Expendables

Joel Shurkin

  • Clouds of Deceit: The Deadly Legacy of Britain’s Bomb Tests by Joan Smith
    Faber, 174 pp, £8.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 571 13628 1
  • Fields of Thunder: Testing Britain’s Bomb by Denys Blakeway and Sue Lloyd-Roberts
    Allen and Unwin, 242 pp, £10.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 04 341029 4

Institutional guilt seems to last at least as long as institutional pride. A generation after the United States and the United Kingdom tested their first nuclear and thermonuclear bombs, long after the retirement of the politicians and bureaucrats responsible, the current governments of the two nations still refuse to admit that they endangered and perhaps shortened the lives of some of their citizens. Both governments deny that they were sloppy in the testing of their weapons or that they used their military personnel as laboratory animals. Both governments vehemently refuse to admit that they probably irradiated some innocent bystanders. The United States Government self-righteously fights any liability tooth and claw in the courts. The British Government hides behind an Act of Parliament which was never intended to assist in avoiding culpability.

On 3 October 1952, the British Government, anxious to retain its role as a world power as its empire crumbled, pushed ahead with the testing of its first nuclear bomb at Monte Bello, off Trimouilee Island in Australia. Six years and 21 tests later, the tests were halted by international agreement. Some twenty thousand British military personnel and two thousand civilians (the exact number is lost in a morass of government paperwork) were sent to participate in the tests. Fifteen thousand Australian servicemen and an unknown number of New Zealanders were also involved, and Australian citizens were unknowingly put at risk. A number of people, mainly Aborigines, may have died as a direct result of the fall-out from the blasts. Margaret Thatcher has insisted that no one was used as a guinea pig by the Ministry of Defence: the evidence that she is not telling the truth is overwhelming.

Two books, probably the first of a line, chronicle the testing and the subsequent cover-up. Clouds of Deceit was written by a former Sunday Times reporter, Joan Smith; Fields of Thunder – a much better book – by Sue Lloyd-Roberts and the BBC’s Denys Blakeway. Both books were inspired by the Australian Royal Commission on the conduct of the tests, whose report was published last month. In recent years Australians have been exploring the cost in blood and pride of their relationship with the mother country, and the setting-up of the Commission can be seen, at least in part, as a result of Australia’s new awareness of its history as a colony. The Australian Government behaved like toadies in the matter of the atomic tests; and the worst offender was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, described by one Australian senator as ‘the little lickspittle empire loyalist who regarded Australia as a colonial vassal of the British Crown’.

‘The British Government’s public statements of confidence that all was well with the nuclear tests in Australia and at Christmas Island have appeared increasingly misplaced as revelation after revelation of incompetence and mismanagement has been made,’ Blake-way and Lloyd-Roberts write. ‘The confidence comes from a tradition of bureaucratic indifference and scientific arrogance whereby only those with inside knowledge of the facts are supposed able to make judgments, which are not open to explanation or questioning.’ As all three writers point out, Britain had lusted for its own atomic bomb since two refugee scientists, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls at the University of Birmingham, suggested that fission could make a bomb. Technologically, the British were ahead of the Americans at the war’s start, and American scientists were so impressed that they urged President Roosevelt to propose a co-operative project. The British haughtily declined. Though they themselves were riddled with Soviet spies, they didn’t trust the Americans. When the time came for the Americans actually to build a bomb, the British were generally excluded, because the Americans, whose Soviet spies were busy giving away their secrets, did not trust the British. By the end of the war, however, the Americans had the bomb and the British did not.

The British commitment to build the bomb was supported by all the major political parties – which is probably one of the reasons no political party has taken the lead in uncovering the growing scandal. The need to have nuclear weapons was thought to be imperative. ‘Even if the war should end before the bombs are ready, the effort would not be wasted, except in the unlikely event of complete disarmament,’ the Maud Commission reported, ‘since no nation would care to risk being caught without a weapon of such decisive possibilities.’ The decision to start building a British bomb was made by a Cabinet committee in January 1947. The project was known as ‘High Explosive Research’ (HER), and put under the control of the ‘father’ of the British bomb (the bombs of every country have fathers), William Penney. Justifying the expense and effort was not difficult. The Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in 1948, and had the bomb by 1949. The Cold War was on. It wouldn’t do to leave the Americans with the only Western deterrent. At the same time the knowledge of what was happening was to be kept from the British public – an ironic decision considering the flow of information to the Soviets.

