Atomic fallout and the corruption of science

Atomic fallout and the corruption of science

Fallout: Hedley Marston and the British Bomb Tests in Australia

By Roger Cross

Wakefield Press, 2001

187pp, $24.95 (pb)

Review by Jim Green (unpublished)

Fallout recounts the story of the cabal of British and Australian politicians, bureaucrats and scientists who conspired to prevent an informed public debate on the merits of nuclear weapons testing in Australia in the 1950s.

It is also the story of Hedley Marston – a celebrated biochemist working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) – and his fight against those he described as “ruthless liars in high places”.

In 1955, British authorities sought the CSIRO’s assistance with biological experiments on the effects of radiation on animals during and after the weapons tests planned for the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of Western Australia, and at Maralinga, South Australia.

Enter Marston, using British monitoring equipment to obtain potentially scandalous data on radioactive fallout over vast tracts of Australia, including Adelaide. Worse still for the authorities, Marston was not clearly bound by secrecy provisions.

Marston is an unlikely hero – if a hero at all. He was a bull in a china shop, or, in the words of his friend Dick Thomas, a “Trojan Horse with the mind of a would-be Machiavelli”. He saw himself as a crusader against scientific corruption and for public safety: “I’m more worried than I can convey about the expensive, quasi-scientific pantomime that is being enacted at Maralinga under the cloak of security”, he wrote in a letter to Mark Oliphant in 1956, “and even more so about the evasive lying that is being indulged [by] public authorities about the hazard of fall-out … I nearly blow a gasket every time I think of it. … Apparently Whitehall and Canberra consider that the people in Northern Australia are expendable.”

However, Marston’s “public science and private life is a rewarding study of science in the service of self” according to Roger Cross, the author of Fallout and a senior lecturer in science and mathematics education at Melbourne University.

Cross writes, “the power and prestige of nuclear physicists enabled them to exert considerable influence – to strut the world’s stage – and … they were only matched for pride by biochemist Hedley Marston, who for his part … considered the physicists to be dangerous Johnny-come-latelies who were trespassing on his soil. There were plainly more bombs ready to explode than those slated for Monte Bello and Maralinga.”

Marston’s attempt to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the weapons tests was made somewhat easier by growing public, political and scientific consternation over the effects of weapons testing. In mid-1957, an appeal was signed by 2000 scientists urging an international agreement to stop testing. In Australia, concerns and/or outright opposition to the tests were expressed by trade unions with members working in the area, pastoralists, and the Labor Party among others. Even politicians from federal government’s own ranks began asking questions.

Safety Committee

To calm public fears, the federal government appointed the Australian Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee in 1955. British authorities vetted the membership of the Committee, and in the case of Ernest Titterton, there was a clear conflict of interest as he had been involved in the British effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Cross writes: “So a committee of nuclear physicists – men who, to whatever extent, had a vested interest in the continuation of atomic bomb testing in Australia – was appointed by the Australian government to make judgements concerning the biological risks to humans and other forms of life. Never mind that in matters of safety they were not competent to judge.”

The government repeatedly relied on the authority of the Safety Committee. For example, the September 29, 1956 Adelaide Advertiser was headlined, “No Risk From Atom Blast: Minister’s Assurance”, with the minister of supply saying his assurance was based on that of the head of the Safety Committee. And in September 1958, the minister of supply leaned heavily on the authority of the “eminent body of scientists” on the Safety Committee, noting that, “No test can take place in this country until the safety committee is assured that there will be no harm to human beings or stock from each experimental firing”.

The Safety Committee worked tirelessly to pacify legitimate public fears, if necessary with lies and obfuscation. The Committee colluded with politicians, bureaucrats and the establishment media to stage-manage publicity before and after the tests; this was, as Cross notes, “contrary to all acceptable scientific or journalistic practice”.

The Safety Committee knew – from measurements taken by Marston and others – that vast tracts of Australia (including Adelaide) were covered with radioactive fallout following the tests. Scientists were (and are) divided over the health effects of low-level radiation – a point acknowledged by the Safety Committee. Consequently, repeated assurances that the tests posed no risks were nothing more than propaganda.

