Australian scientists at the British atomic tests

Tim Sherratt, ‘Australian scientists at the British atomic tests’, in Robyn Williams (editor), Science Show 2, Nelson, 1985, pp. 216-9. Broadcast on ABC Science Show, 11 May 1985.


The radioactive dust had barely settled on the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when, in November 1945, Winston Churchill proclaimed: ‘This I take is already agreed, we should make atomic bombs.’ It was, and they did – seven years later Britain exploded its first atomic bomb in the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. In the years that followed, Australia hosted another eleven such tests at three different sites – Monte Bello, Emu Field and Maralinga. Thirty years later we are still attempting to count the costs.

The success of the first test was greeted with banner headlines and all the anglophilic pride the papers could muster. Prominent amidst such reports was the fact that three Australian scientists had actually observed this epoch-making event. Indeed, the Australian government was keen to share in the political prestige of the A-bomb, and had insisted that press releases make particular note of Australian involvement. The three scientists so privileged were Ernest Titterton, Alan Butement and Leslie Martin – men whose reputations are now on trial.

Certainly all three seemed well-credentialled for such a role. Each of them was a respected and talented scientist, and all had been previously involved in other highly secret defence-oriented projects. Titterton was professor of nuclear physics at the Australian National University; Butement was the chief scientist in the Commonwealth Department of Supply; while Martin combined academic and civil duties, being professor of physics at Melbourne University and scientific adviser to the Defence Department. By attending the test, these men were providing a valuable source of educated liaison between the British and Australian governments – this was particularly important since planning was already under way for further tests in Australia. Moreover, they gave Australia at least a pretence of authority in what was otherwise a British undertaking. But even this limited representation was not without its problems.

Titterton’s and Butement’s attendance at the test was arranged with little fuss. Martin, on the other hand, was the subject of prolonged and sometimes terse correspondence, being officially invited to the test only a matter of days before the actual event. Notably Martin, unlike his colleagues, was Australian born and bred. Butement and Titterton were both fairly recent arrivals from the mother country, whose scientific experience had been largely gained in top-secret British and Allied defence projects. Such considerations were important because of American attitudes which constrained the UK authorities.

Britain had developed its atomic device with little assistance from its wartime ally, America. Following the successful cooperative development of the bomb during the war, the US government decided that the evils of atomic proliferation would best be thwarted by keeping the relevant technology safely in American hands; thus their British partners were denied access to the fruits of their joint efforts. Nevertheless, the British remained hopeful that by continuing their own atomic research and yet generally complying with the American principles they might eventually re-establish a useful scientific dialogue on atomic matters. Consequently interchange of atomic information within the British Commonwealth was limited by American policy. The British felt they could not risk American offence.

When the British authorities found themselves dependent on Australia for the provision of atomic test facilities, they were placed in the uncomfortable position of being unable to involve Australians fully in scientific aspects of the test lest they contravene American dictates on non-proliferation. The situation was aggravated by the Americans’ especial distrust of Australian security arrangements. However, Butement and Titterton offered a workable solution to this dilemma. They were nominal Australians and certainly worthy representatives from an Australian point of view, nevertheless both had unimpeachable security records. Titterton had made a significant contribution to the birth of the bomb, and had in fact stayed on the top-secret American atomic research establishment after the war. Butement too had been a notable contributor to wartime efforts, working in the UK Department of Supply -the Department within which the British atomic project was established. It is difficult to see how the Americans could have objected to the involvement of ‘Australian’ representatives who already had such close ties with the British project.

Martin, though, was certainly in a different category. Irrefutably Australian, his wartime work, under the auspices of the ideologically suspect CSIR, constituted only a minor part of a long scientific career. Worse still, Martin had become somewhat of a focus for Australian interest in atomic energy -supervising research in his own department, and advising the CSIR and Defence Department. The Australian authorities were thus understandably eager for him to attend the test, hoping that his efforts in these capacities might benefit. The British, on the other hand, were understandably hesitant, for Martin’s involvement represented Australian manoeuvring for further atomic enlightenment. A compromise was reached whereby Martin was denied access to information about the bomb itself; nonetheless, the British promised, he would receive details of the weapon’s effects. Interestingly, it seems that Martin never received this data.

Thus the scope and nature of Australian representation at the British atomic test was to a considerable extent determined by American pressures. This is most clearly seen in the case of Mark Oliphant. Recently we have heard that he was considered a security risk and was therefore not involved in the tests. However, correspondence reveals that the British authorities were not so much worried about possible breaches of security as about ‘the possibility of unfortunate repercussions in Washington’. Oliphant was unsuitable not because he necessarily was a security risk, but because the Americans thought him so.

All these political machinations may have been dismissed as ultimately unimportant had Titterton, Butement and Martin remained simply observers. However, in 1955, with the establishment of the Maralinga testing range, the three became founding members of a Safety Committee, whose task was to ensure the safety of Australian people and property. This committee was to draw its conclusions from data supplied by the UK authorities. Given the British reluctance to involve Australian scientists fully, we may well wonder how comprehensive such data would be. Even if the Safety Committee was fully informed, where would its members have perceived their duties to lie? I have suggested that both Titterton and Butement had close ties with the British project; might they not have felt some responsibility towards its successful completion? If they too valued the tenuous Anglo-American relationship, would this have affected their attitudes towards the Australian government? All three men had a commitment to defence science: how might this have affected their assessment of the risks involved in the tests? These are merely postulations, nevertheless, they demonstrate ways in which the political implications of Australian involvement in the atomic tests may have affected the attitudes and behaviour of those concerned.

I do not want to suggest that blame can somehow be conveniently confined to certain individuals. The political forces at play become evident when we examine the roles of these particular scientists; but they did not themselves create the forces which constrained them. Society enabled the atomic bomb to be developed and tested, and it is here that any blame must be levelled. We should seek not scapegoats but reform -for if we believe that we have outgrown the naivety of our past, then perhaps we should take a stroll out to Pine Gap.

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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