Hedley Marston and the atomic tests in Australia


Silent Storm
September 9, 8.30pm


Silent Storm tells the fascinating story of CSIRO scientist Hedley Marston and his battle to alert the Australian public about radioactive contamination from the British atomic tests carried out in Australia in the 1950s.

Almost all of Australia was contaminated by radioactive fallout from the 12 nuclear tests. The more notorious incidents included the radioactive "black mist" which resulted from a test at Emu Field in South Australia in 1953, the 1956 test at Monte Bello Islands (off the coast of Western Australia) that led to radioactive rain in Queensland, and the 1956 test at Maralinga in SA, which sent radiation monitors in Adelaide soaring to 5000 times their normal recordings.

The hero of this story, Hedley Marston, was a pompous, conservative empire-builder within the CSIRO — with the one redeeming feature that he became increasingly concerned about the atomic tests and was determined to alert the public about widespread radioactive fallout.

A cabal of corrupt British and Australian scientists did their best to prevent Marston publishing his research, which detailed the contamination of Adelaide after the October 11, 1956, atomic blast. They were largely successful — Marston's research was not published until after the 1956-57 series of seven atomic blasts at Maralinga. Moreover, even after the publication of Marston's research in a scientific journal, the media ignored his explosive finding that, as he put it, a "very large amount of radioactivity ... clearly indicated that the plume ... passed directly over Adelaide". Most likely the media were coaxed or intimidated into silence.

For good measure, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) targeted Marston as "a scientist of counter-espionage interest", although he was clearly no such thing.

The cabal included Australia's "nuclear knights" — Sirs Leslie Martin, Ernest Titterton and Philip Baxter. Those and other scientists were included in the so-called Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, which worked in close alliance with the Menzies government to make sure that Australians knew as little as possible about the fallout from atomic tests. Their behaviour was "wickedly misleading" and their "high-handed bluff" was "sickening", wrote Marston in a 1956 letter to Mark Oliphant.

"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", Marston told Oliphant. "And even more so about the evasive lying that is being indulged in by public authorities about the hazard of fall-out ... I nearly blow a gasket every time I think of it."

Filmmaker Peter Butt does a fine job bringing a remarkable story to life — a task made difficult by the limited film footage from the era. Interviews with a number of Marston's colleagues help, as do dramatisations and reconstructions. The documentary also benefits from the use of Roger Cross as historical consultant. Cross is the author of Fallout (Wakefield Press, 2001, reviewed in GLW #456), an excellent, detailed account of Marston's struggle against the atomic cowboys.

Silent Storm links Marston's story to the "body snatchers" scandal, which was kept secret until 2001. Bones and other tissues from over 20,000 corpses in Australia — and some in Papua New Guinea — were removed from 1957-1979 to test for strontium-90 arising from the atomic tests. No permission was sought from relatives for the removal of body parts. The tests — which did indeed reveal the presence of strontium-90 from atomic blasts — were initiated by the safety committee after it learned of Marston's findings about widespread contamination.

It would have been instructive had Silent Storm compared and contrasted Hedley Marston's struggle with current controversies — an obvious choice being the botched "clean-up" in the 1990s of the Maralinga test site. Marston himself could be contrasted with Alan Parkinson, a nuclear engineer who has played the role of whistle-blower in relation to the Maralinga "clean-up".

As it is, Silent Storm is too easily dismissed with the argument that past follies are of no more than historical interest. Sadly, the manipulation of science and scientists — "jiggery-pokery" as Marston called it — remains commonplace.

Indeed, many of the lies used now by nuclear boosters date from the days of the atomic tests in Australia — such as scientifically unjustifiable claims about the "safety" of low-level radiation, specious comparisons with background radiation from natural sources, propaganda about the medical uses of radiation, ubiquitous appeals to the authority of hired hacks masquerading as scientific experts and independent regulators, and the assumption that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The last of those fallacies is of particular relevance to the atomic tests in Australia because their public health impact has not been studied and will never be known.

From Green Left Weekly, September 8, 2004.
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