Australia’s Nuclear Olympics – Melbourne 1956

Published July 2018

Sue Rabbitt Roff

The decision to hold the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne – the first outside the northern hemisphere – was taken in April 1949. Melbourne won over Buenos Aires even though the equestrian events would have to be held in Stockholm because of Australia’s strict horse quarantine regimes. The horses and their riders were well out of it, because large areas of grazing land – the food supplies of major cities such as Melbourne – were ‘top-dressed’ by radiation fallout from the six atomic bombs detonated by Britain in Australia during the six months prior to the November 1956 opening of the Games. This article looks at the sixty years of cover-up that followed in both the scientific and political discourses that included a Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia in 1985.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies agreed to the use of Australia as Britain’s atomic testing ground within hours of returning to office in December 1949, without consulting his Cabinet. As we will see in another article, Prime Minister Chifley had been very keen to involve Australia in Britain’s post-war ‘Empire Defence’ project, and indeed for Australia to acquire tactical nuclear weapons for its own regional defence. And we shall see that the weapons development carried out in Australia moved from atomic to nuclear just months before the 1956 Olympics, in the development of the British thermonuclear H bomb that was detonated off Malden Island in May 1957.

The official History of British Atomic Tests in Australia, published by the Australian. Department of Resources and Energy in 1985 states that by the time the Maralinga test site became operational in 1956

“a decision had been taken to look into the possibility of making thermonuclear systems… If the UK was to proceed with the development of thermonuclear weapons by about 1957, data were required for design purposes and these could only be obtained in a real weapon test.”

The 1956 detonations at the Monte Bellos and Maralinga could be something approaching an H-bomb.

It is significant that while this Australian official history referred to Atomic tests, the title 1985 Royal Commission report referred to British nuclear tests.

The negotiations with the British for the use of the Monte Bello islands less than 50 miles off the coast of West Australia, then Emu Field, Woomera and Maralinga in the outback of South Australia – five hundred miles from Adelaide and less than a thousand miles from Melbourne as the crow flies (or the wind blows) – ran parallel with the preparations for the Games through the first half of the 1950s. I have found only two references to the November 1956 Olympic Games in twenty five years of researching the British tests in Australia’s backyard. How were the Games elided from the scientific and public debate about atomic weapons testing in Australia in 1956 – and for the next sixty years?

Operation Hurricane 1952 – “Meteorology was crucial to safety”

The first test, Operation Hurricane in October 1952 was an underwater detonation in a lagoon of the Monte Bello Islands to understand the impact of a detonation on naval vessels. According to the official historian of the tests, Lorna Arnold, thirty five years later, “The fallout hazard… was expected to be very localized, with little if any risk of contaminating the Australian mainland – 47 miles to the south east at the nearest point – unless the wind was blowing from the Islands towards it. Meteorology was crucial to safety.”

There were three Australian physicists observing the test, but no Australian meteorologist since “provided the firing took place in the meteorological conditions specified, the [British] planners were confident there was no risk of significant [emphasis added] deposition of radioactivity on the mainland. On this the Australian authorities had to rely on the categorical assurance given by the British, as they did not have technical information about the test.”

Asking “How safe was Hurricane? Safety of the mainland”, Arnold wrote thirty years later “The islands themselves were, as expected, heavily contaminated at some points and would remain so for a time. The survey in November 1953 found them still highly radioactive in places, but it was possible to use certain areas again in 1956. There seems to have been negligible [emphasis added] radioactivity on the Australian mainland.”

Operation Totem 1953 – “very unusual meteorological conditions”

A year later the testing had moved on to the Australian mainland, to Emu Field in South Australia. In October 1953 in Operation Totem, two bombs were detonated on 31 metre towers – less than a third the height of the steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

The official historian of the tests acknowledged in 1987 that “After extensive analysis and re-analysis of the Totem data, it had become clear by 1956 [emphasis added] that, because of the very unusual meteorological conditions, the early fallout from the first shot had been about twice that from the second… It was clear too that post-event analysis did not support the belief that the A32 [modelling] method of predicting contamination were [sic] safely pessimistic, partly because it had underestimated the proportion of the radioactive content of the cloud that would remain in the stem.”

