Mark Oliphant’s no-show at the British atomic and nuclear tests in Australia – the Fuchs factor

Jun 10, 2020

Seventy years ago in mid-1950, weeks after Klaus Fuchs had confessed to spying for the Russians throughout the 1940s, writes Sue Rabbitt Roff. Britain gave up hope of being able to test its first atomic bomb in Nevada and turned to Australia.

But Australia’s premier nuclear physicist, Professor Mark Oliphant, was specifically excluded from coming anywhere near the tests – by the Americans. He had been compromised by the fallout from the Fuchs case.

Oliphant returned to Australia from Britain in August 1950 to become founding Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the nascent Australian National University. Having been pivotal in the Allied decision to make atomic bombs in time to end the Second World War, Oliphant strongly advocated the building of a British independent atomic bomb from 1945 on.

Oliphant shared with Prime Minister Ben Chifley a vision for developing atomic energy in Australia. It would be integral to a Commonwealth atomic defence project that British Labour Prime Minister Attlee was negotiating. The Long Range Weapons Establishment at Woomera was the initial Australian commitment.

But by the time Oliphant arrived in Canberra in 1950, Chifley was no longer Prime Minister and he himself – though he didn’t yet realise it – was a lame duck, having been blackballed from any participation in Anglo-Australian atomic testing.

Robert Menzies was sworn in as Prime Minister in Canberra on December 19,1949. Two days later, in London one of Oliphant’s research team at Birmingham University who had been sent to the United States to work on the building of the atomic bombs that were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was interviewed by MI5 as a suspected atomic spy.

Klaus Fuchs was identified by top secret cables called the VENONA papers that were not decoded until after the war. (The decoding relied on errors in transmission from the Soviet mission in Australia). But that evidence could not be used in open court for fear of compromising other investigations.

Six weeks after interrogations began, Fuchs confessed to having passed atomic information from Birmingham University, the Manhattan Project in the USA, and post war from his position as Head of the Theoretical Physics Division of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE).

Fuchs had been progressively softened up through December and January until he dictated his confession on January 27 1951. On January 10 he’d been interviewed by his AERE boss Sir John Cockcroft at the behest of MI5.

The MI5 interrogator James Skardon wrote in his memo of his third interview with Fuchs on January 18:

‘FUCHS was completely composed, and I questioned him about his present position. He said he had been told he must go [ from Harwell/AERE], but that there was nothing very urgent about it and he had not so far made any positive enquiry to find any job. He thought the task would not be too hard, and mentioned that Sir John Cockcroft had offered him the choice of two posts, one at Adelaide and the other with Professor Oliphant, also in Australia. He thought that he would not like to work with Oliphant, although he hardly knew him.’ [UK NA FILE KV-2-1263-3 p.44]

An undated memo titled ‘M.I.5 Report on Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs’

in file KV-2-1263_3 says ‘It should be explained to the Director’ that when Mr Skardon and Sir John Cockcroft held out hope to FUCHS that he could stay in post at Harwell or be found a university post

‘neither the Security Service nor Sir John COCKCROFT, nor indeed anyone in the Ministry of Supply, had any knowledge or reason to suspect that Dr. FUCHS had been engaged in espionage in this country either before he went to America or after he returned. They only had reason to suspect that Dr. FUCHS had passed information to the Russians while he was in America during the war, at a time when Russia was our ally in the war with Germany, and that had Sir John Cockcroft or the Security Service had any idea that Dr FUCHS had continued his espionage activities after his return to this country in 1946, there would have been no question of the Ministry of Supply allowing Dr FUCHS to remain at Harwell.’

Sir John Cockcroft confirmed in his statement of January 30, 1950 that

‘It was not until I was in America on official business in the [northern] Autumn of 1949 that I had any reason to suspect the loyalty of Dr. FUCHS. … In America however I received certain information which for the first time caused me to distrust Dr. FUCHS’ loyalty.’

Yet Cockcroft still offered to help Fuchs to get a job in Adelaide or Canberra.

It is interesting that Fuchs wasn’t keen to join Oliphant, ‘although he hardly knew him’. Oliphant was his Department head at Birmingham who assigned him to help Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls develop the concept for what became the first atomic bombs.

Oliphant included Fuchs, by now a naturalised Briton, in the British team sent to the Manhattan Project in 1943 to build those bombs. And Oliphant was one of the main architects – along with Cockcroft – of the Harwell establishment and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to build an independent British bomb when the wartime atomic collaboration with the Americans fell apart after the war.

Rudolf Peirels and his wife had been particularly close to Fuchs and were very concerned when he was arrested, as was Oliphant. A M.I.5 telephone tap transcript dated February 5, 1950 says that Oliphant hoped that the confession ‘might have been a mental aberration’, but Peirels had visited Fuchs in prison and said ‘I don’t think so really.’ Oliphant replied ‘I was wondering whether there was anything that those of us who are virtually independent could do to help him.’ [KV-2-1251-1]

Other memos in the M.I.5 files in the UK National Archives show clearly that the exposure of the extent of scientific information that Klaus Fuchs had given to the Russians over a decade directly scuppered efforts to resurrect the tripartite wartime atomic alliance between the USA, Canada and Britain.

British hopes for testing British atomic weapon in Nevada evaporated. Prime Minister Attlee asked his Australian counterpart for permission to conduct the first test at the Monte Bello islands off West Australia.

Since the point of the development of British atomic and then thermonuclear bombs was to negotiate a way back into collaboration with the United States, Professor Oliphant – described by the British official historian Lorna Arnold as ‘Australia’s most distinguished nuclear scientist’ – was not allowed anywhere near the tests in Australia. In 1951 he would be refused a visa to enter the United States for a nuclear conference.

Sir John Cockcroft served as Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1961 to 1965.

Sue Rabbitt Roff grew up in Melbourne during the British testing period. Her studies of the long term health effects on military participants in the tests have supported more than sixty successful appeals against denial of pensions in Australia, the UK and New Zealand. Her recent studies of the policies and politics behind the tests are collated on her website

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