The Ticking Time Bombs of Nuclear Australia

Dec 13, 2020

Seventy years ago, in late 1950, a British Admiralty survey party was broiling in the summer heat of the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia to report on their suitability as a test site for Britain’s first atomic bomb. Which would make the islands a great deal hotter, and radioactive – as they still are.

Seven decades and a two-year Royal Commission later, the bulk of documents on the safety measures undertaken at the October 1952 Hurricane detonation and the eleven succeeding ones – including those fired up to a month before the 1956 Olympic Games opened downwind of the ‘permanent’ test site Maralinga – are still ‘unexamined’ and unavailable in the Australian National Archives. Over the past three years, scores of documents relating to the Australian testing spree have been withdrawn from public access in the UK National Archives.

Before they’re all cleaned out, let us look at some of the outstanding issues that the McClelland Royal Commission in 1984-85 failed to answer. The first is the role of the English physicist that Prime Minister Menzies appointed to be ‘Australia’s safety advisor’ to the first and subsequent tests despite knowing full well that he was the electronics specialist who had designed the trigger that detonated the world’s first atomic bomb at Alamagordo in July 1945; was a critical member of the Manhattan Project team that dropped atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki a month later; and been entrusted by the Americans with conducting the countdown for Shot Baker in the Bikini tests of 1946.

Ernest Titterton was a former PhD student of Professor Mark Oliphant at Birmingham University who had been taken as one of ‘the Oliphant Group’ to the wartime Manhattan Project in the USA where, as Boris Johnson wrote in his 2014 hagiography of Winston Churchill, ‘Most of the theoretical work on nuclear fission was British, and it was all handed on a plate – along with radar and everything else – to America.’

Oliphant was the first of his group to return to Britain, in January 1945 where he lobbied intensively for the independent atomic weapon that was eventually detonated at the Monte Bellos. But he was blackballed – by the Americans – from participating in the Anglo-Australian tests because of his refusal to support the US postwar monopoly of atomic and then nuclear weapons.

Titterton was the last British scientist to leave the Manhattan Project, in 1947. In 1950 he was recruited by Oliphant – now director of the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the newborn Australian National University – to the foundation chair of Nuclear Physics. From there he – not Oliphant – was invited by Prime Minister Menzies to become ‘Australian safety advisor’ at the British tests.

One of the first questions Titterton was asked in his initial appearance before the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia in May 1985 (Transcript online NAA:A6448,14) was whether he had ‘done any work which today would be described as health physics work? Had you done anything in relation to radiation and human biology?’

He replied: ‘I had, of course, because any time one is involved in radioactivity and its possible health effects, so essentially I began at the beginning and grew up with this thing.’

But when he was asked ‘Did you ever publish anything in relation to health effects?’ Titterton replied ‘No. It was no ambition of mine. I was interested in publishing in relation to radioactivity and nuclear physics; the other was incidental.’

In fact several papers among Titterton’s research output from Harwell in the late 1940s related to the invention of personal radiation dosimeters for atomic workers. A 1959 Annotated Bibliography of Photographic Dosimetry lists 4 articles in 1949 and 1950 alone before Titterton left the UK for Canberra. He reported in Nature (163, 990-1, 1949) of the method he was developing for personal radiation badges to measure exposure that ‘An accuracy to within 5% can be achieved in dose determinations without undue elaboration of measurement and calibration.’

In an AERE report (AERE-G/R-362. 1949) the same year he confirmed that ‘one observer working full-time can determine fortnightly slow neutron doses for between 100-150 individuals.’ He repeated these findings in the British Journal of Radiology (23, 465-71) in 1950 stating ‘The photographic plate technique, using boron and lithium-loaded emulsions, has been applied to provide a slow neutron personnel monitoring service. The method is simple and economical in operation, and is sufficiently sensitive to reduce the necessary microscope work to insignificant proportions.’