But, she explains, the British scientists “were working in an atmosphere compounded equally of extreme urgency and extreme uncertainty. They were under pressure to complete their research and development programme as quickly as possible, to beat the ban on testing – and perhaps even a ban on fissile material production – that seemed inevitable sooner or later. This sense of urgency affected everyone on the project, and prompted the most strenuous efforts from scientists, engineers and industrial workers alike.”

It also made the British feel the need of a ‘permanent proving ground’ because Emu Field was “a very restrictive site.” In May 1955, eighteen months before the Olympic Games were due to start, the Australian Minister for Supply Howard Beale announced the building of “the Los Alamos of the British Commonwealth” at Maralinga, promising that “tests would only take place in meteorological conditions which would carry radioactive clouds harmlessly away into the desert.”

Maralinga – “the Los Alamos of the British Commonwealth”

The 1985 Royal Commission into the British atomic tests in Australia noted that “There is a suggestion in a document of 25 January 1954 that the Australian Government would not want any publicity about a permanent proving ground until after the forthcoming Federal election (29 May 1954). There is no discussion of the propriety of such a decision being taken shortly before an election.” There was also no discussion in the 1985 Royal Commission report of the impending Olympics as this decision was made.

“In the event, the formal request did not come from the UK until 2 August 1954. Agreement was sought in principle for a series of tests in 1956 and, as the necessity for trials to continue for ten years was envisaged, a permanent proving ground was considered desirable in the interests of efficiency and economy.”

The official historian reports that the negotiations for a permanent test site were linked to an agreement on uranium supplies. “The British experts”, Arnold maintains, “believed that Maralinga, in suitable meteorological conditions [emphasis added], would provide a sufficient margin for higher-powered bursts than in previous trials, but there was no question of testing hydrogen weapons.”

In May 1955, eighteen months before the Olympic Games were due to start, the Australian Minister for Supply Howard Beale announced the building of “the Los Alamos of the British Commonwealth” at Maralinga, promising that “tests would only take place in meteorological conditions which would carry radioactive clouds harmlessly away into the desert.”

According to the Royal Commission “Beale made no secret about his views on the matter: ‘The whole project is a striking example of inter-Commonwealth co-operation on the grand scale. England has the bomb and the know-how; we have the open spaces, much technical skill and a great willingness to help the Motherland. Between us we shall help to build the defences of the free world and make historic advances in harnessing the forces of nature.” The Royal Commission concluded that “The Australian Government had no intention of testing public reaction before deciding to agree to provide a permanent proving ground at Maralinga; no announcement was allowed until there was formal commitment.”

On the day of the first of the six 1956 tests, back at Monte Bello – six months before the opening of the Olympics in Melbourne – Ernest Titterton, an English physicist who had recently been appointed to a chair in nuclear physics at the Australian National University after working on the Manhattan Project and at Aldermarston, explained why the atomic devices were being tested in Australia. “Because of the hazards from the radioactivity which follows atomic weapons explosions the tests are best carried out in isolated regions – usually a desert area… Most of the radioactivity produced in the explosion is carried up in the mushroom cloud and drifts downward under atmospheric airstreams. But particular material in this cloud slowly settles to the ground and may render an area dangerously radioactive out to distances ranging between 50 and several hundred miles [emphasis added]… It would therefore be hazardous to explode even the smallest weapons in the UK, and it was natural for the mother country to seek test sites elsewhere in the Commonwealth.” He made no mention of the imminent Olympic Games.

Formation of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) – “no conflict of interest”

The Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee was established for the 1956 tests. Its purpose, according to the 1985 Royal Commission into the Australian tests, was “to examine information and other data supplied by the United Kingdom Government relating to atomic weapons tests from time to time to be carried out in Australia for the purpose of determining whether the safety measures proposed to be taken in relation to such tests are adequate for the prevention of injury to persons or damage to livestock and other property as a result of such tests”. Essentially the AWTSC’s task was meteorological – the Royal Commission accepted that “meteorological tasks were an Australian responsibility” at Operation Buffalo, the four tests conducted in September and October 1956.

Five physicists were originally appointed to the AWTSC. One of them was Ernest Titterton whom even the official historian acknowledged was “a very new Australian with close United Kingdom ties and a Los Alamos background” and whose position “was bound to be seen by many as an ambiguous one.” The 1985 Royal Commission stated baldly: “Titterton had been intimately involved in ensuring the success of the atomic tests at Hurricane and Totem and could not be described as a guardian of Australian public interest.” The Commission considered that when he was appointed to the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee in 1956, “The Australian Prime Minister’s stated requirements for the members of the AWTSC not to have any conflict of interests in relation to the success of the atom weapons test program was not met with respect to Titterton.”

