The push for nuclear weapons in Australia 1950s-1970s

See also: Nuclear weapons and Lucas Heights.

Australia’s bid for the bomb – short summary

In 1962, the federal Cabinet approved an increase in the staff of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission from 950 to 1050 because, in the words of the Minister of National Development William Spooner, “a body of nuclear scientists and engineer skilled in nuclear energy represents a positive asset which would be available at any time if the government decided to develop a nuclear defence potential.”

In 1968, government officials and Australian Atomic Energy Commission scientists studied and reported on the costs of a nuclear weapons program. They outlined two possible programs: a power reactor program capable of producing enough weapon grade plutonium for 30 fission weapons annually; and a uranium enrichment program capable of producing enough uranium-235 for the initiators of at least 10 thermonuclear weapons per year. Three years earlier, secret enrichment research commenced in the basement of a building at Lucas Heights.

In 1969, federal Cabinet approved a plan to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. There is a wealth of evidence – some of it contained in Cabinet documents – revealing that the Jervis Bay project was motivated, in part, by a desire to bring Australia closer to a weapons capability. Then Prime Minister John Gorton later acknowledged: “We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.”

After Gorton was replaced as leader of the Liberal Party by William McMahon in 1971, the Jervis Bay project was reassessed and deferred and the Labor government, elected in 1972, did nothing to revive the project.

There has been lingering interest in developing nuclear weapons in Australia since the early 1970s − including interest in lowering the lead time for weapons production under cover of ostensibly peaceful nuclear activities. But the more important point is that the pursuit of a weapons capability waned when Australia became a nuclear weapons state − a weapons state by proxy as a result of the cementing of the nuclear alliance with the US through the construction of US military and spy bases in Australia.

Nuclear weapons for Australia

This article addresses the support in Australia during the 1950s and 60s for the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons. The article then considers the shifting debates from the 1970s onwards, during which support for the production or acquisition of nuclear weapons has waned although Australia remains complicit in weapons proliferation through the US military alliance and the operations of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. A version of this article was published in Social Alternatives, October 1999. — Jim Green, Friends of the Earth, Australia,

During the 1950s and 1960s, there were several efforts to obtain nuclear weapons from the US or the UK. The key institutions pushing for nuclear weapons were the three arms of the defence forces, the federal Cabinet’s Defence Committee, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Supply, and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC). Others were more sceptical, including the Department of External Affairs, the Treasury, and Prime Minister Menzies. Menzies preferred to rely on alliances with Australia’s “great and powerful friends”, the US and the UK.

Australia’s position as an isolated outpost of the British Empire was an important driving force. At various times concerns were focussed on Japan, Russia, China, and Indonesia.

Always there were nagging doubts as to whether the US and the UK would come to the rescue in the event of threats to Australia’s sovereignty. Hence the sycophancy – the hosting of British weapons tests, the US bases, Australian troops in Vietnam, and so on. And hence the interest in nuclear weapons.

During and after World War II, Australian uranium, supplied for the weapons programs of the US and the UK, was a useful bargaining chip. It was because of this asset that Australia was included in a select group of eight nations to be involved in drawing up a statute for the IAEA. In the 1950s, uranium supply (and the hosting of weapons tests) also aided the procurement of High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR), a 10 megawatt research reactor, from Britain. (HIFAR, located in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights, is now Australia’s one and only nuclear reactor.)

Uranium was no longer a scarce resource from the mid-1950s onwards. Thus Australia’s uranium reserves became increasingly irrelevant as bargaining chips in efforts to obtain nuclear technology, including weapons technology, from the US or the UK.

In the mid-1950s, the Australian government asked the US if Australia was eligible to participate in nuclear sharing initiatives being discussed within NATO. Nothing came of the governments approaches except some vague promises to consider Australia if the US chose to develop a weapons capability among allied nations.

A nuclear cooperation agreement was signed between Australia and the US in 1956, but it counted for little in terms of technology transfer and probably nothing in terms of gaining greater access to nuclear technology than was available to other western countries.

The greater part of the bomb lobby’s effort was directed at Britain. Beginning in 1957, the matter was often addressed by representatives of the Australian and British governments and military organisations.

