British Nuclear Testing in Australia

When Prime Minister Menzies announced, on 18 February 1952, that Britain would test atomic weapons ‘at a site in Australia’ it elicited little response let alone demonstrative protest from the APC. Looking back over the records of the APC and its affiliates it seems organising public protest was never seriously contemplated at that time. No attempt was made to mobilise the hundreds of thousands of Australians, who had signed ‘ban-the-bomb’ appeals, to protest. It was a passive response to atomic bomb tests in our backyard.

There were political difficulties. The government was armed with a law prescribing heavy penalties for so much as speaking, or writing, against a defence project if prohibited by the government. A majority of Australians supported the tests though in the absence of informed debate. It is hard to provoke argument in an information vacuum. Menzies negotiated personally on the location of the first atomic test on the Monte Bello Islands and then for months he did not even inform Howard Beale, the minister who would become responsible for Australia’s role in the tests.

The APC had lost credibility by defending Russian tests as a defensive response to testing in the West. Defence of continued testing could be used either way. Australia, said Menzies, was doing no more than its bit by helping Britain create a vital defence against a nuclear- armed Soviet Union hell-bent on imposing communism on the ‘free’ world. Only the pacifists, who opposed the weapons, no matter in whose camp, were in a moral position to oppose the British testing.

Within weeks of the Menzies announcement, WILPF called a public meeting which approved the motion: ‘This public meeting of Melbourne citizens expresses its emphatic disapproval of the use of the atomic bomb anywhere and particularly an atom bomb in Australia. We believe it to be against the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth and one more betrayal of our responsibility to guard human rights, especially the rights of aborigines’.[42] A copy of the motion was sent to Prime Minister Menzies.

WILPF also sent the motion to Evatt, Leader of the Opposition. It was accompanied by a special plea ‘to use your influence even at this late hour to prevent the use of this country as an atom bomb testing base...Can we depend on the Leader of the Opposition to take up this task with which History is challenging him’. Evatt side-stepped his ‘historic’ challenge by replying: ‘Whether it be an atom bomb, an incendiary bomb, a block buster or a bullet fired from a rifle the principle is just the same’.[43] Labor members cheered the success of Britain’s first atomic explosion with the same enthusiasm as those on the government benches of the House.

People’s nuclear fears, which were aroused by the Hiroshima holocaust, had either subsided or people had come to feel the nuclear problem was beyond them. The arousal of public concern over an issue has often to wait upon some turn of events no matter the effort put into ‘spreading the word’.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the peace movement was more constrained if only because of the repressive political climate of the Cold War. It was the bomb testers who raised people’s concerns. Alarm bells began to ring worldwide when, in 1954, a Japanese trawler fishing in the Pacific was contaminated by radioactive fallout from the US hydrogen bomb test, Bravo. The ships radioactive fish and the sick and dying crew reawakened fears about radiation exposure. Even without nuclear war, the world environment was becoming dangerously radioactive.

In the mid to late 1950s Australians began questioning their own exposure from bomb testing right at home. Support for the tests among Australians had slumped. In 1952, when Menzies announced the tests, 52 per cent approved whereas, by 1956, 58 per cent disapproved Australia hosting the tests. Australians were far from knowing just how much they were being exposed to radioactive fallout. After the Mosaic G2 test on the Monte Bello Islands in June 1956, Hedley Marston, CSIRO scientist, measured a hundredfold increase in radioactivity. He reported to the Australia Weapons Test Safety Committee (AWTSC) that an 800-km swathe across Northern Australia had been “dressed” by a radioactive cloud drifting across the continent. The AWTSC was dominated by Ernest Titterton, who played down the hazards of fallout. He was determined nothing stood in the way of carrying out the tests efficiently and in the greatest secrecy, not even public safety.[44]

Marston’s findings were confidential. Not so the clicking of Geiger counters across Australia. At Kuridala in far north Queensland a prospector reported the count from rainwater had jumped from a normal 20 to 2000 counts per minute. A physics professor warned against drinking water in areas so heavily contaminated by fallout.[45] Beale, who at the time was giving news editors a guided tour of the Maralinga test range, suggested “such alarmist’ reports be ignored. Later he told his cabinet colleagues how the editors had given him an undertaking ‘to minimise public alarm as much as they could and to print the facts’.[46]

Such government disinformation, abetted by media editors, does not always, prevail over genuine community concerns. Citizens can, research an issue and put on public notice information that cannot be entirely ignored by the media or denied by the authorities and their appointed experts. Citizen investigations are often aided by scientists who appreciate the need for informed public debate. Even before the Mosaic G2 test went horribly wrong John Blatt, professor of physics, disagreed publicly with Titterton’s assertion that ‘the level of radioactive contamination gives no cause for anxiety.’ Responsible scientists the world over, said Blatt, ‘have expressed anxiety on precisely this point and have warned about bomb tests anywhere’.[47] In an international petition, sponsored by Linus Pauling, 9,000 scientists called for all testing to cease. In Australia, 350 scientists called for a ban in view of ‘the threat facing humanity through the development of nuclear weapons’.[48]

In 1953, at the request of the Peace Quest Forum, Dr A.H. Wood and a colleague, Reverend Eric Owen, took on the organising of the first Australian Convention on War and Peace in Sydney. A thousand delegates from all walks of life attended the convention. The Peacemaker declared the convention ‘extraordinarily successful and important’.[49] However, the news media reported with the usual Cold War mindset.

As public awareness of the issues grew with the dissemination of information by the peace movement so its following increased and broadened across the community. In 1958, the ACTU, its affiliate trades and labour councils and many trade unions became active in the protest. They were now prepared to go further than a general appeal to ‘ban the bomb’ and to oppose specifically British bomb tests in Australia. The ALP now encouraged members to join national demonstrations against the British tests, a change of heart from when its members of parliament cheered the news of the first British test explosion. The Victorian ALP journal, Tocsin, announced “Labor’s Atomic Week” with educational activities leading up to a protest march. Trades and labour councils and many trade unions became active in the protest.[50]