As an afterthought the Director of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology was co-opted on to the AWTSC. But there were no biologists on the AWTSC who could have advised about intake of radioactive particles by humans or animals. The AWTSC members were never privy to technical information about the composition of the bombs but were only permitted to know the estimated yield in order to decide whether it was ‘safe’ to detonate them – that is to say, whether the weather conditions would carry the expected radioactivity away from the major cities and towns which were mainly to the east and south east of the ground zeros at Monte Bello and Maralinga. It was accepted by the AWTSC that there would be dangerous contamination of the immediate area around the blasts, and the ‘intermediate zone’ up to four hundred miles radius from ground zero which was held to be sparsely populated, mostly by Aboriginal people. The present discussion is focussed on the ‘long range’ contamination beyond the intermediate zone because Melbourne was the venue for the Olympics in November 1956.

Operation Mosaic 1956 – the wrong sort of winds

The first two 1956 detonations took place in May and June at the Monte Bello Islands. The first had a yield estimated at 15 kilotons. The second was an unexpected 60 kilotons – more than the four earlier yields combined.

As one witness, a meteorologist, told the Royal Commission in 1985, “The serious aspect was that however exact the forecast of the pattern might have been, given the different winds, if the winds were not the true winds that simply violated the whole 237 [predictive model] experience and it is, I am quite certain, nine tenths of the explanation of the departures were due to errors in the forecast of low level winds.”

The Australian meteorologist member of the ATWSC recorded on June 6, 1956 (five months before the Games were due to start) that the shape and height of the cloud were “somewhat different than expected” and thought “The difference may have been due to an unexpectedly high yield or because the arithmetical values of the parameters used in the computations did not completely fit the conditions of firing.” The Royal Commission report acidly commented, “Either way, someone got it wrong!” and concluded that “The Mosaic tests were conducted in a hurry under marginal meteorological conditions.”

In particular “the fallout on the mainland following G2 [the June 19, 1956 detonation] was again greater than expected and occurred at locations where no fallout had been predicted. The post-firing winds behaved similarly to those after G1, i.e. they weakened and then began to blow to the south and east.”

The Royal Commission held that “The mainland contamination was a result of part of the cloud and stem drifting across the coast” of northern Australia and that the Safety Committee’s reports to the Minister “were misleading on the question of fallout on the mainland.”

On 21 June 1956 the UK High Commission reported to London that ‘Australian Government have been embarrassed overnight by press story that atomic cloud drifted inland after explosion.” Radioactive rain had been detected in north Queensland after G2, the 60 kiloton blast. On June 25, 1956 the Melbourne Argus newspaper published an interview with a Reader in Physics at the University of Melbourne headlined “We’re right in the path of atomic rains.” Dr Hopper said. “We must learn to live with atomic rain, for it will probably fall in Victoria and New South Wales after the atomic explosions at Maralinga, South Australia, late this year. There will be no cause for panic. The radio-active rain will not be dangerous. But many people would feel easier if atom testing grounds had been set up off the east coast of Australia, rather than at Maralinga and Monte Bello in the west.”

He went on: “It is no secret that wind under the 70,000 ft. level travels west to east all the year round. That’s the reason we must learn to live with radio-active rain. If atom bombs are going to be exploded at the permanent testing ground at Maralinga in the years ahead we are going to hear a lot about it in the future. If danger there could be, it would be in regard to the strontium content absorbed in the rain. If accumulated in the bones in sufficient strength, it could cause cancer. But it might be a cancer that would not be evident for 20 years or more. And who then could say that the cause was radioactive rain that might have fallen over Victoria in 1956?”

But lest he be thought to be scaremongering, Dr Hopper assured his readers “Because of the long range work needed in the study of the effects of strontium on heredity, much has yet to be learned, but it is believed that radio-active rain, such as fell last week in Queensland, would have no ill-effects.”

