Nuclear weapons and Lucas Heights

See also: The push for nuclear weapons in Australia 1950s-1970s.

See also: Research reactors and nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons & Lucas Heights

Jim Green
May, 2000

Tony Wood, a former ANSTO scientist, argues that “if it were unacceptable to undertake research which can have both peaceful and military results, the world would not have the jet engine, the transistor or the computer” (Great service to our nation, St. George & Sutherland Shire Leader, May 2, 2000).

A good point, but there are some special considerations with respect to the dual-use civil/military character of nuclear technologies. First, nuclear weapons are far more destructive than any other form of weaponry yet devised. Second, there are ongoing international efforts to reduce and hopefully eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

Third, to relate Wood’s comment to the plan for a new reactor at Lucas Heights, whereas engines, transistors and the like have undoubted value, there has not even been an attempt from ANSTO or the government to argue that a new reactor will yield greater medical and scientific benefits than could be gained by spending an equivalent sum on alternative technologies and programs. In other words, there has been no effort to consider the opportunity costs. As Professor Barry Allen, former Chief Research Scientist at ANSTO, notes, “the cost of replacing the reactor is comparable to the whole wish list that arguably could be written for research facilities by the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council”. And as the CSIRO noted in 1993, “more productive research could be funded for the cost of a reactor”.

The Department of Foreign Affairs acknowledges that “it is a fact that the possession of nuclear fuel cycle technology and facilities may shorten the time required to develop nuclear weapons”. Needless to say, this applies to Lucas Heights. Murray Scott, another former ANSTO scientist, noted in his EIS submission that over the years there has been an accumulation of programs and facilities at Lucas Heights which could be seen internationally to have ambiguous potential for weapons development.

In most but not all cases, these facilities have been declared and shut down. But now we have a plan for a new reactor, and make no mistake about it, this is raising eyebrows internationally. Perception is everything in the murky world of nuclear proliferation. Last year I was contacted by a South Korean nuclear scientist visiting Sydney. It was clear to him that the medical isotope justification for a new reactor was just dishonest public-relations spin, and he was keenly interested to discover the real agenda behind the reactor plan.

Once you get on the nuclear hobby-horse, it isn’t easy to get off. The government’s plan for a remote store for spent fuel wastes in SA is falling apart at the seams – 86% of South Australians, including the SA Premier, are opposed to it. A likely contingency plan is spent fuel reprocessing at Lucas Heights – ANSTO’s chief executive is on record saying this would be “reasonable”.

Persisting with dual-use nuclear technologies, such as the plan for a new reactor at Lucas Heights, clearly goes against nuclear disarmament initiatives despite the absurd claim to the contrary from ANSTO management. Australia ought to be at the forefront of the development and export of alternative, non-reactor technologies for medical and scientific applications – that in itself would be a small, but useful, contribution to international efforts to stem nuclear proliferation.

ANSTO was deeply complicit in the covert push for nuclear weapons in Australia in the 1950s and ‘60s. And if a future government chose to go down that path, ANSTO would inevitably be drawn into the project. This is not likely to happen any time soon, but it remains a possibility. The international non-proliferation regime is under constant threat because of the intransigence of the nuclear weapons states.

Murray Scott said in his EIS submission, “If future international tensions should ever bring about a decision to build nuclear weapons in Australia, I would not be prepared to live near Lucas Heights, mainly through fear of irradiated uranium reprocessing operations. Apart from the obvious threat of hostile attack, e.g. Israel’s strike destroying an Iraqi research reactor, the environmental and safety record of military nuclear programs worldwide is appalling. …The historical entanglement of military and civil nuclear operations in all the weapons states is well recognised as compromising safety accountability”.

To complicate the matter further, it is unlikely that such a course of action would be made public knowledge – even in general terms let alone the details of a weapons program and the risks it posed to the Sutherland Shire. The only discernible change might be an even more obsessively secretive attitude from ANSTO. Certainly politicians lied blatantly and repeatedly in the 1950s and ‘60s about their interest in, and pursuit of, nuclear weapons, just as politicians and ANSTO management lie on other matters relating to Lucas Heights today.

