Journeys in atomic wonderland

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In 1980, the prizes at my school speech night were awarded by the eminent nuclear physicist, Sir Ernest Titterton. ‘On these occasions I like to use the opportunity to say positive things rather than the usual generalities’, Titterton wrote to the school’s principal some months before the event. 1 Titterton was, of course, well known as one of the country’s most outspoken advocates of nuclear energy, so it came as no surprise that his speech argued for the necessity of nuclear power to take over from dwindling fossil fuel reserves. Alternative sources of energy were ‘unproved’, he maintained, and in any case, ‘governments planning the future of nations cannot gamble on possibilities, they must bank on certainties’. 2 I was annoyed, but not brave enough to wear my ‘solar not nuclear’ badge. I shook his hand, and took my prize.

It would be convenient to imagine that my encounter with Ernest Titterton represented a turning point in my life, that the journey begun that day ends now on these pages, with these words. Certainly Titterton inspired my first interest in the Atomic Age. In 1982, Adrian Tame and Rob Robotham published Maralinga: British A-bomb, Australian legacy, the first detailed study of the British atomic tests held in Australia between 1952 and 1957. 3 Titterton figures prominently as a member of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, confidently assuring the Australian public that no harm could come from such important undertakings. As the media began to examine the tests’ effects upon the health of servicemen and Aboriginal people, I wondered again about Titterton’s ‘certainties’.

For my honours thesis, I decided to investigate further the participation of ‘Australian’ scientists in the British atomic tests. 4 I travelled to the Australian National University to interview Titterton, who urged me to make it clear that the tests were completely safe. That same year a Royal Commission was established to make its own assessment of the test program and its consequences. 5 Titterton was singled out for criticism. 6 My thesis, which argued that the participation of Australian scientists was determined more by international politics than any concern for safety, was eventually submitted as evidence and remains amongst the Commission’s records. 7

Years later, working as an archivist, I found myself helping to catalogue Titterton’s papers for deposit in the Basser Library at the Australian Academy of Science. 8 The collection included both his address at my school’s speech night and correspondence concerning my interview with him. I could not escape, it seemed—I was a part of Titterton’s story and he was a part of mine.

In retrospect I can trace back to the handshake a thread of interest, anger and guilt. I can find in my own work a preoccupation with Titterton’s sense of certainty. I can imagine that brief moment on stage as a starting point from which this project developed. I can create for myself a story of steady progress, from then until now. But the project, as I conceived it originally, would have yielded something rather different to this. The journey between then and now has seen many changes in course, many dead ends, many new beginnings. Just as we create progress out of roads and turning points, so we give our own lives meaning through a series of imagined journeys. This thesis was not implicit in the Titterton handshake, what followed was not some inexorable march towards fulfillment. It has been a fitful and fractious beast, only barely known through the discipline of setting words upon paper. My own progress is to be found not only in the pages that follow, but in what is missing, what is silent, what is unexamined—in the paths not taken.

And yet, in setting this down, in constructing this thesis, I am narrating a journey for others to follow—a journey complete with its own sense of movement, its own set of signposts and distances. Retaining within this account a sense of what is missing, of paths not taken, of choices unarticulated, of voices fragmented and fading, constitutes a challenge both for writer and reader. Perhaps there are hidden signposts, hints and cheats for the canny player. Maybe there is a feeling that something is going on behind the scenes; a suggestion that the reader is being manipulated, or disorientated. This is, after all, a journey through ‘Atomic wonderland’, where nothing is quite as it seems. Alice’s looking glass provided a reflection of reality and an opening into another world—similarly readers are invited to see through this narrative, to find their own ways home.