Mr Patrick Sheehan, Head of the Mining and Metallurgy Department at the Ballarat School of Mines, was not so sure. He was reported in the Melbourne Argus of 28 August 1956 as saying “Keep your overcoats on and get your umbrellas ready. And get your geiger (sic) counters out too. We are going to get THE BIG RAIN within three to five days after the atomic explosions at Maralinga, South Australia, early next month.” Mr Sheehan was worried about “what our own weather will be after Maralinga in September when the bombs will explode. THEY’LL EXPLODE JUST TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE OLYMPIC GAMES. [emphasis in original].” This is the first of the two references to the conjunction of the atomic bomb tests and the Olympic Games I have found.

Sheehan continued: “Immediately after the second bomb was exploded the cloud confounded everyone by temporarily turning east. A few days later radioactive rain fell in Queensland 2,000 miles east. Mr Beale should have been told, so that he, in turn, could tell the people that no matter which way the cloud goes, the upper atmosphere winds over 30,000 ft invariably go from west to east, and so circle the earth.”

Mr Sheehan also pointed out that “A Melbourne scientist has since pointed out that radioactive dust particles would be carried across the 1,000 miles from Maralinga to the east coast of Australia – and beyond. Until the matter is cleared up, atom bombs should not be exploded during periods when heavy rain is normally expected.”

The Olympic Games would open a thousand miles to the east in three months, November 22, 1956.

These two press reports indicate that even Australian scientists outside those working at the Los Alamos of the British Commonwealth knew about the vagaries of wind-borne fallout patterns and the role of rain in helping radioactive particles to settle on the ground – and the possible long term effects of ingesting and inhaling the radioactive isotope, Strontium 90.

Operation Buffalo 1956 – the wrong sort of rain

The AWTSC sought guidance from the Government about acceptable levels of contamination for the 4 Buffalo firings in September and October 1956 since “It is manifestly impossible to prevent radioactivity from falling on the mainland in the case of the Maralinga tests.” It was also concerned about fallout from rain ‘at great distances.’ The Safety Committee seems to have made no mention – on paper at least – of the approaching Olympic Games.

The Royal Commission report states “an examination of the Safety Committee report to Cabinet and the Minute recording Cabinet’s decision indicates that the Australian Government was appraised in considerable detail of the Buffalo program and the possible safety ramifications away from the Range.” It notes that “The Cabinet decision was taken in an atmosphere of public opposition to the test program in Australia” but does not mention the imminence of the Olympic Games.

Rain fallout was presented as a political difficulty rather than a health hazard. It was repeatedly stated that the levels of radioactivity beyond the intermediate (400 mile) radius would be too low to be harmful to humans or animals. The Royal Commission however noted that “Rainout of suspended radioactive material in rain can cause high levels of contamination. The sticky papers [the basic method of collecting fallout even today] are not effective in heavy rain because rain running off the paper not only carries its own load of activity but can wash off the fallout already collected.”

Thirty years later, the Royal Commission concluded that Buffalo Round I, the first detonation at Maralinga, less than two months before the opening of the Olympics, “was fired at a time when the fallout was predicted to violate the firing conditions that had been proposed by the Safety Committee and agreed to by the Government.” The firing was repeatedly delayed, to the extent that concern was expressed in press and Parliament “that the delay was evidence of the great danger that the tests posed” – but no mention was made of the approaching Olympics. The official history says “Penney signalled… Main worry Safety Committee thunderstorms Adelaide to Melbourne. This was political and not safety… Real culprit is completely exceptional weather. Conditions vary widely every few hours and Australian meteorological grid cannot cope with fine structure…Am studying arrangements firings but not easy. Have Olympic Games in mind but still believe weather will not continue bad…We can never guarantee that activity will not be found in rain 500 or more miles away.” [emphasis added] This is the only reference to the Olympic Games I have found in the official archival documents I have read over the past twenty five years about the British atomic tests in Australia. The official historian made no comment thirty years later.

Two days after the first detonation in September 1956 the Melbourne Argus reported that “Mr. Beale, Supply Minister today issued three separate Press statements all emphasising that there was no need for alarm by any-one anywhere following yesterday’s atomic explosion at Maralinga. He received this message from Professor Martin, Australian safety committee chairman: ‘You can give the public an unequivocal assurance of a complete bill of health. All dangerous fall-out has been deposited and the remaining fall-out is completely innocuous. There is no possible risk of harm now or at any future time, to any persons, stock or property.’