Murray Scott (former ANSTO scientist)
Submission on ANSTO’s Draft EIS, 1998

(Summary notes and transcription of relevant comments from Murray Scott’s submission by Jim Green)

“If future international tensions should ever bring about a decision to build nuclear weapons in Australia, I would not be prepared to live near Lucas Heights, mainly through fear of irradiated uranium reprocessing operations. Apart from the obvious threat of hostile attack, e.g. Israel’s strike destroying an Iraqi research reactor, the environmental and safety record of military nuclear programs worldwide is appalling. Disasters at e.g. Chelyabinsk, Windscale and Hanford and the environmental contempt of weapons test programs come as no surprise when national imperatives, urgency and military secrecy override any pretence of community consultation or consideration. Who knows what horrors will eventually emerge from the Chinese, Indian and Pakistani weapons programs. The historical entanglement of military and civil nuclear operations in all the weapons states is well recognised as compromising safety accountability …”

“Over the years there has been an accumulation of programs and facilities at Lucas Heights which could be seen internationally to have ambiguous potential for weapons development. These have been publicly … declared and in most cases shut down. The facilities were exposed (perhaps only after related programs were terminated) to numerous visiting scientists …”

“On the enrichment path there were at Lucas Heights, ostensibly for commercial purposes, a fluorine plant, a UF6 synthesis plant, a laser enrichment project, and the centrifuge cascade development. … On the alternative plutonium path, which appears more easily accessible at Lucas Heights, there are fuel irradiation facilities in HIFAR and hotcells in B54 in current use for chemical extraction of components from the irradiated uranium. These facilities have been developed for production of Mo-99 medical radioisotopes but differ from a “reprocessing” plant only in respect of the types of chemicals and column materials used to extract specific elements from the dissolved irradiated uranium. The resulting intermediate level radioactive liquid waste is clearly the most dangerous material stored at Lucas Heights and is now belatedly being solidified. The scale of this operation is currently larger than that for reprocessing of HIFAR’s spent fuel … and with the replacement reactor could grow four fold.”

“Whichever path were taken to produce fissile material, the design of an explosive device or a reactor core is highly specific to the purity of the fissile and structural material available. Despite extensive theory, data and computer calculation “codes” maintained worldwide including at Lucas Heights, it would be necessary in achieving military reliability to test particular configurations for “reactivity” without risking an actual nuclear explosion of criticality incident. In 1972 Prime Minister William MacMahon opened at Lucas Heights a Split Table Critical Facility explicitly intended for this purpose. It was ostensibly built for a proposed fast power reactor development program that was never funded.”

The concrete containment building for the split table later used as beamline hall for ANTARES.

“Far from disqualifying this building (JG – the concrete containment building for the split table later used as beamline hall for ANTARES) from housing a refurbished critical facility, the proximity of the tandem accelerator would offer a convenient pulsed neutron source, as commonly used for reactivity measurements. Contrary to the statement in the Draft EIS that “cyclotrons are not a source of neutrons”, any accelerator of more than ~0.4 MeV beam energy can produce neutrons using a variety of e.g. (d,n) and (p,n) reactions, though not at the flux level available from a reactor. During the brief experimental program actually conducted on the critical facility, a small “neutron generator” accelerator was thus employed. The potential conjunction of the much more powerful tandem accelerator and critical facility in B53 is eerily reminiscent of the setup ~20 years previously in B22 where a beamline from the 3 MeV Van der Graaf accelerator was extended into the reflector of the MOATA reactor, and into a number of special BeO moderated and thorium metal reactor core mockups for similar reactivity or “neutron die away” measurements. One might almost think the tandem accelerator installation was designed with this in mind.”

“These ambiguous programs were published and, with the exception of the Mo-99 production, shut down and the equipment mothballed. As with any once-hi-tech equipment, the practicability of refurbishing these facilities is uncertain and perhaps the potential timescale for thus producing even one weapon impractically long. I hope so, but to my understanding these relics remain in storage and now, in considering a 30-40 year extension of reactor operation at the site, I believe we are entitled to know why. It could be suspected that in ANSTO’s interpretation of the “national interest”, the existence of these things at Lucas Heights is one reason that no other site was considered for HIFAR’s replacement.”

Scott’s submission asks for:
* estimates of the capacity of each of the enrichment related facilities and of the replacement reactor together with the B54 irradiated uranium processing facility if adapted for Pu-239 production, in terms of the time it would take to process sufficient material for a nuclear explosive device
* a schedule for complete disposal of the above and any other relic facilities of potential weapons proliferation significance.



May/June 2001

This (unpublished) debate was prompted by a review of Wayne Reynolds’ book “Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb”, which was published in the Sutherland Shire Historical Society Bulletin (and elsewhere).


Letters to the Editor.
Editor, Sutherland Shire Historical Society Bulletin
Sutherland Shire Historical Society
PO Box 339, Sutherland, NSW 1499

Dear Les,

I have just received our latest copy of the History Society’s Bulletin, which I must say improves with. every edition. However, one item included in the latest edition has caused me some concern. I refer to the review by Dr Jim Green (no relative of mine!) of W. Reynolds’ book titled “Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb.”