Marston wrote in a report submitted to Sir Leslie Martin, chair of the Safety Committee, “In the light of our findings, press reports of public statements made by you and by other members of the Safety Committee from time to time during the recent weapons tests have been disturbing. Your ‘unequivocal assurance’ that the fallout is ‘completely innocuous’, that there is ‘no possible risk of danger or harm to any person’, ‘no risk whatsoever to people’, has been the opposite of reassuring. Australian citizens, generally, are suspicious of such statements, and Australian scientists, who ultimately share the effect of the public antagonism that is aroused, are resentful.”

In a letter to Oliphant just prior to the 1956 tests, Marston said the public statements of the Safety Committee were “wickedly misleading” and that the “high-handed bluff” was “sickening”.

No doubt public attitudes were further soured by scientific elitism. An Adelaide-based senior scientific officer with the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment said in 1956 that “the opinion of the man in the street [was] worth only a little more than that of his female counterpart.” Likewise, Philip Baxter, long-time chair of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and a member of the Safety Committee, argued in the journal Search in 1975 that “In the end, the experts must be trusted”. The realpolitik of the Safety Committee suggests just the opposite.

In a 1957 letter to Oliphant, Marston made the prescient comment that, “Sooner or later the public will demand a commission of enquiry on the ‘Fall out’ in Australia. When this happens some of the boys will qualify for the hangman’s noose.” Surviving members of the Safety Committee, not least Sir Ernest Titterton, were indeed humiliated by the 1985 report of the Royal Commission into the weapons tests in Australia.


Any number of tactics were used by the nuclear cabal to suppress information and to suppress dissent.

The government refused to allow the publication of weather conditions in north-western Australia following the June 19, 1956 test at Monte Bello Islands, which, at 3-4 times the power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, was the largest of the 12 nuclear tests carried out in Australia from 1952-57.

Martin claimed that thyroids tested after the September 7, 1956 test at Maralinga showed no evidence of any radioactive iodine or any other radioactive substance, yet Marston’s results indicated just the opposite; almost certainly, Martin was lying or his subordinates were lying to him.

The British authorities tried to get Marston to return his measuring equipment before he had completed his measurements of animal thyroids.

The Safety Committee (and others) went to great lengths to avoid acknowledgement of the contamination of Adelaide following the October 11, 1956 test; this included falsifying information in an article published in the Australian Journal of Science.

One of Marston’s assistants from the CSIRO was interrogated about research methodologies by the vice-chancellor of Adelaide University, A.P. Rowe, an Englishman involved in war-time radar research and former head of British guided missile team. Log books containing records of the experimental measurements were taken away, never to be returned. Cross asks whether Rowe was part of the British secret service, or acting for someone in authority in Australia. “Either seems a likely story.”

Anti-communist red-baiting was a recurring theme in discussions on the weapons tests, as when the minister of supply Howard Beale asserted that radioactive fallout from the tests was not an issue except for “the Communists and a few fellow travellers”.

Publish or perish

Marston’s major experiments involved testing for radioactive iodine in thyroids collected from sheep and cattle around the country. (Strangely, there is not even a passing mention of the use of human guinea-pigs at Maralinga in Fallout. Certainly Marston was not involved in the human experiments – but was he made aware of them, e.g. by CSIRO staff stationed at Maralinga?)

Marston was able to prove that vast tracts of Australia had been subjected to radioactive fallout, and controlled experiments also proved that most of the exposure came from contaminated feed (thus posing a long-term risk) rather than breathing contaminated air (a shorter-term risk).

Without the knowledge of the British or Australian authorities, Marston also measured the radioactive fallout over Adelaide following the test of October 11, 1956.

Marston’s evidence directly contradicted the public statements of the British authorities and Safety Committee that no contamination of populated areas had occurred.

The nuclear cabal were determined to prevent Marston from publishing his research, or failing that, to minimise the political fallout in other ways.

Cross uses the story of Marston’s manuscript to illustrate the politics of scientific publication, mechanisms for suppression of scientific debate and dissent, and the tactics used by the cabal to preserve their power and prestige when under threat.

Delaying tactics were deployed again and again – the tests of September and October 1957 came and went while the nuclear cabal was delaying the publication of Marston’s research.

The British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment had clear authority to vet Marston’s manuscript on the basis of secrecy provisions. Its director, Sir William Penney, demanded only two deletions, but he also said in a letter to the Australian ministry of supply that there might be “political grounds” in Australia to “justify a more restricted circulation”.

