Atomic secrets

Secrets are seductive. They offer knowledge, power, belonging – initiation into a world neatly divided into the knowing and the unknowing, us and them. The atomic bomb was revealed to an unsuspecting public as evidence of humankind’s increasing knowledge of the ‘secrets of nature’, but such secrets were not for sharing, they were a ‘sacred trust’ to be protected against misuse. Protected from whom? The idea of the ‘atomic secret’ gained its potency from the Cold War’s vision of warring ideologies – the good and the evil, the knowing and the unknowing, us and them. The ‘atomic secret’ was a lesson in global politics.

As holders of the ‘secret’, scientists enjoyed new authority and prestige, but a nagging concern remained – could scientists themselves be trusted with such knowledge? Elevation to the scientific ‘priesthood’ came at the cost of increasing political controls and a residue of public suspicion. Into this atmosphere of inflated hopes and exaggerated fears the Australian Atomic Energy Commission was born. It is perhaps not surprising then, that in his scorecard of the AAEC’s successes and failures, Clarence Hardy lists its first failure as ‘excessive secrecy’ (Atomic… p.230).

Hardy is a former employee of the AAEC, and his two books might be seen as an attempt to lessen this failure by offering some posthumous redress (the AAEC was replaced in 1987 by ANSTO). In his Foreword to Enriching Experiences, D.W. George (Chairman of the AAEC, 1976-1983) comments that ‘secrecy, no matter how necessary or worthily based, breeds both suspicion and resentment in those outside the inner circle of those “in the know”‘ (Enriching… p. v). He commends the book for ‘breaking down some of the secrecy’ surrounding the AAEC’s work on enrichment, and notes that one of his own objectives as Chairman was ‘to assure the Australian public that the Lucas Heights Establishment had no ulterior motives, no secret agenda’ (Enriching…p. vi).

However, there is fundamental irony at the heart of Hardy’s noble crusade, for even as he lifts the veil of secrecy, he invokes the authority of ‘inside’ knowledge. Hardy downplays his narrative presence throughout Atomic Rise and Fall, but in the Preface he differentiates his work from that of historians ‘with no personal knowledge of the AAEC’. Rather than opening the workings of the AAEC to scrutiny, he is establishing a rearguard defence against such writers as Ann Moyal and Alice Cawte, who, as D.W. George comments, were viewed by AAEC staff ‘as unfairly biased against the Commission and not impartial’ (Atomic… p. xi). While secrecy might have hampered the AAEC’s operations, it also renders the knowledge of participants as somehow more valuable, as more ‘true’. This is stated explicitly by Keith Alder, another AAEC old-boy, in his book Australia’s Uranium Opportunities, quoted extensively by Hardy. Alder decries the tendency of historians to rely on ‘old journalistic opinions and stories…They reflect peoples’ views on what they thought should happen, and this includes also archival material such as politicians’ correspondence and Cabinet papers. In many instances what actually happened is quite different – a difficult matter for historians’. Alder is a self-confessed ‘insider’ determined to counter ‘popular and false versions’ of the AAEC’s history by telling it how it ‘actually happened’.

Secrecy adds another layer to the boundary-setting activities that occupy any institution. We all claim privileged knowledge through our membership of social and institutional groupings. Scientists, in particular, wage periodic battles to bulwark their epistemological authority against the forces of anti-science, superstition or even emotion. AAEC insiders muster all three – the institutional, the scientific and the secret – to brew a potent, mythological rendering of an organisation abused by politicians, misunderstood by the public, and wrongly condemned by history.

Hardy begins both books with a summary of atomic energy research prior to the establishment of the AAEC in 1953. An understanding of the ‘world situation on atomic energy’, he claims, helps us to understand the ‘conception’ of the AAEC. The dual meaning of ‘conception’, incidentally, is deliberately invoked as Atomic Rise and Fall is structured according to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man – the AAEC is anthropomorphised, cast as a player in a Shakespearean tragedy. But while a précis of postwar attempts to control atomic energy is obviously relevant to the formation of the AAEC, it is less clear why we are dragged through the relatively well-known stories of Hahn, Strassman, Frisch, Peierls, the MAUD Committee and the Manhattan Project. Moreover, these international inclusions emphasise some domestic absences. Given Hardy’s concern with the effects of secrecy, you might think that some political context would be useful. But the US embargo on defence secrets, the reformation of CSIR, and US suspicions of Mark Oliphant are barely mentioned if at all, with the reader merely referred to other sources (Atomic…p. 19).