In Dr Green’s review some statements are made which lead me to believe that they are not only Mr Reynolds’ opinion but also those of the reviewer and that such statements may be considered as representing established facts. I believe that such sentiments are totally out of order and not one scintilla of evidence exists which substantiates such assertions.

Two such examples of the type of statements to which I refer are;

“It has been known for many years that Australian governments were considering, and to some extent pursuing, the development of nuclear weapons from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Reynolds reveals that the planning and pursuit of nuclear weapons in Australia stretches back to World War II, and that the project was monumental in scale.”

Then again later in the article the statement is made that;

“The AAEC’s beryllium research was wound down in the mid-1960s, but research into uranium enrichment was pursued from 1965 for both civil and military purposes – initially in secret in the basement of a building at Lucas Heights.”

The implication from both these and other comments is that factual evidence exists which proves that some personnel at Lucas Heights were actually engaged in research related to nuclear weaponry.

Such an implication is, I believe, untrue and is, once again, another case where innuendo and inference are deemed as accepted fact when no tangible evidence exists to support such a conclusion.

I was employed at Lucas Heights for over 20 years and ended my professional career there as a Principal Research Scientist. Throughout my time at the AAEC I worked in Nuclear Technology Research and during the early 1970s was a member of the team of scientists which technically assessed the tenders submitted for the Jervis Bay reactor.

Whilst employed at Lucas Heights I knew most of the professionals and the projects they were engaged upon, not only because of my professional capacity in the organisation but also because of positions I held as Group Secretary, NSW State Secretary; and Federal Councillor of the Professional Officers Association, an association which represented all professionals on the site.

Moreover in 1985, as the thesis for one of my masters degrees (M.Eng. Sci. Soc.), I wrote … “A History of the AAEC and an Analysis of its Research Performance”.

When writing that thesis I had access to documents and papers which would not have been readily available to members of the public.

In consequence of these considerations, I believe that I am well qualified to comment on the assertion that work was conducted at Lucas Heights which was directed toward the military use of Atomic Energy. To such an assertion, I can state quite unequivocally that I have never seen, heard or read of any such work and that I am of the very firm belief that no such work was ever performed at Lucas Heights.

Indeed, at Lucas Heights there were no computational codes either developed or available which were able to investigate the manufacture and testing of nuclear weaponry. No expertise existed on the complex problems of designing, manufacturing and testing of a nuclear bomb nor on the important triggering devices which would be needed. Moreover, work which was conducted in regard to enrichment was directed at low enrichment processes which were only of a commercial interest. Those enrichment research programmes were not carried out in the emotively described “secret basement of a building at Lucas Heights” but were performed in a complex of buildings known as building 64. It is certainly true that building 64 had extra security provisions imposed upon it, but such provisions were imposed not because atomic weaponry was being researched but because the processes being investigated were novel and quite possibly commercially important to Australia.

Having expressed my concern that an article has appeared in the Society’s Bulletin which contains what I believe to be unsubstantiated assertions and which is misleading in regard to the work scientists and technicians undertook at Lucas Heights in the past; I do accept that it may well have been the case that in Canberra, some politicians and bureaucrats might have secretly wished and considered that Australia would, at some time during the period 1945 to 1970, obtain nuclear weaponry.

However, notwithstanding all the rumour and hype which were prevalent in that era, the reality was, as every scientist and technician at Lucas Heights knew, that such technology was not being pursued at Lucas Heights. The sad thing for all those who worked for the AAEC at that time was that the Atomic Energy Act was so draconian that it effectively prevented any scientist or employee from being able to comment on what was really happening within the organisation. Those restrictions were one of the reasons I wrote my Thesis in 1985 on the AAEC.

But that was many years ago and I have now retired and, whilst I have written this letter, I should like to make it perfectly clear that I do not wish to become involved in the nuclear debate which is still occurring in the Shire regarding Lucas Heights. Rather my objective is, as a member of the Sutherland Shire Historical Society;
(a) to provide the members of the Society with factual information of which I am aware and
(b) to point out that assertions by others, who have their own agendas to follow, cannot be considered as proven historical facts.

W. J. Green B.Sc (Hon 1), M Eng Sci, M Sci Soc.
30th May 2001



John Green says “I do accept that it may well have been the case that in Canberra, some politicians and bureaucrats might have secretly wished and considered that Australia would, at some time during the period 1945 to 1970, obtain nuclear weaponry.”