Mr Beale denied that the scientists had only 50 minutes’ warning of a wind change, “They can guarantee safety because the weather information available is the most complete assembled in Australia.” Mr Beale said there was no likelihood of a change in the wind after the A-bomb firing, because the firing was not ordered unless the meteorological reports ensured a ‘consistent stable weather pattern’ until well after the heavy particles were deposited in the desert. Melbourne’s rain yesterday was NOT radioactive. Department of Supply scientists who made tests on Melbourne’s rain yesterday said some radioactivity from the Maralinga explosion might be evident in three or four days. Tests would be made daily. Weather Bureau Officials said showers yesterday were in no way connected with the Maralinga explosion.”

In a section headed Meteorology the official historian acknowledged in 1987 that “The wind structure at Maralinga turned out to be so complex, and so difficult to forecast in detail, that little confidence could be placed in the predicted fallout pattern.” [emphasis added] In fact, “At Maralinga, firings had to be carried out in essentially transient conditions markedly different from those expected” and the trick was “to catch these fleeting opportunities.” In a section headed Bombs on a shoe-string she wrote “from a meteorological point of view Maralinga – like Monte Bello – had been far from ideal, and had never looked very promising.”

The official report of the 1956 Olympic Games mentions “the unexpectedly cold weather before the Games began” which was “squally for some weeks” with “frequent heavy rains throughout the winter.” We have seen that it rained in Melbourne in the days after the first Maralinga detonation.

The Royal Commission in its discussion of the 1957 Antler series of tests at Maralinga reported that “The AWTSC was very concerned about the effect of rainfall on the contaminated cloud. Calculations had shown that high concentrations of radioactivity could conceivably be deposited by rain as far as 1000 miles (1600 km) from Ground Zero. Even though these calculations were considered ‘extremely pessimistic’, firing was to be postponed if the forecast path of the cloud led into regions where rain was expected at the time the cloud would pass.”

The initial cover up

The official historian quoted Penney as claiming “By a combination of good judgment, and good luck, the offsite fallout from Buffalo was minute. Every university, and numerous cranks, were waiting with Geiger counters to detect radioactivity. They got either zero results or such minute traces that many of them were convinced that the margin of safety was even greater than we claimed.”

The AWTSC were similarly complacent – or complicit. They published two articles in the Australian Journal of Sciences in 1957 and 1958. Discussing ‘Radioactive Fallout in Australia from Operation ‘Mosaic’’ (six months before the Games) they explained that “The radioactive products of the fission reaction and the greater proportion of the radioactive particles which arise from the vaporization by the fireball of unfissioned radioactive material, bomb casing, and ancillary equipment, remain in the cauliflower-like head of the cloud in the form of an exceedingly fine aerosol. It is this high cloud, composed of exceedingly fine particles, that is the source of ‘long range’ or ‘delayed’ fallout.” There is another source of fallout “that can lead to light contamination at considerable distances from the explosion centre and away from the path of the high cloud. This arises because small particles of fine radioactive particles are left behind in the stem of the mushroom cloud. The fallout of this material is affected more strongly by the lower wind structure than the heavy particles constituting ‘close in’ fallout and it is possible for it to be transported many miles from the scene of operations.”

They accepted that “From general considerations, it would be apparent that radioactive deposition would occur on the mainland unless each test was conducted during an interval of interruption to the prevailing [emphasis added] wind circulation.” So the challenge was “the detection of breaks in the dominant wind patterns”. They report measurements from 30 monitoring stations using ‘gummed film’ – aka sticky paper – and comment “It is interesting to note that the large population centres, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney received no fallout at all.” Or at least “ if any activity was present, it was too small to measure” by the methods they deployed.

Misstatement No 1 “… the high level cloud from this explosion never crossed the Australian coast”

The AWTSC insisted in 1957 that “In the case of the second [1956] explosion.. the high level cloud from this explosion never crossed the Australian coast.” But 30 years later the Royal Commission had maps drawn from the data in the AWTSC paper which directly refute this claim.

In his 1977 memoirs, Minister Beale recounted how he had prevailed on newspaper editors to ‘damp down’ reports of the fallout cloud passing over the mainland since “All the information I had indicated that nothing of the sort could possibly have happened.” And “Had this wild story really got going, I doubt that we could have gone ahead with any more tests.”

Misstatement #2 – “No rain was observed over the south-east areas of the continent throughout the whole of this period.”