The British realised that supplying nuclear weapons could cause problems, such as encouraging horizontal proliferation and perhaps jeopardising US/UK nuclear cooperation agreements. But there was support nonetheless, partly because of Australia’s status as a Commonwealth country, and also because of the British government’s desire to sell Australia the aircraft and missiles that would be required to deliver nuclear weapons. British documents also make it clear that if Australia was to cut a deal with either Britain or the US, it should be with Britain. Communications and negotiations continued into the early 1960s, but nothing concrete was ever agreed.

There were ongoing efforts through the 1950s and 1960s to procure nuclear-capable delivery systems. The 1963 contract to buy F-111s bombers from the US was partly motivated by the capacity to modify them to carry nuclear weapons. Moreover, their range of 2000 nautical miles made them suitable for strikes on Indonesia, which was seen to be anti-British and anti-imperialist under Sukarno’s presidency.


In the 1960s the interest in nuclear weapons was spurred on by China’s development of nuclear weapons, Britain’s decision to withdraw troops from the Pacific, and American withdrawal from Vietnam.

From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, there was greater interest in the domestic manufacture of nuclear weapons. It is unclear why the focus shifted from attempts to purchase weapons to a greater interest in domestic production; perhaps the main reason was that so little had been achieved through negotiations with the US and the UK.

In 1965, the AAEC and the Department of Supply were commissioned to examine all aspects of Australia’s policy towards nuclear weapons and the cost of establishing a nuclear weapons program in Australia.

The AAEC began a uranium enrichment research program in 1965. For the first two years, this program was carried out in secret because of fears that public knowledge of the project would lead to allegations of intentions to build enriched uranium bombs. There were several plausible justifications for the enrichment project, such as the potential profit to be made by exporting enriched uranium. While there is no concrete evidence, it can safely be assumed that the potential to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium counted in favour of the government’s decision to approve and fund the enrichment research.

Menzies retired in January 1966. The new prime minister, Harold Holt, soon faced a dilemma. The US requested that a bilateral safeguards agreement between the US and Australia be transferred to the IAEA. The Australian government opposed the move for fear it would close off the nuclear weapons option. Opposition to the safeguards transfer was sufficiently strong that some Cabinet members thought it would be preferable to close the Lucas Heights research reactor rather than comply with the request. (The previous year there were Cabinet discussions on the potential for nuclear transfers from France which would not be subject to safeguards.)

Cabinet agreed to the US request in June 1966, but only after being reassured by defence officials that IAEA safeguards would not directly affect a nuclear weapons program.

Despite the glut in the uranium market overseas, the Minister for National Development announced in 1967 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.

In May 1967 Prime Minister Holt and the Cabinet’s Defence Committee commissioned another study to assess the possibility of domestic manufacture of nuclear weapons, as well as “possible arrangements with our allies.”

It is not known how seriously Holt might have pursued nuclear weapons. In December 1967 he disappeared while swimming off Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne. The new prime minister was John Gorton, who was on public record as an advocate of the production or acquisition of nuclear weapons.

By the mid-1960s, the AAEC had become the leading voice on nuclear affairs, thanks in large part to its influential chairman Philip Baxter. According to Walsh (1997), “Baxter personally supported the concept of an Australian nuclear weapons capability and, perhaps more importantly, viewed the military’s interest in nuclear weapons as consonant with the AAEC’s need to expand its programs and budget.”


The intention to leave open the nuclear weapons option was evident in the government’s approach to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from 1969-71. Gorton was determined not to sign the NPT, and he had some powerful allies such as Baxter. The Minister for National Development admitted that a sticking point was a desire not to close off the weapons option.

During the election campaign of late 1969, Gorton said that in the absence of major changes, Australia would not sign the NPT. But on February 19, 1970, Gorton announced that Australia would sign, but not ratify, the treaty. He noted that the treaty would not be binding until ratified.

Why the decision to sign the NPT? Pressure from the US had an impact. In addition, there were some significant signings from countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Japan and West Germany in the months preceding Australia’s decision to sign. Another possible reason was the possibility that weapons production could be pursued even as an NPT signatory. The “sign-and-pursue” option would have raised some difficulties, but it had advantages including greater access to overseas nuclear technology and less suspicion regarding Australia’s intentions. The Department of External Affairs argued that it was possible for a signatory to develop nuclear technology to the brink of making a nuclear weapons without contravening the NPT.