By 1951, the British were ready to test their weapons and had to find a place that would suit them. They first thought they could share the Americans’ South-Western desert facility, but the Americans were distinctly unco-operative. They then toyed with the idea of blowing up a small part of Scotland, but the Admiralty had done some exploring and reported that the uninhabited Monte Bello Islands, off the north-west coast of Australia, were suitable. The Australian Government bubbled with accommodation. The tests, Menzies assured his compatriots, would ‘be conducted in conditions which will ensure that there will be no danger whatever from radioactivity to the health of the people or animals in the Commonwealth.’

Thousands of military personnel were involved. Many were sent to assist in the tests, but most seemed to be there so that their superiors could test some of the effects of nuclear war on their men. Mrs Thatcher may not consider this the equivalent of being a guinea pig, but it is hard to see the difference. Many of the men were monitored for radiation, but the monitoring, which in any case was not strictly enforced, was frequently inaccurate. Both books are replete with instances in which the monitors (usually film badges) were ignored. Documents which told an accurate story were suppressed. Men working on the ground often went into hot areas without proper protective clothing, or were pushed to carry on with their jobs even when their dose-meters went off-scale. There was at least one instance in which the dose-meters given to the troops failed to work, and an Australian health officer later admitted the reported results were faked. At one Marilinga test, a group of men were ordered to crawl 30 yards on the radioactive ground to ‘ensure’, according to an official document, ‘that as much contamination as possible gets on their clothes.’ The scientists wanted their clothing, including their Atomic Weapons Research Establishment underwear, tested in war-time conditions. Marilinga is still radioactive and will remain so for centuries.

Royal Australian Air Force planes were sent into radioactive cloud with few – if any – safety precautions. When the planes returned, they were washed by ground personnel in shorts and shirts. If the British were on occasion careless of their own men, they were positively callous to their hosts. Sometimes casually-dressed Australians worked next to Britons wearing radiation suits. A wireless operator, who flew through the cloud in an unsealed and unpressurised aircraft, observes:

Okay, we were naive, but we were also duped. We started suspecting something was amiss when we landed after the flight to find the plane met by British scientists wearing white protective clothing. Our senior officers started asking what the hell was going on. The boffins seemed to know about the danger. Why didn’t we? After the flight, all our flying gear, suits, parachutes and so on, were confiscated and later destroyed.

The operator, incidentally, now has thyroid cancer, a frequent result of radiation. Another flight, an RAAF Lincoln, flew through the cloud after receiving a briefing which omitted to mention the possible danger. A visiting RAF officer aboard the plane remembers:

We flew up and down through [the cloud] taking measurements for at least three hours. Those readings the sensors were reporting to the captain and, of course, we could all hear. As we entered the smoke ring they reported the indicators on the special instruments being ‘off the clock’ and it was at first thought that the instruments must be unserviceable. They told us that the instruments went down to zero when we left the cloud and up again when we went back.

Some of the samples from the planes were so ‘hot’ they tilted the measuring equipment.

During the Mosaic tests at Monte Bello in 1956, the Royal Navy parked HMS Diana as close to the blast as it could to test the notion of pre-wetting the ship to combat fall-out. With the ship’s company standing on deck, the ship sailed into the fall-out cloud and the water sprays were turned on. Afterwards, the men showered, exclaiming how high the dose-meters were registering. Then they turned the dose-meters over to their officers. ‘I have personal experience of seeing some of these personal dose rate meters being thrown overboard,’ one crew member wrote. ‘I do not know why or which ones these were.’ The Diana was not allowed to dock at an Australian port after the tests for fear of contamination, and was forced to sail to Singapore. No one is known to have been concerned with the safety of its crew. Ships collected radioactive samples and were to dump them overboard after testing. The drums containing the samples leaked like sieves and splashed all over some of the men. One scientist standing nearby remarked: ‘One day, you may live to regret that.’ The men laughed. Some British ships were so radioactive they were not allowed to participate in flood-relief work when they returned home, yet no one thought they posed any danger to the men eating and sleeping in them.