Near the centre of Woomera is a park like no other in Australia. Instead of barbeques and picnic tables, there are missiles and aircraft, some poised as if in flight. This is, of course, a tribute to the town’s history, for here, amidst barren desert plains some 500km north of Adelaide, Australia provided the testing ground for Britain’s postwar rocket program. Woomera was established in 1947 as the ‘centre of a vast top-secret scientific enterprise’ designed to keep the Empire from lagging behind in the race for ever more deadly weapons. 9 More recently, Woomera has become known as the site of a controversial refugee detention centre. For more than fifty years the town has been home to secrets and suspicion, a place where knowledge and movement have been controlled by fences, warning signs, and guards.

I first visited the missile park in 1987 and found it oddly appropriate. In that isolated location were gathered around many reminders of Australia’s atomic escapades. To the west were Emu Field and Maralinga, the sites of nine British atomic tests between 1953 and 1958. To the north, a massive uranium mine was being developed at Roxby Downs. Parked at the shopping centre were US military personnel from nearby Nurrangar, a top secret satellite ground station involved in the gathering of electronic intelligence and the early warning of nuclear attack. And I was on my way to protest at the gates of Pine Gap, another US intelligence facility near Alice Springs. 10 Here in the middle of all this were the rockets, sleek and brightly painted, frozen in time like a diorama of Cold War ambitions, looking more than anything like a wonderfully exciting children’s playground.

A turning point? Unfortunately, there was no epiphany on the road to Pine Gap, no sudden moment of clarity. I had been struggling with aspects of Australia’s nuclear history for some time, and Woomera brought confirmation rather than revelation. The visit did, however, provide a strong sense of presence. There was more to the story than super-power machinations, more than the intricacies of defence planning and policy—something happened here, in this place, in Australia. No turning point perhaps, but I was moved and disturbed.

Against the imagined distances we can explore the experience of proximity. Against the onslaught of the new we can hear echoes of familiarity. Against the power of inevitability we can pursue the possibilities of irony. The Woomera missile park joins Phyllis at the crossroads as images of ‘Atomic wonderland’. Both invite us to ponder their complexities and contradictions, their humour and their horror, their strangeness and reassurance. And they both remind us to be wary of the restricted areas beyond.

‘The story of the atom is told in such a simple way that it is easily understandable to a child’, Phyllis offers reassuringly.


  1. Letter from EW Titterton to AMH Aikman (Principal, Haileybury College), 17 September 1980, Titterton papers, Basser Library: MS168, 3/8.
  2. EW Titterton, ‘Education, standard of living and energy’, address given at Haileybury College speech night, 9 December 1980, Titterton papers, Basser Library: MS168, 4/81.
  3. Adrian Tame, and FPJ Robotham, Maralinga: British A-bomb, Australian legacy, Fontana/Collins, Melbourne, 1982.
  4. Titterton attended the tests as an Australian representative, though he had only arrived from Britain in 1950. The question of his allegiance is examined in Tim Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience: Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons test, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1985, pp. 137-52. See also: Tim Sherratt, ‘Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons tests’, in Robyn Williams (ed.), Science Show II, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 216-9; Robert Milliken, No conceivable injury: the story of Britain and Australia’s atomic cover-up, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986, ch. 3.
  5. Some of the background and proceedings of the Royal Commission are described in Milliken, No conceivable injury. See also, The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, 2 vols, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1985.
  6. The Royal Commission concluded that ‘Titterton played a political as well as a safety role in the testing program’, The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, vol. 2, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1985, p. 526.
  7. ‘Document – A political inconvenience: Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons tests 1952-3: Sherratt – 1984 – University of Melbourne – Presented 26/7/85 at Sydney’, NAA: A6455, RC591.
  8. Basser Library: MS168. See Rosanne Clayton, Anne-Marie-Conde, Mo Yimei and Tim Sherratt, Guide to the records of Ernest William Titterton, <>.
  9. Herald, 15 March 1952, p. 13. For a history of the Woomera rocket range see Peter Morton, Fire across the desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946-1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1989.
  10. The history and functions of Pine Gap and Nurrangar are described in Desmond Ball, A suitable piece of real estate: American installations in Australia, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1980, ch. 5.

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