But Titterton relentlessly downplayed the dangers of human radiation exposure in Chapter 13 of his 1956 book Facing the Atomic Future– The Health Hazards of Atomic Energy.

Written largely during voyages from Australia to the UK in 1954 he reminded readers of this book intended for general public consumption that ‘It is dangerous to work in a coal-mine, drive a motor-car and swim at an ocean beach’. Accidents such as the irradiation of the Japanese fishing vessel the Fukurya Maru by the American hydrogen explosion on 1 March 1954 killing a crewman was a ‘mishap’ that had been ‘magnified out of all proportion’ and he emphasised the need to ‘balance the production and testing of the weapons, which do so much to preserve our present uneasy peace.’

Like most of his scientific colleagues at this time (and until the 1970s) Titterton believed that damage to human health ‘requires a certain minimum dose – the threshold dose – before a biological effect can be observed. That is, damage is absent below a certain value of irradiation, and it is on the basis of this effect that the so-called ‘tolerance’ or ‘permissible’ dose of radiation, to which it is supposed to be safe to expose individuals, is calculated.’

Oddly, despite his own research, the ‘safety advisor’ to the Australian government apparently didn’t think it necessary to conduct field tests with the personnel sent to the weapons tests or the populations downwind of them, nor the Aboriginals living close to the epicenters of the detonations. Forty years later Titterton told his former colleagues in a speech at the 40th anniversary of the Los Alamos National Laboratory that Australia was ‘mostly devoid of population’ except on its east coast.

Titterton did acknowledge the value of blood tests in this chapter, but the samples taken from participants of the tests in Australia have been lost.

He also accepted that genetic damage especially from X-rays during pregnancy could occur and that there was no threshold or minimum dose required to trigger it. But he thought ‘the very widespread use of radiation in diagnosis nowadays, and the therapy which is growing involves potential hazards to the whole population which could be far more serious in the long run than exposure to the radiations which will result from the development of atomic energy projects and the explosion of atomic weapons.’

Titterton pointed out that ‘On the [non-military] atomic energy project workers are protected both by shielding and also by measuring instruments… It is usual for each individual to be equipped with devices such as photographic films or small ionisation chambers which measure the radiation to which he has been exposed. The precautions which are being taken have been highly successful, and it is established fact that in the atomic energy projects of the U.K. and the U.S.A. the health record has been far better than that of any other industrial project of comparable size.’

The radiation badges worn by some of the servicemen at the tests for which Titterton was safety advisor have been lost.

In the early 1980s, as pressure was growing for a Royal Commission the UK tried to head it off with a study of ‘participants’ in the tests who were listed in ‘Blue Books’ which were never claimed to be complete. On advice from Professor Alice Stewart who had confirmed the hazards of radiation exposure through X-rays to foetuses in utero. I conducted an audit of UK nuclear test veterans and identified clear underascertainment cases of multiple myeloma, a potentially radiogenic condition. There is a reference in the UK National Archives to ‘sanitised’ Blue Books having been submitted to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia.

Professor Titterton’s colleagues J.O. Newton and John Jenkin states in a biographical article published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography that as Head of Department at ANU ‘he did not allow staff or students to wear radiation badges to monitor personal exposure.’ It’s remarkable that this information did not cause comment when it was published in 2012, but that is a sign of the way in which public memory of the 15 years of British testing of atomic bombs and then components for the thermonuclear H bomb tested off Christmas Island in May 1957 has been eroded and elided.

The National Archives of Australia declares that it ‘cares for and makes accessible the most significant Australian Government records to help tell our national story – past present and future’, that it ‘holds the memory of our nation.’ As we ponder the origins and future of Australian defence policy it’s surely time that the hundreds of documents ‘not yet examined’ from the atomic and nuclear testing period, particularly the records of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee eventually headed by Ernest Titterton, are made available for us to learn from them. Where have we heard that before recently? Hope it doesn’t cost us another $2,000,000.

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