at Maralinga and Emu Fields in the South Australian outback. The tests were hurried, incautious and showed extraordinary disregard for Australian assistance and the local Indigenous people who had been forcibly but imperfectly evacuated from their land.
“It was a clusterfuck,” says Elizabeth Tynan, an Australian historian, and the award-winning author of Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story. “The disregard was partly driven by the fact they were in a rush. They cut corners. They did it on the cheap – and it showed. They had very little regard for safety. Cavalier. They knew about the risks. There were international protocols. Many were disregarded. I met one man, he was a technician with the British effort in Australia, and he said of Indigenous Australians that they were ‘nothing to do with us – it was the Australian government’s responsibility’.”
For Susanne Roff growing up in Melbourne in the 1950s was uneventful. But later, living in Scotland with her husband, William Roff, an eminent historian, she developed a dogged, almost obsessive interest in this chapter of British history that remains cloaked in secrecy.
Once a month, Roff takes the train south from her home in a Scottish fishing village – to archives in London, Birmingham and Cambridge. She’s still looking for answers. “Why was the purportedly Australia-controlled Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee so ineffective?” she asks. “Why was the UK able to continue testing at Maralinga until barely six weeks before opening of the 1956 Olympics despite the known hazards to east coast populations? Why didn’t [Sir Mark] Oliphant ever speak out against the tests and contamination, including when he was governor of South Australia?”
Late last year, Roff had another question: Why, more than 60 years after the last nuclear test in Australia, had the British government suddenly vanished previously declassified documents about the tests from its national archives? Roff wasn’t alone in her surprise. The Campaign for Freedom of Information, a British not-for-profit organisation, described it as worrying.
All that was certain was that the files had been removed on the order of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
“The secrecy is arguably even worse today,” Tynan tells me. She is working on a second book about the British tests. “British service personnel have run into brick walls at every turn [in seeking compensation and acknowledgement]. One of the clues to the attitude of the British government is that it has not really ever properly acknowledged what they did. They were nuclear colonialists and they buggered up a part of our country. One former British personnel I met burst into tears when he thought about how Britain had never said sorry. The secrecy … seems incomprehensible. They continue to be secretive.”
But not all documents are closeted. Susanne Roff has some, which she shared with me – British intelligence files on Dr Eric Burhop, an Australian physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project, which ran from 1939 to 1946.
Burhop was a brilliant Tasmanian who immigrated to Britain in the 1930s. After the war, he was deeply involved in the Pugwash movement – an organisation of scholars and public thinkers devoted to reducing the threat of nuclear war.
But of his work on the bomb, Burhop would explain in 1970: “[It was] entirely justified at the time, because the discovery of nuclear fission was a German discovery and it appeared very likely that German physicists would be developing nuclear weapons, and one knew that if the Nazis were to obtain this weapon, it would have a decisive influence on the war and Hitler would have no inhibitions about how to use the weapon. During our work on the Manhattan Project, many of the atomic scientists there used to discuss the implications of the work being done. As a result, a report – known as the Franck Report – strongly counselled that these weapons should not be used during war. It advised that a demonstration should be given before the use of these weapons. Many of us felt that having played a part in developing nuclear weapons, we had a duty and responsibility to ensure that they never be used again. That the great mass of people understood the implications of the development of these weapons. I myself have devoted most of spare time activities for this purpose.”
Darren Holden, who is finalising his doctoral thesis on nuclear history at the University of Notre Dame, recognises the conundrum the scientists faced. “The scientists were in a field that was as esoteric as you could imagine… This was a non-utilitarian pursuit – a study of nature,” he says. “Then in 1939, with the discovery of nuclear fission, that started to change. Atomic energy could become a reality. The scientists had to move very rapidly from a very esoteric field to something of utility. But even up until [the first test], they were taking bets about whether it would work. Some said it could be a fizzer, others thought it could ignite the atmosphere and vaporise New Mexico.”
Justifying the actions of the Manhattan Project’s science, Holden adds, is far more complicated. “The question of guilt is an interesting one,” he says. “Those scientists were excluded from serving in uniform. On the Manhattan Project they could come or go as they liked. But only one stopped on moral grounds – [Joseph] Rotblat. Everyone else stayed at it. In May 1945, the Germans surrendered and Hitler died, but the scientists didn’t down their tools. They debated targets in committees.