Other tactics used by the nuclear cabal in relation to Marston’s manuscript included:

– deliberate obfuscation in relation to scientific data and the interpretation thereof;

– selective use of available scientific data;

– specious and irrelevant comparisons between radioactive fallout from the tests and background radiation (specious because fallout from the tests could have been avoided, and because the comparisons ignored the issue of biological magnification due to the kind of radioisotopes producing the radiation and how they enter the body and concentrate at specific sites);

– pleading with Marston not to publish;

– the Safety Committee placed a number of conditions on publication of Marston’s manuscript despite having no authority to do so (given that Marston’s research was carried out on behalf of the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment);

– once publication was inevitable and could no longer be delayed, the Safety Committee schemed to publish an article critical of Marston’s research in the same issue of the same journal as Marston’s paper;

– the Safety Committee demanded a copy of Marston’s final manuscript prior to publication, a breach of scientific protocol; and,

– there is, according to Cross, “strong evidence” that Titterton lied to Marston’s superior at the CSIRO, falsely claiming that the British authorities demanded certain changes to the manuscript which they had not.

Eventually Marston’s manuscript was published, in the August 1958 Australian Journal of Biological Sciences. Twenty months (and three more weapons tests) had passed since Marston first completed his report.

Marston hoped and expected that publication of his research would fuel the political controversy over weapons testing. In a June 21, 1957 letter to Oliphant, he said that although the “fall-out from it” would “not injure innocent people”, “God help the guilty …”

However, only one publication picked up Marston’s research – a national weekly farmers’ newspaper, Stock and Land.

The research was undoubtedly newsworthy. For example, Marston’s research showed that, as he put it, a “very large amount of radioactivity … clearly indicated that the plume … passed directly over Adelaide”, which was in direct contrast to the pronouncements of the nuclear cabal. Cross notes that, “The people of Adelaide were NOT told that a radioactive cloud from the third atomic bomb explosion passed over the city, nor that some of the state’s northern communities received several dressings of radioactive debris form the tests. Indeed, they have never been told.”

The daily metropolitan papers must have known about Marston’s research, if only through Stock and Land. “Most likely they were leaned on by the government”, Cross argues.

Cross writes: “The power of allegiance to the mother country and the cold war rhetoric combined with a press close to government conspired against Hedley. How fortunate for the Safety Committee that Marston’s bombshell missed its mark and that publication of his paper caused only the merest ripple in the Australian media. And how intriguing.”

The corruption of science and scientists

Cross says he wrote this story of “jealousy, hate and power in the hope that we may come to a better understanding of the tensions that lurk behind the bland face of ‘science rhetoric’ here in Australia”. He achieves that aim, but also tends to undermine his own arguments by overstating the uniqueness of the events surrounding the weapons tests.

For example, Cross claims that the saga surrounding Marston’s manuscript, and in particular the delaying tactics, represented what was “arguably, the worst case of politically motivated interference in Australian science”. And he says that Titterton’s attempt to publish a parallel paper in the same edition of the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences as Marston’s paper was “an affront to scientific protocol … such a blatant attempt at control of a scientist’s manuscript is an almost unheard-of breach of confidentiality.”

However, the manipulation of science and scientists (‘jiggery-pokery’ as Marston called it) by corporate and political elites is commonplace (see for example the analysis by Sharon Beder in her book Global Spin). Almost every dirty trick used by the nuclear cabal in the 1950s has been deployed in more recent controversies in Australia over uranium mining, reactors and radioactive waste dumping.

The planned new reactor at Lucas Heights is a case in point:

– the Coalition government talks up the planned new reactor as the largest single investment in a science facility in Australia’s history, yet the government did not even consult its own science advisers before making the decision to build a new reactor. In the case of the CSIRO, this was most likely because of CSIRO’s view in 1993 that “more productive research could be funded for the cost of a reactor”.

– a number of scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) noted in a March 2000 letter to a Sutherland Shire Councillor that “ANSTO management appears to be endeavoring to muzzle staff comments external to the organisation (through the use of) Acknowledgment Undertaking (forms).”

– opponents of the new reactor have been threatened with legal action (by Liberal MP Danna Vale).

– American cyclotron scientist Manuel Lagunas-Solar has been repeatedly misrepresented by ANSTO and the government.

