The highest scientific authority in Australia

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‘IT’S TURNED BACK!’, exclaimed the headline above a dramatic photograph of the mushroom cloud from the recent atomic bomb test in the Monte Bello Islands. On 21 June 1956, the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘deadly cloud’ had not dissipated harmlessly over the Indian Ocean as expected, instead it was believed to have ‘drifted eastward across northern Australia’. 1 A series of unusual events along the north-west coast had alerted journalists to the fact that the test had not gone wholly to plan. Strange flights by radiological monitoring aircraft, the appearance of air crew wearing protective film badges, and the banning of flights by civil aircraft, all added to the impression that there was ‘a “big flap” going on about the whereabouts of the atomic cloud’. 2 Suspicions that westerly winds had blown the cloud inland seemed confirmed when Mr S Stubbs, from the Comet Mine in Marble Bar, reported that after a brief shower of rain his trusty geiger counter had given an air reading of 500, compared to the usual 15. Questions about the cloud’s location had ‘caused a stir among experts and the general public’, the Age noted, ‘but officials remain silent’. 3

Once the officials started talking, the situation became even more confusing. Howard Beale, the Minister for Supply, was entertaining a group of newspaper editors at Woomera when rumours that something had gone wrong at Monte Bello began to circulate. 4 Beale’s carefully planned attempt to garner media support ahead of the first series of tests at the new Maralinga range in September seemed in danger of falling apart. 5 Fortunately, an enterprising underling closed the Woomera telephone exchange, cutting the journalists off from the outside world while Beale patched together a statement. Unable to contact the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee (AWSTC) for information, Beale drew upon data supplied by the Bureau of Meteorology to inform the agitated press representatives that there was ‘no cause for alarm’. 6 He explained that lower level winds had carried most of radioactive debris out to sea, however, at upper levels ‘some cloud containing minute particles has drifted inland, although it is now tending to drift back towards the coast’. 7 The cloud, it seemed, was neither in nor out.

A grumpy Artie Fadden, the acting Prime Minister, was woken at 3.20am the following morning by an intelligence officer with a report from the AWTSC. 8 He informed parliament later that day that the ‘distinguished scientists’ who served on the committee had assured him that ‘the whole operation was carried out without any risk to life or property on the mainland or elsewhere’. Beale had also managed to contact the scientists and was able to confirm that firing conditions were ‘ideal’. ‘The path of the cloud was followed by plane’, he added, ‘and last night the cloud was over the sea 100 miles off the north-west coast of Australia’. 9 The cloud had moved once again and was now exactly where it was supposed to have been all along.

The government’s pronouncements would have been more convincing were it not for the boom in uranium mining. Like Mr Stubbs in Marble Bar, prospectors searching for the next Rum Jungle or Mary Kathleen used their Geiger counters to test for the spread of radioactive debris. Three days after the blast, Jack Tunney in Kuridala, a small rail centre in north-west Queensland, gained a reading of 2000 from the rain as it fell from his roof. 10 Asked for an opinion, Mark Oliphant declared that ‘there did not appear to be any danger’ as the levels of radioactivity were still quite low. 11 HC Webster, the professor of physics at the University of Queensland, was less sure. He advised against drinking the water, and suggested any one caught in the rain should take a bath as soon as possible. ‘If any of our laboratories developed radioactivity as high as Mr Tunney claims’, Webster added, ‘we would be quite concerned’. 12 The residents of nearby Cloncurry, meanwhile, were ‘all praying for fine weather’. 13

The following week Fadden received a more detailed report from the AWTSC, and declared once again that the Monte Bello test had been carried out ‘without risk to life or property’. ‘This assurance’, Fadden explained, ‘has been firmly given to me by the members of the Safety Committee, who are the only persons in a position to judge’. Furthermore, the report confirmed that there was ‘no evidence that the cloud…crossed the Australian coast at any time’. Reports of radioactive rainfall were due to ‘light particles’ that ‘diffused in all directions’ and were ‘carried by the wind at high altitudes like a thick cloud of gas’. Previous tests had shown that such particles travelled around the world in a easterly direction until washed down by rain, but they posed no risk to health. 14 In any case, the Safety Committee insisted, ‘quotations of counting rates of radio-activity were quite meaningless unless the experiment was controlled by scientists’. 15

It was important to know which way the wind was blowing. In October 1953 after the first atomic bomb test at Emu Field, Prime Minister Menzies was questioned on reports that radioactive particles had been detected over Canberra, borne on the winds from the test site in South Australia. ‘I am not an authority on meteorology’, Menzies replied, but ‘the political wind…has been blowing from the Government side to the Opposition side for a long time’. ‘Unfortunately’, he added, ‘it appears to have carried no radio-active particles’. 16 By 1956, however, the wind was beginning to shift. A government memo surveying public attitudes towards the test program noted that ‘a very definite change occurred’ in 1954. 17 The American H-bomb explosion at Bikini in that year was not only larger than expected, it also showered the crew of a Japanese fishing boat with radioactive ash. The world watched their struggle against radiation sickness with horror. One of them died. 18 Opposition to the British atomic tests grew as Australians learnt the dangers of fallout.