Nearly a year later, in October 1958 – two years after the Olympics and a month before the moratorium on atmospheric testing came into effect – the AWTSC published a second paper, ‘Radioactive Fallout in Australia from Operation Buffalo’. Two detonations were again from 31 metre towers and one was ‘an airburst’ which the official history lists as being at 150 metres. But the second detonation, on October 4, was “at ground level” according to the AWTSC paper and is reported by the official history as a “contact surface burst.”

The AWTSC report that “After the first explosion both the primary and secondary clouds moved almost due east..” No mention is made of the 1.3 mm of rain recorded by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology that fell in Melbourne on September 28, as alluded to in the Argus articles including the press releases issued by the Minister of Supply on September 29.

Round 3 was dropped from an aircraft and detonated above the surface of the desert. “Veering of the lower level winds following the explosion led to a southerly diffusion of slowly settling material of low activity. Arrival of this material at the surface was detected over South Australia, Victoria and N.S.W. during the period 12 to 16 October, the delay resulting from the light wind regime.” [emphasis added]

This was despite the fact that the AWTSC states “No rain was observed over the south-east areas of the continent throughout the whole of this period.” In fact, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology recorded rain in Melbourne peaking at 35.1 mm on October 19th – only paralleled through the whole of 1956 by a 34.0 mm rainfall recorded in January.

Misstatement # 3: AWTSC diagram shows westerly cloud movement but their data show easterly fallout for Round 4

Similarly with the final shot fired shortly after midnight on October 22: “No rain fell in the areas over which the cloud moved.” BUT the cloud trajectories diagram for Round 4 in the 1958 AWTSC paper do not correspond with the data reported in the map drawn from the paper’s ‘sticky paper ‘data by the Royal Commission in 1985 labelled “The Distribution of Fallout over Australia from the Buffalo 4 test”.

Misstatement # 4 : Thyroid uptake data far more extensive than sticky paper readings

Several weeks before the second AWTSC paper was published in October 1958, Hedley Marston, a biochemist with the Division of Biochemistry and General Nutrition of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Adelaide, published his report on THE ACCUMULATION OF RADIOACTIVE IODINE IN THE THYROIDS OF GRAZING ANIMALS SUBSEQUENT TO ATOMIC WEAPON TESTS. Marston wrote that he “volunteered in October 1955 to undertake this investigation as a part of the Operation Buffalo Biological Programme that was conducted conjointly by the Agricultural Research Council and the Medical Research Council. The data reported in this paper were cleared for publication in November 1957.” The members of the AWTSC were closely involved in the ‘vetting’ of Marston’s paper in 1956, 1957 and 1958.

Every sentence of his summary challenged the complacency of the physicists and meteorologist on the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee. He wrote

“Radioactivity due to 1311 was found in thyroid glands collected from sheep and cattle depastured on areas in various parts of Australia subsequent to atomic weapon tests conducted during 1956 at Monte Bello and at Maralinga. Thyroids from cattle were found to contain up to 830 mfLc 1311 (37 mfLc 1311/g of tissue) and from sheep, up to 144 mfLc 1311 (70 mfLc 1311/g of tissue). The uneven degree of contamination of pastures was emphasized by the fact that some of the highest concentrations of 1311 were observed in glands collected from individuals of flocks and herds grazing on terrain 1500-2000 miles distant from the site of the explosions [Emphasis added]. As the tests proceeded, fluctuations in the 1311 content of the thyroid glands of grazing stock indicated that many areas received repeated dressings of radioactive debris [Emphasis added].”

Misstatement #5: The Contamination of Adelaide in Round 3

The 1958 AWTSC paper states blandly that “Veering of the lower level winds following the [October 11] explosion led to a southerly diffusion of slowly settling material of low activity. Arrival of this material was detected over South Australia, Victoria and N.S.W during the period 12 to 16 October, the delay resulting from the light wind regime. No rain was observed over the south-east areas of the whole continent. ”

In fact, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology show 3.6mm rain fell in Adelaide on October 11.

Be that as it may, Marston reported that, “The greater part of the precipitation [of fallout] occurred on two rainless days” in Adelaide.

Marston had a particular interest in his home city of Adelaide and his data showed “Contamination of Adelaide and its environs with fall-out from the third Maralinga explosion” that “provided an opportunity to establish unequivocally that extremely little if any of the considerable amount of 1311 that became concentrated in the thyroids found its way to the glands via the lungs; and the occasion rendered possible a detailed study of the rates of rise and fall of 1311 in the thyroid glands of grazing animals in relation to the degree of contamination of the pastures.”