– American scientist Dan Hirsch has been subjected to inaccurate, personal attacks by ANSTO and by the Sydney Morning Herald, with limited right of reply.

– a senior government bureaucrat said on ABC radio on March 29, 1998 that the government decided to “starve the opponents of oxygen” in relation to the planned new reactor, to “play the game and … just keep them in the dark completely”.

– an ANSTO scientist has, under direction from ANSTO management, written a paper arguing the case for a new reactor, yet the very same scientist disagrees with the conclusions of his own paper! This incident also illustrates what might be called scientific flexibility: the ANSTO scientist says that every statement made in the paper is true (which it is), but nevertheless, taken as a whole, the paper totally misrepresents his own views.

In relation to ANSTO (and it’s predecessor the Australian Atomic Energy Commission), it’s also worth noting that:

– ANSTO has used its (minor) role in the Maralinga ‘clean-up’ as a (minor) justification for its plan to build a new reactor;

– ANSTO has been involved in selecting the current ‘independent’ nuclear regulator, and the AAEC’s Philip Baxter was a member of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee from 1955-57; and,

– most of the concern over the public health hazards arising from weapons tests in the 1950s centred on the bone-seeking radioisotope strontium-90; whereas now, ANSTO frequently (but falsely) argues that a new reactor is required to produce samarium-153, an isotope used to alleviate the pain associated with bone cancer.

The role of the ‘Supervising Scientist’ in the Northern Territory also fits the pattern of science-in-the-service-of-power. As did the Coalition government’s efforts to change the composition of the World Heritage Committee, to limit its activities, and to bully the Committee to prevent a world-heritage-in-danger listing for Kakadu National Park. Moreover, Democrats’ Senator Lyn Allison claimed in 1998 that the government was collecting a “dirt file” on scientists involved in a fact-finding mission to Jabiluka (environment minister Robert Hill refused to confirm or deny the claim).

A review of Fallout in the April 2, 2001 Melbourne Age concludes that, “The country will continue to pay the price, perhaps for centuries, for those acts of official stupidity by the Menzies government, which were aided and abetted by scientists who should have known better.” But the scientists knew precisely what was going on … British and Australian authorities were at pains to involve only those scientists who would play the game (this being one reason for Oliphant’s exclusion). And with the exception of Marston, they chose wisely.

‘Independent’ nuclear regulators

In the preface to Fallout, Cross notes that in March 2000, industry minister Nick Minchin declared Maralinga ‘safe’ after $108 million had been spent on a ‘clean-up’. Cross invites readers to compare Hedley Marston with nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson, who lost his job as a government adviser on the Maralinga ‘clean-up’ and has since become a vocal whistle-blower.

Both Marston and Parkinson have played key roles in exposing the scandals surrounding the weapons tests and the ‘clean-up’, respectively. But Parkinson has been far more influential than was Marston, if only because the media has been more receptive to his expose.

Many comparisons can be drawn with the Australian Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee and the current ‘independent’ nuclear regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

As with the Safety Committee, ARPANSA’s ‘independence’ is open to question. The head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) was formally involved in selecting the CEO of ARPANSA, and six ANSTO staff members work in the regulatory branch of ARPANSA.

Just as politicians were at pains to invoke the scientific authority of the Safety Committee in the 1950s, so too any mention of the Maralinga ‘clean-up’ (or the plans for a new reactor in Sydney or a radioactive waste dump in South Australia) is almost invariably accompanied with soothing remarks about the oversight of the ‘independent regulator’ ARPANSA.

As in the 1950s, there is a vast gap between the private and public faces of nuclear agencies. Privately, Geoff Williams, a senior ARPANSA officer, expressed his annoyance at a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups” associated with the ‘clean-up’. Publicly, however, ARPANSA CEO John Loy describes the ‘clean-up’ as “world’s best practice” even though more thorough clean-up options were considered but discarded in favour of burying contaminated materials under a few metres of soil. Parkinson wrote in the April 22, 2000 Canberra Times, “Is Dr Loy saying that a hole in the ground, without any treatment or lining is world best practice? That isn’t even world best practice for disposal of household garbage, let alone a long-lived hazardous substance such as plutonium.”

Just as the Safety Committee trivialised risks from the weapons tests, the current government and ARPANSA have made much of the consistency of the ‘clean-up’ with the National Health and Medical Research Council’s National Code of Practice for the Near Surface Disposal of Radioactive Waste. However, the national code was designed for low-level, short-lived wastes only, not for situations like the plutonium contamination at Maralinga.

