Official secrets and cover-ups: The lessons of Maralinga

Brian Toohey

 

In the 1970s, acclaimed investigative journalist Brian Toohey was instrumental in breaking the story of plutonium contamination at Maralinga in South Australia, a result of the atomic weapons tests by the British in the 1950s. On 27 September 2016 he launched Liz Tynan’s new book Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story with the speech that follows.

I want to thank Liz for asking me to launch Atomic Thunder and, more importantly, thank her for the service she has done the nation by writing it.

Atomic Thunder is based on Liz’s PhD thesis but that was only the starting point for an enormous amount of work culminating in this thoroughly researched, lucid account of a profoundly anti-democratic, and deeply damaging, policy process. 

Several good books have been written about the British nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga, Emu and the Monte Bello Islands, including No Conceivable Injury by Bob Milliken. However, Atomic Thunder gives the reader the most up-to-date and comprehensive insight into the enormity of what happened. The tests and associated trials took place between 1952 and 1963. But books like Bob’s were constrained by the British refusal, until recently, to declassify a huge number of files. Much remains secret, with no conceivable excuse. The addiction to secrecy also frustrated James ‘Diamond Jim’ McClelland’s Royal Commission on the tests – a model of how a good commission should perform.

Liz has made an exhaustive and no doubt exhausting effort to get on top of what’s available from the oral and documentary sources to produce an authoritative book on one of the most shameful episodes in Australian history.

Liz backgrounds the UK’s vainglorious decision to develop nuclear weapons and the staggering irresponsibility of then Australian prime minister Robert Menzies to let dangerous tests go ahead in this country without first requiring answers to basic questions about what was involved and the risks. Menzies refused to seek independent advice from highly qualified Australian scientists such as Mark Oliphant who had worked on the American bombs – Oliphant’s ‘sin’ was that he didn’t like the idea of killing millions of people with nuclear weapons. Instead, Menzies chose to take advice from nuclear weapons zealot and British citizen Ernest Titterton, who relentlessly insisted there were no dangers involved at all. McClelland showed that Titterton’s first and only loyalty was to Britain and the development of nuclear weapons. (It would not have surprised me if he had appeared on TV to eat two teaspoons of plutonium, claiming he did every day as a health tonic.)

The entire policy-making structure ensured the effects on the local Aboriginal population were ignored, as were the dangers to the British and Australian service personnel exposed to radiation at the test sites, and other Australians living much further away.

Atomic Thunder makes unambiguously plain that the most dangerous tests were those falsely described as ‘minor trials’ at Maralinga. The worst series, called Vixen B, used high explosives to blow up plutonium, which was widely distributed as radioactive contamination. Frequent dust storms in the area repeatedly stirred up plutonium particles – and still do – that could be inhaled or ingested by unsuspecting Maralinga workers, Indigenous kids playing in the dirt, unsuspecting tourists and many others. 

The British maintained ridiculous levels of secrecy, partly to prove to the Americans that they were trustworthy, and partly to hide the true nature of these trials – the most dangerous of which were further developing the UK’s fission and fusion bombs. These were not lab experiments. Big explosions created partial fission reactions and horrific plutonium contamination. Liz really nails this in her book – unlike a docile media that failed to report anything about the trials at the time.

For those who insist that books must have something new to say, there is plenty here. The chapter on the Roller Coaster investigation demonstrates that the British knew at the time that the extent of the plutonium contamination at Maralinga was much greater than they told the Australian Government. The government relied in 1968 on the false estimates, wrong by a factor of ten, to indemnify the British for any future liability to clean up the site properly.

Deceit also applied to the standard weapons tests, including a bomb detonated in a ship’s hull at the Monte Bello site. The British High Commission told a silly lie to an Australian scientist concerned about the grossly inadequate clean-up of the contaminated site, brazenly stating that, ‘Everyone knows when you explode a nuclear weapon on a ship, the whole ship is vaporised’. No one knows that – for the simple reason that it’s not true. As Liz points out, the islands were contaminated with radioactive debris, including pieces from a large drive shaft. It reminds me of John Howard’s claim that he ‘knew’ Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the world in 2003. He knew no such thing, and couldn’t, because Iraq didn’t have any. But most Australian journalists swallowed this rubbish.

I see a direct line between the pervasive secrecy, deceitful experts and media gullibility highlighted in Atomic Thunder and what is happening today. Before journalists add to the momentum building for a war with China, they should read Liz’s book from cover to cover to better appreciate the dangers of relying on alleged experts embedded in the national security establishment. Liz’s focus on the damage done by the secrecy has a compelling resonance at present when this powerful establishment dominates so much of Australian politics. Unlike the tepid D-notices of the 1950s and 1960s, new laws now provide a seven-year jail term for journalists or anyone else who publishes or releases anything that might hold security agencies to account. There is bipartisan political support for jailing journalists if they report anything about ‘a special intelligence operation’, even if it was bungled or inherently foolhardy. Journalists are not allowed to know what’s a special operation and what’s not, so there is basically no defence against a conviction.

Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the hyper-secret Manhattan Project, said in a courageous speech at Los Alamos in 1945, ‘Secrecy strikes at the very root of what science is and what it is for … It is not good to be a scientist unless you think that it is of the highest value to share your knowledge … and think it is a thing of intrinsic value to humanity’. I like to think something similar applies to journalists. It certainly applies to authors like Liz Tynan.

Having explained early in the book that Maralinga is an ancient Indigenous word for thunder, Liz gives it a more contemporary meaning in her concluding paragraph. She says, ‘If there is a word that speaks not only of thunder but also government secrecy, nuclear colonialism, reckless national pride, bigotry towards Indigenous peoples, nuclear era scientific arrogance, human folly and the resilience of victims, surely that word is Maralinga’.

I’m sure everyone who reads Atomic Thunder will give Liz heartfelt thanks for the magnificent achievement that is this timely book.

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Elizabeth Tynan’s book Atomic Thunder is out now from NewSouth. This is an edited version of Brian Toohey’s speech at the launch of the book at the National Trust SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney, in September 2016.

 
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