Misstatement #6 : Radioiodine uptake “far below those that are expected to produce any observable effects.”

Both the 1957 and 1958 AWTSC papers stated that the radioiodine uptake by grazing animals reported by Marston would have no effect on the animals or the food chain.

Marston on the other hand considered that his observations “emphasize the speed with which grazing animals assimilate and concentrate 131I from constituents of the fission products that become deposited on pasture in areas traversed by the clouds of debris arising from atomic explosions. In these circumstances it may reasonably be assumed that a rapid accumulation of 131I in the thyroids of grazing cattle indicates a rapid gathering of 89Sr[Strontium], 90Sr [Strontium], and of other bone-seeking isotopes, and a speedy launching of these radioactive substances, via milk, into human foodstuffs, thence to the skeleton where they become deposited preferentially at the sites where mineralization is proceeding.” He added a footnote stating that “As the process of osteogenesis is particularly intensified in the very young, the risk is greater in foetal and neo-natal subjects.”

It was nearly two years after the 1956 Olympics when Marston’s paper was published, and a year after the British weaponeers shifted their testing ground to Christmas Island, having graduated from atomic to thermonuclear devices. The delay in publication had been caused by the reviews the paper went through. According to the Royal Commission in 1985 the AWTSC particularly objected to the reference to strontium – “It must be pointed out that there is no experimental evidence to support the assertion that either leukaemia or bone cancer are induced by the low [emphasis added] levels of radiostrontium associated with fallout.” In fact, Marston had cited the British Medical Research Council’s 1956 White Paper on Hazards which discusses strontium 90 extensively. And Dr Hopper had told the Argus in 1956, “If danger there could be, it would be in regard to the strontium content absorbed in the rain. If accumulated in the bones in sufficient strength, it could cause cancer. But it might be a cancer that would not be evident for 20 years or more. And who then could say that the cause was radioactive rain that might have fallen over Victoria in 1956?”

The continuing cover-up

Marston concluded that “The results of a survey of the amounts of 1311 found in the thyroid glands of animals grazing in various parts of Australia that are reported in this paper indicate that extensive areas of Australia have been contaminated, and that some of the more heavy precipitations occurred on terrain situated over 1500 miles from the site of the explosions, in areas more or less thickly populated [Emphasis added].” He pointed to the “uneven distribution of the deposited radioactive debris.” And he commented that “a noteworthy feature of the series is that after the second Monte Bello explosion, the concentrations of 1311 in the thyroid glands remained, within the expected limits of variance, relatively constant for a period of about 40 days before beginning to decrease exponentially.”

But an exchange of views submitted to The Australian Journal of Biological Sciences, where Marston’s paper had been published “were withdrawn at the suggestion of Sir Macfarlane Burnet, who was on the editorial board of the Journal” according to the Royal Commission. Burnet, Chairman of the National Radiation Advisory Committee, wrote to Titterton in November 1958: “I am frankly worried by the situation because of its latent potentialities to give rise to action which could be labelled by the press as an attempt by Government to interfere with scientific integrity, or on the other side, as an attempt by left wing scientists to interfere with defence preparation. All concerned are fully aware that neither is the case.”

The Royal Commission concluded that the AWTSC “was very high-handed in its treatment of Marston.” The only newspaper that reported this study was Stock and Land. According to Roger Cross who has written a study of what came to be known as The Marston Controversy, not even the Adelaide Advertiser reported the finding that Adelaide had been contaminated at least once by atomic fallout from the Maralinga tests weeks before the Olympics started further east in Melbourne. Cross has suggested that a D-Notice was issued to the mainstream press but missed being served on Stock and Land.