The NSW civil defence chief arrived home from an overseas briefing in 1955, emphasising ‘the need to get our meteorological experts together to give special study to the behaviour of winds at varying altitudes’. ‘It is these winds’, he continued, ‘that move “fall out” material across incredible distances’. 19 While there seemed to be no direct means of combatting the invisible threat of fallout, meteorology could help to measure, and perhaps control, the dangers.

The crucial importance of meteorological expertise was stressed in preparations for the atomic tests at Monte Bello and Maralinga in 1956. In February, the government announced that a new weather station was to be established in the far western desert, enabling scientists ‘to obtain the most detailed and accurate meteorological information prior to authorising any tests to be carried out’. The knowledge gained would also be useful, it was claimed, in understanding the continent’s high speed, high altitude winds and in ‘tracing the movement of potential rain producing air masses’. 20 In fact, early drafts of this press release stressed the station’s general benefits to Australia so strongly that British authorities began to wonder why they were paying for it. They offered the Australian government the choice of kicking in some funds or toning down the statement. 21 They chose the latter.

Another press release described how the Bureau of Meteorology was ‘linking up a vast network of hundreds of reporting stations’ across the region, to gather the data necessary for an accurate forecast of conditions in the Monte Bello Islands. Once technical preparations for the tests were complete, it was up to the meteorologists to satisfy the Safety Committee and the British controllers that suitable conditions ‘will persist for a long enough time to ensure that the “cloud” formed by the explosion of the weapon will drift out over the sea and diffuse harmlessly into the atmosphere’. 22 Australia’s safety was guaranteed by the forecasting skill of the meteorologists and the scientific integrity of the Safety Committee.

The Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee was established by the Australian government in July 1955 as plans proceeded for development of the permanent testing range at Maralinga. 23 The task of the ‘eminent scientists’ who comprised its membership was ‘to ensure no person, livestock, or other property’ would ‘suffer injury or damage as a result of atomic weapons tests’. 24 As government statements repeated reassuringly, no test could proceed unless the committee was convinced that it was safe to do so. ‘Australia’s decision is final’, agreed William Penney, the British scientist in change of the bomb project, at a press conference organised to help calm growing Australian nervousness. 25

Five scientists were initially appointed to the Safety Committee, including Titterton, Leslie Martin, and Alan Butement, chief scientist with the Australian Department of Supply. These three had attended the atomic tests at Monte Bello in 1952 and Emu Field in 1953, though purely as observers, with no formal agreement as to their status or participation. 26 The Safety Committee replaced such ad hoc arrangements, and gave Australia an independent voice in the management of the test program. Menzies approved the nominations to the committee, noting that it ‘must include members who are sufficiently well known to command confidence as guardians of the public interest’. 27 Thereafter any doubts as to the safety of the tests could be dispelled by invoking ‘the highest scientific authority in Australia’, ‘scientific men of high repute and of great patriotism, with a great sense of responsibility and a great scientific knowledge’. 28 Indeed, such was their authority and expertise, that Beale could proclaim their retrospective influence. Shortly after the committee’s formation, he announced the test program for 1956, explaining that firing would only take place once the Safety Committee, ‘consisting of eminent Australian scientists’, had given their approval—’as in earlier tests’. 29

But as the cloud from the Monte Bello test set off upon its mysterious journey, the value of such assurances began to be questioned. ‘The soothing impression was originally given…that a ‘vast network’ of meteorological stations would be set up to ensure there was no possibility of a radio-active cloud drifting over Australia’, noted the Sydney Morning Herald, yet now it seemed there was ‘no such guarantee’. 30 The Age accepted that there was little risk to life or property, but thought it was a mistake ‘to declare with certitude things that cannot be positively known’. ‘However well-based pre-detonation weather reports’, it remarked, ‘much greater advances in meteorology may be necessary before wind strengths at varying heights and their direction can be predicted with accuracy’. 31 The vagueries of wind and weather might yet thwart the predictive power of science.