“Manhattan Project was an extraordinary gathering of scientific minds with an unlimited budget. There was probably cognitive dissonance. They could separate themselves from the ultimate goal. It was too big an opportunity to let pass. After the war though, the thought that scientists regretted their role in that is not clear. Oliphant joined the peace movement, worked on Pugwash, but he always spoke of the achievements and camaraderie of the Manhattan Project.”
If Britain thought their special relationship with the United States would extend to them sharing their nuclear designs, they were wrong. After the war ended, alarmed by the exposure of British Communist spies – and presumed British laxness – the US passed legislation outlawing such collaboration. If the British wanted the bomb, they’d have to develop and test it themselves.
“They were desperate,” Elizabeth Tynan says. “The Soviets were already testing. They’d looked all over the world [for testing sites], throughout the former colonies. With Australia – [then prime minister] Menzies’ likely amenability was one factor. But there were wide open spaces. It was a peaceful, developed nation – there were military facilities.”
Robert Menzies agreed to the testing immediately, without bothering to consult cabinet. For a time, only three people in the country knew of the agreement: the prime minister, treasurer and defence minister. He asked few questions of the British. “But it wasn’t pure patriotic sycophancy,” Tynan says of Menzies’ decision. “The pragmatic response was: vast reserves of uranium in Australia. It’s central to weaponry and power. It was completely valueless until the Manhattan Project. Then it became a valuable commodity. Australia had a lot of it. That was a very significant part of his reasoning. The other thing that would’ve informed Menzies’ thinking was that he was anxious to ensure Britain and America would protect Australia.”
They were also without the counsel of the Australians who had worked on the American tests – notably, Mark Oliphant and Eric Burhop. Both Susanne Roff and Elizabeth Tynan agree Oliphant would have been a strong head of the safety authority, which was otherwise feckless.
Both men were long suspected of being Communist spies, and may have been excluded to mollify US doubts about British security. The files on Burhop that I’ve seen are voluminous. The FBI, MI5 and ASIO all had records on him. In England and America, he was aggressively surveilled. His phone was tapped. Even Joseph Rotblat had his doubts about his former colleague. The British intelligence historian Andrew Brown has written: “Rotblat remained convinced that Burhop and other left-wing scientists … opposed the [proposed nuclear] moratorium not for their stated reasons but because it would perpetuate the USA’s monopoly and place the USSR at a dangerous disadvantage.”
Burhop died in London in 1980, having effectively been blacklisted from Australia. Last month, when CNN examined the life of Burhop – using the same files I’ve seen – his surviving children were appalled at the suggestion he had collaborated with the Soviets. Darren Holden remains unconvinced himself. “I don’t believe that Burhop was a spy, no,” he tells me. “Many had left-leaning tendencies. ASIO had investigated Oliphant, for instance. They believed he had brought a team of spies from Birmingham University to the ANU. They were left-leaning fellow travellers. But that’s not particularly unusual. They’d joined the Communist Party because it was anti-Fascist. The 1954 royal commission into espionage called several scientists to the stand. Many scientists were investigated or surveilled. But no, I don’t believe that either Burhop or Oliphant were spies. But the only way you’ll ever find out is in the Soviet archives.”
Holden says something interesting happened after World War II ended: the trope of the scientist was recast. The “Scientist” was transformed from brilliant aid to the war effort to reckless Victor Frankenstein. But what most of them wanted, Holden says, was open discovery, transnationalism, common scientific pursuit – something the secrecy of the Cold War couldn’t permit.
In 1984, Australia held a royal commission into the British tests. It found a litany of negligence and cover-ups. “Britain had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to it,” Elizabeth Tynan says. Today, their attitude is much the same. In 2015, Fiji – frustrated by Britain’s refusal to compensate its people who suffered radiation poisoning during the Pacific tests – declared it would compensate citizens itself. “We are bringing justice to a brave and proud group of Fijians to whom a great injustice was done,” Fiji’s prime minister said. “Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing.”
Meanwhile, in Britain’s national archives, the nuclear files are still gone. “The UK government has always [downplayed] risks to the servicemen who took part in the tests, the Aboriginal community in the immediate vicinity of them, and the general population downwind … as well as possible genetic effects on subsequent generations,” Susanne Roff says. “We see similar responses in relation to Fukushima in Japan. All the operational and scientific documents relating to the Australian tests that have been on open access in the National Archives have suddenly gone walkabout. We can but wonder why the world’s third atomic and thermonuclear power has suddenly become so nervous about events that happened decades ago.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Testing times". Subscribe here.