(On the NPT saga, see Encel and McKnight (1970), Walsh (1997), Cawte (1992).)


In the late 1960s, the AAEC set up a Plowshare Committee to investigate the potential uses of peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) in civil engineering projects. The most advanced plan was to use five 200-kiloton explosions to create an artificial harbour at Cape Keraudren, off the coast of Western Australia, to facilitate a mining venture. The US Atomic Energy Commission was the key architect of the project.

The PNE project was abandoned after some months of negotiations. The reasons included unresolved questions about the viability and funding of both the mine and the PNE project, concern in the US because of the Australian government’s refusal to sign the NPT, and the implications for the Partial Test Ban Treaty (to which Australia was a signatory).

The AAEC maintained a smaller Plowshare Committee after the Cape Keraudren project fell through. Various other possibilities were explored, but none of these plans reached fruition and the Plowshare Committee was disbanded in the early 1970s.

(On PNEs, see Findlay (1990) and Cawte (1992).)


On several occasions through the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear advocates argued for the introduction of nuclear power. One of the arguments routinely put forward in favour of nuclear power was that it would bring Australia closer to a weapons capability. The expertise gained from a nuclear power program could be put to use in a weapons program, and the plutonium produced in a power reactor could be separated and used in weapons.

While favourably inclined to proposals for nuclear power, the government continually deferred making a decision, largely because of the immature state of the industry overseas and the abundance of fossil fuels in Australia.

In 1969, with Gorton as Prime Minister, the time was ripe. With the NPT dilemma still unresolved, Cabinet approved a plan to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. Site work began, and tenders from overseas suppliers were received and reviewed.

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the Jervis Bay project was motivated, in part, by a desire to bring Australia closer to a weapons capability, even though key players such as Baxter and Gorton refused to acknowledge the link at the time. Gorton later acknowledged: “We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.” (Clark, 1999).

In 1969, Australia signed a secret nuclear cooperation agreement with France. The Sydney Morning Herald (June 18, 1969) reported that the agreement covered cooperation in the field of fast breeder power reactors (which produce more plutonium than they consume). The AAEC had begun preliminary research into building a plutonium separation plant by 1969, although this was never pursued.

According to Walsh (1997), “Gorton’s public skepticism about the NPT, the government’s plans for nuclear expansion, the peaceful nuclear explosions initiative, and France’s reputation in the nuclear field led some to speculate that Australia had made a decision in favour of the bomb. That conclusion seems unwarranted, but it is fair to say that 1969 represented a peak point in efforts to pursue an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.”

Gorton’s position as leader of the Liberal Party was under intense pressure and he resigned in March 1971. William McMahon succeeded him. McMahon was less enthusiastic about nuclear power than his predecessor. Reasons for this included concern over the financial costs, awareness of difficulties being experienced with reactor technology in Britain and Canada, and a more cautious attitude in relations to weapons production. McMahon put the Jervis Bay project on hold for one year, and then deferred it indefinitely.

The Labor government, elected in 1972, did nothing to revive the Jervis Bay project, and it ratified the NPT in 1973.

Since the early 1970s, there has been little high-level support for the pursuit of a domestic nuclear weapons capability. There have been indications of a degree of ongoing support for the view that nuclear weapons should not be ruled out and that Australia should be able to build nuclear weapons as quickly as any neighbour that looks like doing so. This current of thought was evident in a leaked 1984 defence document called The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy (Martin, 1984).

Bill Hayden, then the Foreign Minister, attempted to persuade Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1984 that Australia should develop a “pre-nuclear weapons capability” which would involve an upgrade of Australia’s modest nuclear infrastructure. (Hayden, 1996.) His efforts fell on deaf ears. Moreover the AAEC’s uranium enrichment research, by then the major project at Lucas Heights, was terminated by government direction in the mid-1980s.

Political and military elites have doubted whether the pursuit of nuclear weapons justified the risk of sparking a regional nuclear arms race, undermining international non-proliferation initiatives such as the NPT, or threatening the alliance with the US.