The cover-up has continued over the ensuing 60 years. The official historian wrote in 1987 – thirty years after publication of the thyroid paper, when the relationship between uptake of Iodine 131 and Strontium 90 accumulation in bones was well established – that Marston “drew erroneous inferences from his iodine-131 results, with no supporting experimental data.” But she also reported the awareness of the importance of Strontium 90 as a radiation hazard, which led to the formation of Operation Sunshine in October 1956 in which American, British and Canadian scientists agreed to test soil, milk, food and animal and human bones for evidence of strontium 90 accumulation. She reported “Penney quickly suggested to Martin, as chairman of the AWTSC, that Australian samples should also be collected”. Eventually the mounting evidence of the fallout of strontium 90 contributed significantly to the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

The Report of the Expert Committee on the Review of Data on Atmospheric Fallout Arising from British Nuclear Tests in Australia, released in May 1984, found the methodology of AIRAC9 (produced by the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council in 1983) for calculating the collective dose-estimates for long-range fallout on the Australian population from the British atomic tests to be simplistic and “did not take into account additional plumes (and stem materials) arising from the variability in meteorological parameters with elevation above ground zero at the time of and immediately after, firing.” The Expert Committee “disagreed with AIRAC on many fundamental issues including interpretation of information on fallout levels, progress of radioactive clouds, dosage estimates, risks of exposure to certain groups and aspects of management and arrangements during the tests. Most of all it disagreed with the philosophy used to construct AIRAC 9 – the use of simplified assumptions which do not accurately reflect the complexities of what took and the constant endeavour to present the best possible case which results, to quote the Canberra Times, in a comfortable picture of the British nuclear tests.” But the Expert Committee also made no reference to the Olympic Games held a month after the last of the 1956 tests.

This expert review committee was trenchant in its methodological criticisms but gentlemanly in its attribution of responsibility for this work which it dismissed. The Committee “had access to much of the official material and other data used in the preparation of the AIRAC report. It assumes therefore, that AIRAC was constrained by interpretations of secrecy and possibly other pressures which did not constrain the present Committee. It further assumed that this was the reason that AIRAC had to treat information in the way it did. Accordingly the committee wishes to state that its criticism is directed only towards the document AIRAC 9 and not towards the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council, the scientific capabilities of whose members it holds in high regard.”

The Committee did not explain why it felt freer to express its concerns only a year after the AIRAC 9 report, but “concluded that there was a need for a comprehensive public account of the consequences of the British nuclear tests on Australians and their environment.” This resulted in the Royal Commission.

In its 1985 report, the Royal Commission noted that two researchers from the Australian Radiation Laboratory re-evaluated the fallout data with different assumptions than AIRAC9 and “arrived at a somewhat larger estimate of collective dose to the Australian population. Their calculations result in estimates of seven cancers and seven serious hereditary defects, although they point out that these estimates could be too high by a factor of 10 or too low by a factor of two…”. Not surprisingly, “The Royal Commission believes that the data available for estimating the collective dose to the Australian population are insufficient to permit a useful estimate to be made.”

The Royal Commission stated clearly that “At the time of the test there was no general acceptance that small doses received by the population at large might increase the number of cancers in later years. A current evaluation of the likelihood of harmful effects of ionising radiation or contact with radioactive substances produced by the tests must be based on the hypothesis that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, is likely to increase the risk of harmful stochastic effects.” It concluded that “By reason of the detonation of the major trials and the deposition of fallout across Australia, it is probable that cancers which would not otherwise have occurred have been caused in the Australian population.” But “the Royal Commission has been unable to quantify the probable increase in the risk of cancer among the participants in the trial program or among the Australian population in general.” Nor, of course, they might have added but didn’t, in the participants and spectators at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne a month after the first round of atomic weapons tests at Maralinga a thousand miles away as the wind blows.

Who was responsible?

Meteorology was the responsibility of the Australians for the 1956 Buffalo tests. How could the most senior meteorologist in the country have acceded to atomic bomb tests in the weeks just before the 1956 Olympic Games from a ground zero plunk in the path of prevailing easterly air streams? What pressures were brought to bear? The Royal Commission concluded that “The AWTSC failed to carry out many of its tasks in a proper manner. At times it was deceitful and allowed unsafe firing to occur. It deviated from its charter by assuming responsibilities which properly belonged to the Australian Government.” It also noted that the English scientist member, Titterton, “played a political as well as a safety role in the testing program, especially in the minor trials. He was prepared to conceal information from the Australian Government and his fellow Committee members if he believed to do so would suit the interests of the United Kingdom Government and the testing program.” But not even the 1985 Royal Commission mentioned the continued testing up to a month before the 1956 Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, Fukushima Prefecture is reported to be the venue for some events in the 2020 Olympics.


An excerpt of this paper appears at:


Was Mark Oliphant Britain’s – and Australia’s – J Robert Oppenheimer?