Antinuclear

Australian news, and some related international items

How Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and Sir Ernest Titterton sold us all out for British nuclear testing

Australian tolerance of the British and their obsessive secrecy may be explained by the deference and loyalty to the ‘motherland’. Prime Minister Menzies identified so strongly with Britain that he considered British national interest as Australia’s national interest.

Another factor which underlay Australian deference during the course of the testing program was the role of Sir Ernest Titterton.

The full legal and political implications of the testing program would take decades to emerge. The secrecy which surrounded the British testing program and the remoteness of the tests from major population centres meant that public opposition to the tests and awareness of the risks involved grew very slowly.

Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector / P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989 

“…..Admittedly, in the 1950s knowledge of radiation hazards was not as advanced as it is today. At the time it was not generally recognised that small doses of low level radiation might increase the risk of cancer years later. But even in the light of knowledge of the time, the information on which Menzies based his decisions was seriously deficient.

There seems little doubt that the secrecy in which the entire testing program was cloaked served British rather than Australian interests. From the outset, the British were under pressure to demonstrate to the Americans that they were able to keep secrets at all. Full disclosure of the hazards and potential costs to Australia entailed in the testing program were out of the question. Information passed to Australian officials was kept to the minimum necessary to facilitate their assistance in the conduct of the testing program. The use of plutonium in the minor trials was not disclosed.

Australian tolerance of the British and their obsessive secrecy may be explained by the deference and loyalty to the ‘motherland’. Prime Minister Menzies identified so strongly with Britain that he considered British national interest as Australia’s national interest. Although he was later to seek assurances that hazards inherent in the testing program would be minimal and that appropriate safeguards would protect the Australian public, his enduring faith in the British was to blunt his critical faculties.

It is perhaps illustrative that on the occasions chosen by Australian authorities to assert themselves on matters of policy, the issues of concern were purely symbolic. The Antler series of tests was renamed, after Australians objected to the proposed name ‘Volcano’ (Milliken 1986, p. 226). On another occasion, a detonation scheduled for a Sunday was postponed in deference to Australian sensibilities (Australia 1985, p. 287).

Another factor which underlay Australian deference during the course of the testing program was the role of Sir Ernest Titterton. A British physicist, Titterton had worked in the United States on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapon.

After the war, he held a position at the British Atomic Energy Research Establishment, and in 1950 he was appointed to the Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University. Among Titterton’s earliest tasks in Australia was that of an adviser to the British scientific team at the first Monte Bello tests. In 1956, the Australian government established an Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) responsible for monitoring the British testing program to ensure that the safety of the Australian environment and population were not jeopardised. To this end, it was to review British test proposals, provide expert advice to the Australian government, and to monitor the outcome of tests. Titterton was a foundation member of the Committee and later, its Chairman.

While Menzies had envisaged that the Committee would act as an independent, objective body, evidence suggests that it was more sensitive to the needs of the British testing program than to its Australian constituents.

Members tended to be drawn from the nuclear weapons fraternity, as was Titterton; from the Defence establishment, from the Commonwealth Department of Supply, from the Commonwealth X-Ray and Radium Laboratory, and from the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. Although the expertise of these individuals is beyond dispute, one wonders if they may have been too closely identified with the ‘atomic establishment’ to provide independent critical advice. The nuclear weapons fraternity have often been criticised as a rather cavalier lot; no less a person than General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb, has been quoted as having said ‘Radiation death is a very pleasant way to die’ (Ball 1986, p. 8). In retrospect, the Australian safety committee suffered from the absence of biologists and environmental scientists in its ranks.

The plight of Aborigines in the vicinity of the prohibited zone was in many respects a reflection of their status in Australia at the time. In a revealing statement to the Royal Commission, Sir Ernest Titterton was quoted as having said that if Aboriginal people objected to the tests they could vote the government out (Australia 1985, p. 121). It is naive to suggest that such a small disadvantaged minority might wield electoral influence; doubly so since Aboriginal people were denied full voting rights at the time of the tests, and indeed, were even excluded from census enumeration until 1967. There is no dearth of evidence of the low regard in which Aborigines were held at the time. The chief scientist of the Department of Supply, a British expatriate, criticised an officer whom he regarded as overly concerned with Aboriginal welfare for ‘placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations’ (Australia 1985, p. 309).

Because of their unique lifestyle, and often their lack of clothing, footwear and permanent shelter, Aboriginal residents in remote parts of Australia were particularly vulnerable to radiation. Although this was recognised and acted upon later in the testing program, the AWTSC was initially ignorant of or unconcerned with these risks.