Perceptions regarding national security partly explain the declining interest in nuclear weapons. The increasingly common view that nuclear weapons are of no great use in military conflict must have had some impact. (Previously, tactical nuclear weapons were thought of as high-end conventional weapons and their use in warfare was envisaged by Australian political and military leaders.)

Through the 1950s, the military alliance between the US and Australia amounted to little more than a minimal formal agreement as expressed in the ANZUS Treaty. In the 1960s it became an open-ended commitment to (non-nuclear) military cooperation with the US including weapons development and purchase, joint exercises, and involvement in the Vietnam War. By the 1970s the construction of a number of US installations in Australia had tied Australians the nuclear arms race. Agreements were signed in the 1960s for three major bases at North West Cape, Pine Gap, and Nurrungar. These bases became operational in the late-1960s and early-1970s. (Smith, 1982.)

The development of the US alliance, and in particular the construction of the major bases, is arguably one of the stronger explanations for the declining interest in a domestic weapons capability from the early 1970s.

(On the proposals for nuclear power, and the weapons connection, see Walsh (1997), Cawte (1992), Stewart (1993), and Henderson (1996; 1997).)


According to Jim Walsh (1997), who has written one of the most thorough and useful accounts of the historical interest in weapons acquisition or manufacture in Australia, the rejection of nuclear weapons from the 1970s is one of the “untold successes of the nuclear age”.

Walsh is far too generous. By virtue of the US alliance, Australia is a nuclear weapons state by proxy. As Ron Gray from the Australian Peace Committee put it in a letter to The Australian (May 15, 1998) after the Indian weapons tests in 1998: “The Federal Government can, of course, adopt a “holier than thou” attitude over the Indian Government’s decision, as we have signed the NPT and are not considering developing nuclear weapons. We don’t need to, however, as by hosting the United States bases in Australia we shelter under the US nuclear umbrella and, indeed, are part of the US nuclear war fighting machine. Hooray for hypocrisy.”

The intransigence of the US and other nuclear weapons states is a fundamental barrier to global efforts aimed at nuclear disarmament. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1997) argue that, “By remaining steadfast in their commitment to nuclear weapons as an integral part of their defence policies, the nuclear weapons states are sending the message to the non-nuclear states that nuclear weapons are legitimate, indeed necessary and desirable instruments of military power. Combined with a lack of adequate safeguards for fissile materials, and the increasing spread of the knowledge and technology needed to make nuclear weapons, the threat of nuclear proliferation is real and imminent.”

As always, the Lucas Heights nuclear agency is complicit in Australia’s contribution to weapons proliferation. As plans for nuclear power and weapons waned in the 1970s, the AAEC focussed on medical and scientific projects. Reflecting its new – and more humble – status as a public sector science agency, it was renamed the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in 1987.

Since the mid-1970s, the AAEC/ANSTO has attempted to persuade successive governments to fund and approve a new research reactor to replace HIFAR. The issue has become all the more pressing as HIFAR has reached a stage where it cannot operate for many more years without a major refurbishment.

The push for a new reactor – which culminated in the government’s 1997 announcement to replace HIFAR with a new reactor at Lucas Heights – has been publicly justified with emotive rhetoric about “saving lives” with medical isotopes and with claims that a new reactor will be used for “world class” scientific research.

The medical and scientific justifications for the reactor are weak, to say the least. (Green, 1997; 1997B; n.d..) Assuming the federal government knows this, why then has it agreed to fund a reactor with an initial outlay of $286 million? Why invite the political backlash from a decision to build a new nuclear reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights? Why build a new reactor when no long-term solution exists for the radioactive waste stockpile from the existing reactor?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Australian Safeguards Office (1998) state that the operation of a research reactor “first and foremost” serves “national interest requirements”. (On the ‘national interest’ debate, see McSorley (1999).)

The government is extremely keen to maintain Australia’s seat on the Board of Governors of the IAEA. A foreign affairs bureaucrat said in 1993, “(Australia’s) role on the Board of Governors is central to our ability to influence the direction of control within the nuclear industry and the control of nuclear weapons. It is the only body in the world which looks at those issues on a week to week basis and that is fundamental.” (Cousins, 1993.)