Secretly wished?! The ‘bomb lobby’ – which involved Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) personnel such as its chief Philip Baxter – not only wanted weapons, they were actively taking steps to bring Australia towards a nuclear weapons capability. Moreover, their manoeuvrings were not infrequently a matter of public record. To give a few examples:
– Baxter publicly advocated weapons construction, as did John Gorton (prior to becoming Prime Minister in 1969) and others.
– the 1963 decision to purchase F-111 aircraft from the US was partly motivated by the ability to modify these aircraft to carry nuclear weapons.
– the AAEC was commissioned to investigate and report on the cost of building nuclear weapons in Australia in 1965 and another study was commissioned by the government in 1967.
– in 1967, the Minister for National Development announced that uranium companies would henceforth have to keep half of their known reserves for Australian use, and he acknowledged in public that this decision was taken because of a desire to have a domestic uranium source in case it was needed for nuclear weapons.
– the decision not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty from 1969-71 clearly reflected the influence of the ‘bomb lobby’, not least Baxter.

John Green says that he was involved in the assessment of tenders submitted for the Jervis Bay reactor. One wonders how he could have failed to notice the intrigues surrounding the Jervis Bay project vis-a-vis weapons. Any lingering doubts that the project was driven, in part, by a desire to bring Australia closer to a weapons capability have been dispelled by recently declassified Cabinet documents and by John Gorton’s January 1999 admission in the Sydney Morning Herald that: “We were interested in this thing [Jervis Bay] because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.”

With respect to the involvement of the AAEC in the historical pursuit of weapons, this issue is complicated by the dual-use nature of many nuclear technologies. For example, AAEC scientists may have been interested only in the commercial applications of uranium enrichment, but others which much greater influence – not least Baxter – were also interested in the military implications. Baxter publicly made the link between enrichment R&D and weapons production. Moreover, archives held at the University of New South Wales include notes from Baxter on the weapons potential of the enrichment R&D carried out at Lucas Heights.

John Green’s statement that the AAEC’s enrichment work was directed “at low enrichment processes which were only of a commercial interest” ignores the obvious point that a low-enrichment plant could be modified for production of highly-enriched, weapons-grade uranium. As former ANSTO employee Tony Wood noted in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader (May 2, 2000), “Although the Australian research team contained only a small number of centrifuge units, it is not a secret that one particular arrangement of a large number of centrifuge units could be capable of producing enriched uranium suitable to make a bomb of the Hiroshima type.”

John Green says the enrichment research was not carried out in the “emotively described ‘secret basement of a building at Lucas Heights’ but was performed in a complex of buildings known as building 64”. Clarence Hardy notes in his 1996 book “Enriching Experiences” (published by Glen Haven, NSW, p.31) that the project was given the code name “The Whistle Project” and was carried out initially in the basement of Building 21. It is an established fact that the AAEC’s research was initiated in 1965 but was not publicly revealed until the 1967-68 AAEC Annual Report.

The implications for safeguards of the enrichment research are addressed in chapter 8 of Hardy’s “Enriching Experiences”. The delicacy of the enrichment project was such that even the safeguards work was kept secret!

John Green’s statement that the extra security provisions associated with the enrichment program reflected nothing other than its commercial potential is, at best, extraordinarily naive. Former AAEC scientist Keith Alder notes on page 30 of his 1996 book “Australia’s Uranium Opportunities” (Sydney: P.M. Alder) that the enrichment work at Lucas Heights was kept secret “because of the possible uses of such technology to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium.”

John clearly has not read the recent research on the historical pursuit of weapons in Australia and thus I recommend the following:
– Alice Cawte, 1992, “Atomic Australia: 1944-1990”, Sydney: New South Wales University Press.
– Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions”, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall, 1997, pp.1-20.
– Jacques Hymans, “Isotopes and Identity: Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999”, The Nonproliferation Review, March 2000.
– Wayne Reynolds, 2000, “Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb”, Melbourne University Press.
– Jim Green, “Shifting nuclear debates: from ‘Fortress Australia’ to ‘virtual capacity”, Social Alternatives, Volume 18, No.4, October 1999. (This article links the historical pursuit of the weapons with the ‘national interest’ agenda driving the Coalition government’s current plan for a new reactor at Lucas Heights.)
– in recent years, further information on the historical pursuit of weapons has become available each year with the release of federal Cabinet archives under the 30-year rule; some of this information appears in the major newspapers on the first of January each year.

Jim Green
June 2001.