Of course, it is easy to criticise a work for what it fails to include, however, the emphasis here is significant. The AAEC is presented as a footstep in the onward march of science, heir to a grand, progressive tradition. Hardy’s whiggish overture introduces the AAEC as a child born of science, not of politics. Government policies for postwar reconstruction and national development, within which atomic energy featured prominently, barely rate a mention. We are offered instead a succession of scientists, a catalogue of committees, and a growing sense of inevitability. Perhaps symbolic of the treatment of domestic politics, Doc Evatt, Minister for External Affairs in the Chifley government and first chairman of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, appears in disguise as ‘Dr Herbert Evans’ (Atomic… p.18).

When politicians do appear within the AAEC story, it is generally to thwart the hopes and plans of the well-meaning scientists. The AAEC is a victim, not a player in the world of politics. And so Billy McMahon cancels plans for a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay, Rex Connor implicates an unwilling AAEC in his ill-fated schemes for national development, Bob Hawke ends promising research on uranium enrichment, and Gareth Evans, suspicious of the AAEC’s secrecy, delivers the organisation its deathblow. Both Hardy and Alder are particularly critical of the Hawke government’s decision to close down work on enrichment, one of the AAEC’s largest and most successful research programs. They regard this as a ‘missed opportunity’, where political pressures steamrolled scientists and damaged the national interest. Just in case you miss the point, Alder’s book, Australia’s Uranium Opportunities, is subtitled – ‘How Her Scientists and Engineers Tried to Bring Her into the Nuclear Age but were Stymied by Politics’.

AAEC work on enrichment and separation is continuing, it seems, as the organisation itself emerges from the historical centrifuge free of political contaminants. This process is revealed in discussion of the military uses of atomic energy (i.e. bombs). Hardy and Alder reject suggestions by Moyal and Cawte that the AAEC Chairman, J.P. Baxter, advised against signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and encouraged consideration of a nuclear weapons program. Alder recollects that Baxter was opposed to the AAEC being involved in weapons-related work, but that surely is not the point. In the late 1960s the government was actively considering both the development of nuclear weapons and the establishment of a nuclear power plant. Baxter ‘took the lead’ in arguing for a reactor at Jervis Bay, and can hardly have failed to make the connection with the government’s interest in bombs. On the one hand, Hardy quotes approvingly Ann Moyal’s description of Baxter as having an interest in ‘the politics of science’ and a capacity ‘for simplifying complex technological questions and presenting them in a positive and sanguine light’ (Atomic… p. 113). And yet, on the other hand, he suggests Baxter was so politically naïve, or scientifically pure, as to not play the weapons card when seeking to garner support for the Jervis Bay project.

The secrecy surrounding the AAEC has not been dispelled – many silences remain. Hardy complains of the restrictions placed on him by the mythical ‘Official Secrets Act’ (‘Official Secrets’ are actually dealt with under the Crimes Act), and draws most of his references from the Commission’s Annual Reports. That, coupled with clumsy organisation, makes for a very dry and repetitive read. There are few of the anecdotes or the workplace legends that can make an insider’s history enjoyable and illuminating. Indeed, other than the senior management, the staff are virtually invisible. We learn that staff were ‘shocked’ by the government’s decision, in 1981, to divert some of the AAEC’s resources to non-nuclear energy research under the purview of CSIRO (Atomic… p. 160), and there are references at times to the staff’s ‘low morale’. But no feeling for the culture of the place is conveyed. D.W. George notes that ‘secrecy had a negative effect even on some of Lucas Heights’ staff’, and Hardy explains that the ‘excessive secrecy’ from which the AAEC suffered was as much a product of management policy as legislation. And yet we are given no glimpse of how this culture of secrecy operated, how it was maintained, or how it affected working conditions.

Hardy, Alder and George all offer a similar parting vision – one where a future Australia might finally recognise the contribution of the AAEC and take up some of the nuclear opportunities lost through political chicanery or public ignorance. In 1975, as the Commissioners became concerned about their possible involvement in the ‘Loans Affair’, they were careful to document proposals as being ‘at the direction of the Minister’. It strikes me that these books serve a similar function, labelling the history of the AAEC with the words ‘It wasn’t our fault!’, in the hope that future generations might treat the Commission more sympathetically.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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