The government claims that operating a nuclear research reactor is necessary to shore up the IAEA position. That claim is open for debate, and in any case the position is not put to good use. As Jean McSorley (1996) argues: “It would not be a bad thing if Australia were in there pushing for stricter safeguards, a separation of promotion and watch-dog activities and stringent safety laws. If Australia did that it would, more than likely, lose its Board of Governors seat. So, Australia has to be part of the promotional stakes to keep within the upper echelons of the IAEA.”

Claims that Australia uses its influence to good effect are disingenuous. Events such as the indefinite extension of the NPT, negotiated in 1995, are falsely portrayed as non-proliferation victories. As the Malaysian delegation said at the closing session of the NPT review conference, “Indefinite extension is a carte blanche for the nuclear weapons states and does not serve as an incentive to nuclear disarmament … we are abandoning an historic moment to free ourselves from nuclear blackmail and to safeguard future generations.”

To secure Australia’s place on the IAEA, Australia must promote nuclear technologies. Unfortunately, most nuclear technologies are “dual use” technologies with both civil and military applications. As IAEA employees El Baradei and Rames (1995) state, “… the materials, knowledge, and expertise required to produce nuclear weapons are often indistinguishable from those needed to generate nuclear power and conduct nuclear research.”

The risk of civil programs laying the foundations for weapons proliferation is not just a hypothetical one. For example India and Israel have used research reactors (ostensibly acquired for peaceful purposes) to produce plutonium for their arsenals of nuclear weapons. Pakistan and South Africa developed nuclear weapons under cover of a nuclear power program. (Whether clandestine weapons production is best pursued under cover of a nuclear power program or a nuclear research program is a debate taken up by Fainberg (1983) and Holdren (1983; 1983B).)

Another of the government’s “national interest” objectives is to shore up the US alliance. These issues have been neatly summarised by Jean McSorley (1999): “Is it that Australia is determined to keep its regional seat on the IAEA because it is part of the ‘deal’ that Australia plays a leading role in the (Asia Pacific) region’s nuclear industry and, in lieu of having nuclear weapons, continues to be covered by the US nuclear umbrella? Taking part in ‘overseeing’ the activities of other nuclear programmes must meet an objective of the wider security alliance by playing an intelligence-gathering role – a role which the US probably finds it very useful for Australia to play. The pay-back for this is through its defence agreements with the US, that Australia gets to be a nuclear weapons state by proxy.”

One final question: could the planned new reactor be part of a renewed push for Australia to produce nuclear weapons? Certainly there is no intention to pursue such a course of action in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, there may be some high-level support for the view that Australia should maintain (and nourish) nuclear expertise which would facilitate and expedite weapons production at some stage in the future. Nuclear expertise, it can be argued, provides Australia with a “virtual capacity” to produce weapons.

A submission to the 1993 Research Reactor Review by a private individual, Gareth Watford, argued that Australia should not develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, but the time may come when it would be necessary or desirable to do so and thus a civil nuclear program must be maintained. “The replacement of HIFAR”, Watford argued, “is the absolute minimum that can be done through the civil nuclear industry to protect Australia’s national security in the total sense, as well as in the more limited sense of defence.”

The $286 million question is how much support this argument has within the political establishment and within military and nuclear institutions.

Moreover, while the production of plutonium in the core of the new OPAL reactor at Lucas Heights is likely to be minimal under normal operating conditions, it would be possible to insert uranium or depleted uranium targets into the reactor to produce significant quantities of plutonium. Alternatively, thorium targets could be inserted to produce significant quantities of fissile uranium-233.

On the possible miltary subtext to the current (2006-07) debate over uranium enrichment and nuclear power in Australia, see Walsh (2006), Broinowski (2006), White (2007). Suffice to note that regardless of motivations, an enrichment plant would give Australia the capacity to produce highly-enriched uranium for potential use in nuclear weapons, and a power reactor would give Australia the capacity to produce large quantities of plutonium over and above the plutonium that could be produced in the new OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights.


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Australia’s atomic bomb plans revealed

Australasian Science, September 2002

Peter Pockley adds new evidence to revelations on Australia’s deepest defence secret.

The story of how Coalition governments worked secretly to build the capacity for Australia to have its own nuclear weapons is probably the most startling in the relations between science and politics in the nation’s history.

