Why are files on British nuclear weapons development in Australia being removed from public access at the UK National Archives?

Jan 23, 2020

In 2018 the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority( (NDA) started withdrawing an estimated 1,700 files from Britain’s National Archives about the building of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent in the 1950s and 1960s. There has not been any explanation for their removal.

Their unavailability is particularly inconvenient as the future of nuclear power and of the waste it generates are being looked at again in Australia.

Many of the files removed refer to the 12 bomb tests and component trials in Australia that preceded the detonation of the British H (hydrogen) bomb off Christmas Island in May 1957. The files cover a wide range of technical data from the planning and logistics of the bomb tests to the local fall-out on Australian territory and international atmospheric fall-out.

This is the sort of information that might be able to be used by aspiring nuclear states — or terrorist groups — to understand the science required to build nuclear weapons. But it has been on the shelves of the National Archives for decades, and is central to retrospective understanding of how much contamination by radiation actually occurred in Australia in the 1950s. So why withdraw it now?

In late 2019, James Cook University Associate Professor Dr Elizabeth Tynan was in London working in the National Archives and becoming increasingly alarmed about the situation in the absence of any explanation:

‘The ongoing, and apparently open-ended, withdrawal of files relating to British nuclear testing remains perplexing and rather sinister. The British government seems to view the historical record as something it owns, able to be hidden on a whim, without explanation. Withdrawing these files suggests that the British government has more to hide than even the more cynical among us had always believed. Other historical events presumably are also liable to the same capricious governmental controls.’

Tynan’s concern is that the complicated era of atomic testing in Australia is still in the process of being uncovered, nearly 70 years after the first British atomic bomb was tested at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia in 1952. These files are necessary to obtain a proper understanding of the decision-making, actions and consequences of that time – and their implications for the present management of nuclear energy in Australia.

Tynan’s book Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story won the prestigious Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2017, an indication of the very active interest that remains in Australia over what actually happened in the 1950s and 1960s. The judges commented that the book ‘raises issues of government responsibility and transparency that continue to resonate today’.

Building Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent in Australia

After World War II ended with two Allied atomic bombs razing the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Britain was keen to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

There is much that can still be learned about why and how Britain tested the components for its thermonuclear hydrogen bomb in Australia before assembling and detonating one off Christmas Island in May 1957. Britain had pledged not to detonate a nuclear weapon in Australia.

Thermonuclear bombs are more than a thousand times more powerful than the early atomic bombs and the development of them by the USA and Soviet Union represented a move to an even more dangerous Cold War. It would be very difficult to prevent radiation fallout on mainland Australia as the Australian Government cavalierly had been assured of with the atomic testing.

Much has been glossed over including the continued testing at Maralinga in South Australia barely a month before the opening of the 1956 Olympics taking place 2000km downwind to the east in Melbourne.

Much of the material still on the shelves of the UK National Archives requires closer analysis than it has received up until now. In the last 18 months, for example, I have been looking into why a suspected Australian atomic spy who returned from the Manhattan Project (the Anglo-American government programme that developed the atomic bombs used in Japan) to teach at a London university was under surveillance but never prosecuted.

Files in the UK National Archives also clearly establish that the Australian scientist Mark Oliphant was a crucial advocate of an independent British nuclear arsenal all through the late 1940s when he was professor of physics at Birmingham University. This material refutes his later protestations that he had given up work on nuclear weapons soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and become a pacifist.

In December 2019 I published a closer analysis of the attempt by Robert Menzies to get Britain’s prime minister Harold Macmillan to give Australia its own nuclear arsenal in secret before the test ban treaty came into effect in 1963, as a quid pro quo for ‘hosting’ the British tests. The treaty prohibited future testing of the sort that had been done in Australia to build the British bombs.

This work is leading me to a major reinterpretation of the 1985 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia which found that the Australian test sites had been contaminated with fallout radiation and plutonium without sufficient regard to the safety of the Aboriginal population.

Britain had promised not to detonate a thermonuclear bomb in Australia. But a month after it tested its first atomic bomb off Western Australia in October 1952, the United States detonated its first thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb in the Marshall islands, for which atom bombs were simply the triggers in the firing system.

Britain did everything short of detonating its H bomb in Australia in order to catch up with the United States, testing the component parts at Woomera, Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. The detonation of the assembled bomb took place near Christmas Island in May 1957.

My research also indicates that the English physicist Ernest Titterton who closely controlled the Australian Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee despite having conducted the countdown for atomic bombs built by the British-American team at the Manhattan Project, was far from “planted” on Menzies when he was appointed to the first Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University, as the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia declared despite the archival evidence laid out in its own 1985 report (see Volume 1 pages 15-16). I have found files that show that Titterton was paid out of Australian funds at the suggestion of the secretary of Menzies’ prime minister’s department ‘in order to emphasise participation of Australian (sic) scientists in test’.

Menzies was no dupe and Titterton’s scapegoating for trying to lead Australia down a nuclear path as a ‘sort of Dr Strangelove’ by the Royal Commission’s president in his political autobiography needs very close re-examination. Even with 2020 hindsight, this will be very hard to do if the files keep going walkabout.

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 policy making behind the tests are collated on her website The Rabbitt Review (http://www.rabbittreview.com).

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