“The Government has always made clear that the Code of Practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia (1992) does not formally apply to this clean-up”, Minchin said in an April 17, 2000 press release. That was a lie. For example, a March 1, 2000 press release from Minchin said the ‘clean-up’ was “consistent with guidelines issued by the National Health and Medical Research Council” without stating that the NHMRC code does not formally apply to this clean-up.

Likewise, a letter from John Loy to Minchin on February 29, 2000 said, “ARPANSA also certifies that the burial trenches at Taranaki, TM 100/101 and Wewak have been constructed consistent with the national Code of Practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste” without stating that the NHMRC code did not apply to Maralinga. An independent regulator would expose government lies, not parrot them.

And if the clean-up failed to meet the national code, so much the better that the code was not meant to cover such an operation – leaked minutes from a Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee (MARTAC) meeting in 1999 quote a senior ARPANSA officer saying that it was not necessary to meet the letter of the code since it was not meant to apply to situations such as Maralinga. (ABC Radio National, Background Briefing, April 16, 2000.)

Another point of comparison is the treatment of the Maralinga Tjarutja people – as racist under the Howard government as it was in the 1950s. As Parkinson notes, “A very disturbing feature of the Maralinga [‘clean-up’] project is the lack of openness about what was done. Even those who might be the future custodians of the land have not been kept truthfully informed on the project.”

The Adelaide Advertiser announced in 1956 that “X-Rays More Harm Than A-Tests”. Likewise, Minchin said in a May 1, 2000 statement that predicted exposure from residual contamination at Maralinga compares “favourably” with medical exposure – no mention that medical exposures are generally voluntary and beneficial. (And in 1997 the government argued that a spent fuel reprocessing plant at Lucas Heights would generate less radioactive emissions than existing radiopharmaceutical processing operations.)

Minchin said the government “didn’t make a move without expert advice” in relation to the Maralinga ‘clean-up’, but the “experts” were dancing to sensitive, political tunes every bit as much as the politicians and bureaucrats. For example, in 1998 the chair of MARTAC asked a bureaucrat from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR) if the department would “welcome” advice to terminate in-situ vitrification of contaminated materials at Maralinga and to simply bury the contaminated materials instead.

The ignorance of scientists and regulators in relation to radiological hazards in the 1950s was alarming, but to some extent understandable given the novelty of the science. No such excuse can be made now, yet according to Parkinson one of the senior DISR bureaucrats involved in both the Maralinga ‘clean-up’ and the proposed waste dump did not know the difference between alpha and gamma radiation – this is equivalent to a school-teacher not knowing the alphabet.

Just as the Safety Committee stalled the publication of Marston’s research, successive governments have used delaying tactics to deal with environmental, public health and compensation issues arising from the weapons tests. Test veteran Avon Hudson told ABC radio on October 13, 2000 that, “They [will] stall for time until we are all finally dead and that means the problem will go away for them.”

The government, with the collusion of its scientific and regulatory acolytes, has been working feverishly to close the lid on the Maralinga scandal to facilitate its next assault on northern South Australia, a radioactive waste dump. But as Parkinson argues, the latest ‘clean-up’ of Maralinga is unlikely to be the last.

Parkinson made the link between Maralinga and the planned dump in the July 24, 2000 Canberra Times: “Those with responsibility for the proposed national waste repository are the same people who have recently buried long-lived plutonium waste (half-life 24,000 years) in an unlined burial trench only 2-3 metres below ground – slightly deeper than we place human corpses. If accepted, this precedent should now allow the Commonwealth to place all radioactive waste in shallow, unlined burial trenches, with no regard for its longevity or toxicity, and no regard for the suitability of the site.”

In relation to the planned new reactor at Lucas Heights, Parkinson wrote in a September 2000 submission to a senate inquiry into the planned reactor, “[DISR’s] record in project management and their lack of understanding of radiation and other technical subjects, as demonstrated publicly in recent months, leaves very much to be desired. … The newly formed ARPANSA also has not performed particularly well in its first major assignment – the Maralinga project. Unless their performance as regulators improves, then the new reactor project will be a trail of compromises as is the case on the Maralinga project.”