Disinformation, whether deliberate or unintentional, was all too common during the testing programs. In order to provide accurate meteorological data for the weapons tests, a small weather station was constructed across the Western Australian border from Maralinga. The Australian Minister of Supply at the time, Howard Beale, quite falsely claimed that it was sited very carefully away from Aboriginal watering places (Australia 1985, p. 373). In fact, the site was chosen without seeking the advice of the native patrol officer. Moreover, the roads which were built to provide access to the weather station contradicted the assurances made by the government in 1947 that no roads would encroach upon the Aboriginal reserve.

In the aftermath of the second Monte Bello tests in 1956, the AWTSC filed a reassuring report which failed to refer to complications with the tests and to levels of fallout on the mainland which were higher than expected (Australia 1985, pp. 257-9).

In 1960, the British advised the AWTSC that ‘long lived fissile elements’ and ‘a toxic material’ would be used in the ‘Vixen B’ tests. Titterton requested that the materials be named, and later announced ‘They have answered everything we asked.’ The substances in question were not disclosed (Australia 1985, p. 414). In recommending that the Australian government agree to the tests, he appears to have been either insufficiently informed of the hazards at hand, or to have failed to communicate those hazards to the Safety Committee, and through it, to the Australian government. Earlier, before the Totem tests, he had reassured the Australian Prime Minister that

the time of firing will be chosen so that any risk to health due to radioactive contamination in our cities, or in fact to any human beings, is impossible. . . . [N]o habitations or living beings will suffer injury to health from the effects of the atomic explosions proposed for the trials (quoted in Australia 1985, p. 467).

There were other examples of Titterton’s role in filtering information to the Australian authorities, a role which has been described as ‘pivotal’ (Australia 1985, p. 513). He proposed that he be advised informally of certain details of proposed experiments. In one instance, he advised the British that ‘It would perhaps be wise to make it quite clear that the fission yield in all cases is zero’, knowing that this would be a misrepresentation of fact (Australia 1985, p. 519). Years later, the Royal Commission suggested that Titterton may have been more a de facto member of the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment than a custodian of the Australian public interest.

The Royal Commission’s indictment of Titterton would be damning:

Titterton played a political as well as a safety role in the testing program, especially in the minor trials. He was prepared to conceal information from the Australian Government and his fellow Committee members if he believed to do so would suit the interests of the United Kingdom Government and the testing program (Australia 1985, p. 526).

British secretiveness and imperfect review of test proposals and consequences by Australian officials notwithstanding, the degree to which Australian authorities went in limiting debate and discussion of the testing program and its effects cannot be ignored.

Such media coverage of the tests as was permitted by British and Australian authorities tended to be trivial and generally celebratory (Woodward 1984). Restrictions were onerous, in some occasions to the point of absurdity. D-notices were applied in such a manner that Australian journalists were forbidden from reporting items which had already been published freely in the United Kingdom.

Dissent or criticism by Australian personnel involved in the testing program was not tolerated. One patrol officer who objected that the development of testing sites was proceeding without due regard for the protection and welfare of local Aborigines was ‘reminded of his obligations as a Commonwealth Officer’ (Australia 1985, p. 304), and warned against speaking to the press.

Occasionally, when Aborigines were sighted in restricted areas, reports of these sightings were disbelieved, or less than subtly discouraged. One officer who reported sighting Aborigines in the prohibited zone was asked if he realised ‘what sort of damage [he] would be doing by finding Aboriginals where Aboriginals could not be’ (Australia 1985, p. 319).

After the Milpuddie family was found in the restricted area at Maralinga, the Range Commander invoked the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 (Cwlth) to prevent disclosure of the incident by any personnel on the scene.

The flow of information within government departments was at times impeded, with adverse consequences. According to one account, incomplete information about plutonium contaminations at Maralinga was given to Vic Garland, a Minister in the McMahon government, causing him to mislead Parliament in 1972 (Toohey 1978).

The full legal and political implications of the testing program would take decades to emerge. The secrecy which surrounded the British testing program and the remoteness of the tests from major population centres meant that public opposition to the tests and awareness of the risks involved grew very slowly.

But as the ban-the-bomb movement gathered momentum in Western societies throughout the 1950s, so too did opposition to the British tests in Australia. An opinion poll taken in 1957 showed 49 per cent of the Australian public opposed to the tests and only 39 per cent in favour.

Evatt and Calwell, Leader and Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition, called for an end to the tests. Following the conclusion of the Antler series in October 1957, the British conducted their large thermonuclear tests at Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean; only the so-called ‘minor’ trials continued at Maralinga.

By the early 1960s, the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain signed an agreement to cease atmospheric nuclear tests. The British, having finally gained the confidence of the United States, were invited to conduct underground tests at United States facilities in Nevada. It was thus decided to close the Maralinga facility……..http://aic.gov.au/publications/previous%20series/lcj/1-20/wayward/ch16.html

 

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April 12, 2017 - Posted by | aboriginal issues, AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, reference, South Australia, weapons and war

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