The winds around the Monte Bello islands were notoriously unreliable. When the British assessed the site prior to the first atomic test in 1952, they concluded that suitable weather conditions were only likely in October. And yet in 1956, they planned explosions for May and June. The timing was determined not by safety, but by the desire to push ahead quickly with development of the H-bomb. At that time of year, winds were predominately from the west and would thus carry fallout directly over the mainland. What was needed was a change, a pause in the prevailing westerlies. A Bureau of Meteorology report concluded that over a period of three months there was only likely to be one day on which conditions would be suitable for firing. 32 Adding to the difficulty was a lack of detailed knowledge about the interaction of wind and cloud. Whatever the conditions results could be difficult to predict, particularly since British restrictions on information forced the Safety Committee to make its calculations without precise details of the bombs themselves. 33

The Safety Committee confidently asserted that firing conditions for the second Monte Bello test were ‘ideal’, even as Geiger counters across northern Australia began to scream in denial. Given the difficulties in predicting the spread of radioactive debris, the possibility of ‘ideal conditions’ was a convenient fiction that could only be maintained by the creation of an ideal cloud. Instead of delving into the complexities of cloud formation and wind shear, the committee reserved the label ‘cloud’ for those particles that behaved themselves appropriately by drifting out to sea, while the upper-level particles that headed off towards the mainland were dismissed as an inconsequential side-effect. The certainty with which they pronounced upon the test and its aftermath, masked the difficulties of prediction, the limits of their knowledge, and the political sensitivity of their role.

The Safety Committee was presented as an assertion of Australian sovereignty, a guarantee of safety. It served to reassure a public that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Britain’s bombs going off in the backyard. Members of the committee ‘appreciated the need for indoctrination of the public’ and actively contributed to the government’s publicity strategy. 34 Titterton was particularly prominent, publishing a series of press articles that explained the need for the tests, and precautions surrounding them. 35 But how compatible were the demands of reassurance and safety? How independent were the members of the committee? Titterton, Martin and Butement all had strong links with the defence establishment. Titterton had played a significant role in the development of the bomb itself, and had worked closely with many of the scientists on the British team. 36 His allegiance would, in later years, receive careful scrutiny. The British authorities begrudgingly accepted the Safety Committee as part of the price for blowing up bits of Australia, but bound by the insecurities of global politics they provided only a condescending trickle of useful data. While the Australian government claimed the committee could veto any firing in the interests of the nation’s safety, no-one, it seemed, bothered to tell the British officer in charge of the Monte Bello tests. 37 And yet, despite this background of compromise, divided loyalties, and political manoeuvering, the Safety Committee sought to gather a worried populace into the soothing embrace of certainty.

‘A cloud has been hanging over Australia this week’, observed the Courier Mail, not the cloud from Monte Bello, but ‘a cloud of anxiety and uncertainty; the sort of cloud that sometimes rains panic’. The Australian people, the newspaper argued, generally accepted the need for the tests and the government’s assurance of safety. What made them nervous was the feeling that information was being withheld. If their support was to be maintained ‘they must be given more knowledge, not less’. 38 The Age agreed, noting that there was ‘a great danger of unnecessary fear being created through the establishment of an “iron curtain”…surrounding these tests’. Scientists might be ‘fully confident of safety to the point of certainty’, it argued, ‘but it is asking a good deal of human nature to expect the layman to share their confidence without question’. The people needed to be ‘clearly informed’ of the ‘extent of meteorological knowledge’ and the ‘possibilities of “fall-out” drifting across the continent’. They needed to be told what levels of radioactivity were dangerous, and how these dangers might accumulate. 39 Instead of dispensing a ‘smooth confidence that glosses over unknown factors’, authorities had to trust the public with enough information to build their own judgements. 40

How is trust gained and kept? The Safety Committee preached certainty from the heights of scientific authority. They had access to special knowledge and skills, their judgements were informed by a depth of understanding and experience, they were the ‘only persons in a position to judge’. And yet, all it took was a recalcitrant cloud and few Geiger counters to seed public trust with the beginnings of doubt. As the radioactive dust settled across the continent, authorities in Britain and Australia wondered whether more effort should have been expended upon education, rather than reassurance. But could a public prone to irrational fancies be trusted with the reality of radioactive contamination? The Safety Committee had no doubt that the risks from the atomic tests were negligible, its task was not simply to protect Australians from fallout, but to protect them from their own fears.



