Nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga triggered Hedley Marston to study fallout over Australia
Hedley Marston could be charming, genial and witty but he was not above fulmination, especially where fulminations of a different kind were concerned.
In the mid-1950s, the CSIRO biochemist emerged as arguably the most significant contemporary critic of Britain’s nuclear weapons testing program, which was launched on Australia’s Montebello Islands almost 70 years ago in October 1952.
Despite the imminent anniversary Marston remains an obscure figure, but his biographer Roger Cross believes that should change.
“He appears to be totally unknown to the Australian public and, of course, to South Australians — he was a South Australian after all,” Dr Cross said.
Marston’s reservations about the nuclear program were far from spontaneous; indeed, his strongest concerns weren’t voiced until several years after the first test, when he recorded a radioactive plume passing over Adelaide.
The source of that plume was Operation Buffalo, a series of four nuclear blasts in 1956, and Marston was especially outraged by the fact that the general population was not warned.
“Sooner or later the public will demand a commission of enquiry on the ‘fall out’ in Australia,” he wrote to nuclear physicist and weapons advocate Sir Mark Oliphant.
“When this happens some of the boys will qualify for the hangman’s noose.”
What made Marston’s fury difficult to dismiss, especially for those inclined to deride opposition to nuclear testing as the exclusive preserve of ‘commies’ and ‘conchies’, was the fact that he was no peacenik.
Detractors might have damned him as an arriviste, but never as an activist: his cordial relations with Oliphant and other scientific grandees demonstrate that Marston was, in many respects, an establishment man.
Dr Cross has described Marston’s elegant prose as “Churchillian”, and the adjective is apposite in other ways.
While the roguish Marston might not have gone as far as the British wartime leader’s assertion that, during conflict, truth is so precious “that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”, he had, in a 1947 letter to the editor, publicly defended scientific secrecy:
Under present conditions of fear and mistrust among nations it is obvious that military technology must be kept secret; and to achieve this end it should be conducted in special military laboratories where strictest security measures may be observed.”
But by late 1956, Marston’s alarm at radioactive fallout across parts of Australia was such that he was privately demanding greater disclosures to the general public.
Much of his ire was aimed at the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee — a body established before the Maralinga tests, but after blasts had already occurred at Emu Fields* and the Montebello Islands.
“He was the only senior Australian scientist to express concerns and, because of his character, the concerns that he expressed were very forthright,” said Dr Cross, whose biography of Marston, aptly entitled Fallout, inspired the documentary Silent Storm.
“When the safety committee after each explosion said there was absolutely no effect on Australians, he believed that they were lying.”
‘If the wind changes, we need to go’
The experiments that led Marston, whose reputation largely rested on his expertise in sheep nutrition, to reach this conclusion were two-fold.
In the more protracted one, he analysed the presence of radioactive iodine-131 — a common component of nuclear fallout — in the thyroids of sheep.
“One group he kept penned up under cover eating dried hay, which had been cut some time before. The other group, he put outside eating the grass,” Dr Cross said.
“He tested the thyroids in each group – the ones on the hay only had background amounts of iodine-131.
“But the ones in the fields had a tremendously high concentration of this radioactive isotope, both north and south of the city.”
A fallout map from the 1985 royal commission, which stated that while fallout at Maralinga Village from the October 11, 1956, test was “considered to be ‘negligible from a biological point of view’ it does suggest difficulties with the forecast prior to the test”.(Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia)
For the other experiment, Marston conducted air monitoring in Adelaide.
He was especially alarmed by what he found for the period following the Maralinga test of October 11, 1956.
“There was a wind shear and at least part, maybe the major part, of that cloud, blew in a south-easterly direction and that took it towards Adelaide and the country towns in between,” Dr Cross said.
“The safety committee — who must have known of the wind shear — had done nothing about warning Adelaide people perhaps to stay indoors.”……………………………………………………
Despite Marston’s reservations, the nuclear program carried on regardless.
Less than a year after the Operation Buffalo tests, Maralinga was hosting Operation Antler.
In September 1957, newspapers around Australia reported on an upcoming “second test” that would, weather permitting, proceed as part of a “spring series”.
If it hadn’t been for the presence of the words “atomic” and “radioactive”, a reader might easily have inferred that what was being described was as commonplace as a game of cricket.
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