It’s surely time to come clean on Australia’s 1950s’ nuclear plans

Jan 17, 2021

Why was Britain allowed to break its agreement that it would not conduct thermonuclear tests in Australia?

There remain a number of unanswered questions about Australia’s nuclear testing. Throughout Robert Menzies’ second prime ministership in the 1950s and 1960s, not only was the British atom bomb being developed but so, too, were nuclear ballistic missiles, manned nuclear bomber aircraft and “something approaching an H-bomb” being developed in parallel in Australia.

What role was Woomera, in South Australia, playing in the development of a British independent nuclear deterrent that was fast coming to depend on tactical nuclear missiles?

And why were Menzies and members of his Atomic Weapons Safety Committee shuttling to London in the early 1960s begging for nuclear ballistic missiles?

The Arsenal of the British Empire

In March 1949 the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was established. One of its main tasks was “to ensure that the secret scientific defence experiments being carried out in South Australia in co-operation with the British are screened from spies”.

The official history of the ANU reports a meeting between then prime minister Ben Chifley and Professor Mark Oliphant in London in 1946. Oliphant “was at his spellbinding best, conveying the excitement of his research on the Manhattan Project [building the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki], speculating on a world dominated by atomic energy, and imagining Australia at the forefront of nuclear research”.

“The impact on Chifley,” H.C. Coombs, an economist and the first governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, later wrote, “was tremendous”.

Australia agreed to participate in a Joint Project with Britain to develop its industrial and medical nuclear capacity – and, if Chifley and Oliphant had their way, an independent Australian atomic deterrent.

This was not simply answering a call from the Mother Country for continued help in the defence of the Empire. The Labor Government was acutely aware that in 1943 Australia had asked for supplies of British armaments for use in the Pacific war but had been denied because Britain needed them in Europe. Chifley was interested in Australia manufacturing the new guided missiles for her own defence in any future war.

In March 1951 Oliphant warned:

“The United States and United Kingdom are developing weapons designed for their own defence. They may not suit Australia’s needs if she has to defend herself. We must develop our own methods of defence and build for ourselves.”

A year later, in March 1952, Oliphant said in a public lecture at Sydney University that “if Australia had atomic weapons invasion would be absolutely impossible”.

Oliphant’s protege and by then professor of physics at the ANU, Ernest Titterton, wrote in newspaper articles published around the country in the weeks before the Hurricane detonation on October 3, 1952 that:

“The place where atomic weapons would appear to be of the greatest tactical value is against the concentrations of troops and equipment such as would occur on a beachhead during an invasion, or railway centres where troops were being massed for movement to the line. If our air forces had at their command an appropriate number of atomic weapons, then the personnel required to defend the coastline would be very much fewer.”

Prime Minister Menzies didn’t challenge these statements of Titterton, who was at the time his scientific advisor.

In 1955 Oliphant told government officials that atomic power plants built for industrial energy could be converted to military use ‘in a matter of hours’.

What was in it for Australia?

“The ultimate reward,” according to both the Australian official history of the tests and of Woomera, released in the 1980s, for cooperating with British atomic and nuclear testing would be that Australia would get its own Blue Streak intermediate ballistic missiles that were being developed at the Woomera Guided Missile Range and being tested alongside the atom bombs at the Monte Bellos, Emu Field and Maralinga.

The British had promised not to detonate a thermonuclear, hydrogen bomb in Australia. But component parts were brought from the UK and tested in Australia before the first H bomb was dropped off Malden Island in the Pacific in May 1957.

Prime Minister Ben Chifley was advised regarding the Guided Projectiles project that:

“within a period of a few years there will inevitably be almost complete transfer to Australia of research and development associated with this project. This ultimate transfer will put Australia in the very forefront of the most modern developments in Defence Science.”

The official Australian Department of Defence history of Woomera states that while no live nuclear warheads were tested on the Woomera Rocket range, “some were ballistic dummies of bombs intended to carry British nuclear warheads”.

It makes a very important point that has been largely missed by researchers of nuclear Australia:

“The atomic tests were not conducted under the joint project but under a separate agreement. The distinction, especially before the foundation of the Maralinga permanent test range, [in 1956] was in practice a hazy one. Working time then was not so closely accounted for as it was later, so much unrecorded joint project effort flowed into the tests.”

As to why Menzies agreed to the testing, the official history of Woomera also states:

“Australia might wish to arm itself with Blue Streak or its successors. This last idea was floated in March 1956, when Butement [Chief Scientist in the Defence Scientific Service and a member of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee] was asked to write a brief for the Minister for Supply’ in which he ‘offered some interesting personal opinions on what the introduction of the new deterrent weapons would mean for the British Commonwealth as a whole and Australia in particular.”

This brief is still classified, though not apparently to the official historian.

The official Woomera history also states: “In the early 1950s it was not impossible that the country might one day wish to possess nuclear bombs, which it had the resources and the technical competence to manufacture.”

The Manchester Guardian of 5 October 1953 ran an article headed “Marriage of Plutonium with the Jindivik? Effect of Atomic Tests on guided Missile Research” suggesting that:

“The more imaginative Australians may hazard guesses that the coming atomic tests mark an important stage towards the marriage of plutonium with Jindivik [the first guided rocket developed at Woomera], and that Jindivik’s progeny will be a more fateful weapon than any stockpile of atomic bombs.”

The testing intensified in the weeks before the 1956 Olympics. The Australian official historian J.L.Symonds writes that by May 1955, when a new pair of tests was unexpectedly run at the Monte Bellos, even the Australian Prime Minister’s Department realised that “the device could be something approaching an H bomb”.

But Menzies permitted continued testing until a month before the 1956 Olympic Games – and for the remaining 10 years of his second prime ministership.

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