In several cases, the yield of the bomb exceeded expectations. At times, the weather proved perverse and did not co-operate with predictions. And sometimes, impatience overcame wisdom and the bombs were fired off when they shouldn’t have been. In at least one instance, the ‘worst-case scenario’ that engineers and scientists love to develop, came true. A cloud doubled back over the Australian mainland, and a radio operator reports monitoring a message from Menzies’s office to the British Prime Minister: ‘What the bloody hell is going on, the cloud is drifting over the mainland?’ After the first test at Emu in 1953, a radioactive cloud – a ‘black mist’ – sailed towards the Yankunytjatjara Aborgine community. ‘The cloud made the flour, water and tea taste sweet. People got bad eyes. They were vomiting and had diarrhoea,’ an Aborigine testified later. ‘I tried to eat some food but vomited.’ Survivors have memories of dogs entering the camp to eat the dead. Although the reports of the black mist were discounted when they were first reported, supporting testimony from whites in the area has given the reports public credence. When a policeman protested that the Aborigines were not being protected, he was accused of ‘placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations’. On several occasions, Aborigines apparently wandered into the test area during or after blasts. When an Aborigine family was found encamped in a radioactive crater, 200 soldiers were reportedly lined up and warned that ‘the person who let this out to the papers, or press or Parliament, would be tried for treason.’ Breaking the Official Secrets Act, they were advised, could mean the firing squad or 30 years in prison.

Despite assurances that none of the population was at risk, there were times when monitoring devices in Adelaide reported radiation 100 to 1000 times above the normal background level. By the second or third test, the Australian Government and the press began to question the competence of the testers, but when word got out that the Canadians were bidding for a test, Menzies immediately assured the British that the Australian people wanted to continue the programme, and although the Australians had the right to veto a particular test, they never did so even when the British refused information to their hosts, which was the general rule. Both books are full of incidents of hair-raising incompetence. One exonerating factor was that the testers, who had no experience of atomic weapons, simply did not know what they were doing, and their efforts to protect the troops failed accordingly. Another was that their safety regulations were based on standards that were believed to be reliable at the time, but which can now be seen to have vastly underestimated the danger. Sometimes, on the other hand, the testers were simply stupid.

Every veteran of the tests who has been in ill-health, especially with cancer, blames his participation in the tests. Proving a cause-and-effect relationship in these cases is impossible: no one can tell who really was harmed. Secondly, the issue of whether low-level radiation is a major health hazard has not been firmly established, despite the shrill cries of the critics. It is generally believed there is no safe point below which it can be said that radiation is not dangerous. But diseases such as cancer have many causes; radiation could be just one contributing factor. To extrapolate and say ‘x number of people died as a result of the radiation’ is sophistry. Yet to discount their deaths is dishonest.

Smith is far too trusting of her sources. At least one of those cited in her bibliography, Ernest Sternglass of the University of Pittsburgh, has been widely discredited in the United States. Blakeway and Lloyd-Roberts seem to have fulfilled their journalistic responsibility for scepticism more scrupulously, and the picture they give is more balanced: for example, they report the testimony of a number of veterans who received some of the highest doses recorded and are alive and well despite the experience. Indeed, they believe that the vast majority of the veterans do not appear to have been harmed by the tests, and show a properly jaundiced view of some of the claims that have been made. They are no less condemning than Smith of the British Government’s handling of the tests and the subsequent cover-up, but because their book appears to be better researched and less polemical, their argument is more convincing. They are also better writers. Smith seems to lack any sense of the dramatic and the organisation of her book sometimes makes the events hard to follow.

Like all journalists (including this reviewer) she too often reaches for the nearest cliché. ‘A veil of secrecy was falling on science’: what sound does a falling veil make? A dull thud, perhaps? On one occasion when a scientist gives a report, his audience ‘rushed from the room to repeat the experiment for themselves’. I hope they checked out of the hotel first. One place is described as being ‘a stone’s throw’ from another. It is amazing how many people measure distances by throwing stones. Her explanation of atomic radiation, how it is measured, and its possible effects on the human body, is incomplete to the point of being simply wrong. She uses the sievert instead of the RAD as a unit of measurement, though the RAD is by far the most commonly used measurement.

Both books serve a useful purpose, however, telling a story that needed to be told, putting pressure on civil servants to assume some responsibility for their institutions’ activities, and, perhaps, helping those who appear to have been wronged by these tests to find some justice. British readers may be relieved to know the United States Government has not behaved a hell of a lot better. It seems that everything about the bomb brings out the worst in human beings.