Notes:

  1. Daily Telegraph, 21 June 1956, p. 1.
  2. Adelaide Advertiser, 21 June 1956, p. 1. See also: Age, 21 June 1956, p. 1; Courier-Mail, 21 June 1956, p. 1.
  3. Age, 21 June 1956, p. 1.
  4. Howard Beale, This inch of time: memoirs of politics and diplomacy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1977, pp. 82-3.
  5. A cable from the Department of Supply describing the planned visit noted that ‘public opinion in Australia is adverse to atomic tests’ and that ‘opportunities should be taken to educate the public and acquire a sympathy with future tests’, 14 May 1956, NAA: R6456/3, R030/080.
  6. Adelaide Advertiser, 21 June 1956, p. 1. See also Milliken, No conceivable injury, pp. 198-9.
  7. Adelaide Advertiser, 21 June 1956, p. 1; Daily Telegraph, 21 June 1956, p. 1.
  8. ‘A wake-up on atoms’, Adelaide Advertiser, 22 June 1956, p. 1.
  9. Adelaide Advertiser, 22 June 1956, p. 1; Age, 22 June 1956, p. 3.
  10. Courier-Mail, 23 June 1956, p. 1; Age, 23 June 1956, p. 1; Daily Telegraph, 23 June 1956, p. 1.
  11. Courier-Mail, 23 June 1956, p. 1.
  12. Courier-Mail, 23 June 1956, p. 1 & 3; Age, 23 June 1956, p. 1; Daily Telegraph, 23 June 1956, p. 1.
  13. Courier-Mail, 23 June 1956, p. 3
  14. ‘No risk to life from last week’s big blast’, Courier-Mail, 26 June 1956, p. 5.
  15. ‘Counting could be meaningless’, Courier-Mail, 26 June 1956, p. 5.
  16. CPD, vol. HofR 1, 20 October 1953, p. 1548.
  17. ‘Press reaction to atomic trials’, undated (1956), NAA: A6456/3, R047/011
  18. Their story is told in Ralph E Lapp, The voyage of the Lucky Dragon, Shakespeare head, London, 1958.
  19. SMH, 24 December 1955, p.5
  20. ‘Proposed announcement by the Australian Minister for Supply concerning desert meteorological station in connection with Buffalo’, undated (1956), NAA: A6456/3, R030/72. See also Age, 11 February 1956.
  21. Memo from FA O’Connor (Secretary, Supply) for Minister of Supply, undated (1956), NAA: A6456/3, R030/72.
  22. ‘Meteorological services in atomic weapons tests’, press release, 15 February 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R209/4. See also Adelaide Advertiser, 16 February 1956, p. 1.
  23. Milliken, No conceivable injury, pp. 76-9; Lorna Arnold, A very special relationship: British atomic weapon trials in Australia, HMSO, London, 1987,pp. 30-1.
  24. ‘Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee – radiological background measurements’, 3 April 1956, NAA: R6456/3, R030/080.
  25. ‘Summary of statement made by Sir William Penney at joint press conference with the Minister for Supply, the Hon. Howard Beale, QC, MP, on the 14th August, 1956’, A6456/3, R030/074. For an outline of Penney’s role in the publicity effort see memo from Howard Beale (Minister for Supply) to Secretary (Department of Supply), 9 August 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R030/074.
  26. For the circumstances surrounding their attendance see Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience’.
  27. Quoted in Milliken, No conceivable injury, p. 78.
  28. CPD, vol HofR12, 1956, p. 903; CPD, vol, HofR15, 1957, p. 1110.
  29. ‘Plans for tests in 1956 at Monte Bello and Maralinga’, press release, 12 September 1955, NAA: A6456/3, R209/4. The 1984 Royal Commission into British Nuclear tests in Australia noted of this press release, ‘At best it was ill-informed, at worst it was dishonest’, The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, 2 vols., vol. 2, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1985, p. 480.
  30. SMH, 22 June 1956, p. 2.
  31. Age, 22 June 1956, p. 2.
  32. The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia , vol. 1, pp. 233-4.
  33. The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, 2 vols., vol. 2, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1985, pp. 478-84.
  34. AWTSC, minutes of 10th meeting, 28 July 1956, NAA: A6455/1, RC131 Pt 1.
  35. For example: ‘Some questions and answers on latest atom tests’, SMH, 15 May 1956, p. 2; ‘Why Australia is preferred as an atom testing site’, SMH, 16 May 1956, p. 2; ‘Tests of nuclear bombs – as a scientists sees them’, SMH, 24 April 1957, p. 2.
  36. Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience’, pp. 144-7; Millken, No conceivable injury, pp. 64-75
  37. The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, vol. 2, pp. 481-2.
  38. Courier Mail, 23 June 1956, p. 1.
  39. Age, 26 June 1956, p. 2.
  40. Age, 22 June 1956, p. 2.

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