The troubled nuclear legacy in Australia, which the current government is keen to downplay, had its roots in Britain’s determined, but ultimately futile, project to develop its independent nuclear capability.

As issues over nuclear technologies rise to the surface again over the replacement research reactor and the disposal of radioactive waste, the story is an object lesson in the perils of keeping such matters out of public scrutiny.

Fortress Australia, a dramatic documentary released last month at the Melbourne Film Festival and on ABC TV, has unravelled the influence of Philip Baxter, the powerful Chairman of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) from 1956-72, on three pro-nuclear Liberal Prime Ministers: Robert Menzies, Harold Holt and John Gorton.

Layers of Secrecy Peeled Back

The first clues to the existence of these plans emerged from a pioneering study of the AAEC by Ann Moyal in Search, the predecessor of Australasian Science, in September 1975 (pp.365-384). Moyal’s perceptive analysis was all the more remarkable for its prescience, given the AAEC had refused her access to its official records under the strict security provisions of the Atomic Energy Act.

Moyal wrote that in an interview with William McMahon in 1975, the then former PM said that Baxter had “pressed strenuously for the production of plutonium of weapons grade”. She recorded that the choice of fuel type for the proposed power reactor for Australia “was therefore posed as pivotal in determining the country’s free use of the plutonium output for weapons development”.

Moyal concluded her paper with observations that seem fresh in nuclear issues of today: “The history of the AAEC is an object lesson in the problems and dangers of closed government. At root it is a case study of the framing of a national nuclear policy through the influence of one powerful administrator surrounded by largely silent men… Overall there was a disdain for public accountability on the part of a major scientific establishment.”

Newcastle University historian Wayne Reynolds made the claims explicit in his 2001 book, Australia’s Bid for the Bomb. Moyal and Reynolds deliver elements of their evidence in the documentary by Film Australia producer Peter Butt.

Baxter dominated the scene while also serving as Vice-Chancellor of the NSW University of Technology (later UNSW), and after retiring from that post. Fortress Australia replays some chilling interviews from the archives: “The only way in which we can protect ourselves, I believe, is by having not machine guns and rifles, but the most sophisticated scientific weapons that we can devise. And I put nuclear weapons in that too. And anything else which will enable one man to hold off a hundred.”

At the time, the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War was at its height and paranoia was abroad about an imminent Armageddon following a nuclear exchange between the USA and USSR.

Anna Binnie, who is completing a thesis on the AAEC, wrote sceptically of Reynolds’ atomic conspiracy theory in Australasian Science (August 2001, pp.29-31). This brought into the story nuclear engineer, Alan Parkinson, who had worked with the AAEC from 1965-81. Parkinson has become prominent following his persistent attacks on the government over its handling of nuclear waste, which he labels “irresponsible” (AS, August 2002, p.14).

In an unpublished letter to the Editor, Parkinson corrected technical errors in Binnie’s article and added, obliquely: “Across the period 1967-1969 AAEC engineers and scientists were seconded to Britain to investigate a natural uranium fuelled, heavy water moderated, boiling light water cooled reactor which might have been built in Australia (Jervis Bay)”.

He did not disclose in this note he was one of those engineers, but when Australasian Science interviewed him last month his professional story reinforced Reynolds’ and Butt’s conclusions (see below).

Explosive Documents

Butt uncovered several revealing documents marked “Top Secret” and “AUSTEO” (Australian Eyes Only).

One memo from Baxter to the Cabinet Defence Committee, “Plutonium Production in Australia, 16th January, 1958”, gives a precise costing for extracting “military plutonium” from a power reactor of the British Calder Hall type, which used natural uranium. The cost of plutonium by-product from 120 MW of electricity was £23,500 per kg. A reactor was proposed for Mt Isa, Queensland, where large ore bodies of uranium minerals had been discovered.

Another memo headed “Nuclear Weapons for the Australian Forces, 3.9.58” followed minutes of a meeting in Canberra on 29 January 1958 between Menzies and British PM Harold Macmillan, which paved the way for the secret exchange of information from the UK nuclear program.

Acting on instructions from the Minister for Defence, Air Marshal F.R. Scherger, Chief of the Air Staff, reported in “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, 13th November 1958” that each “nuclear bomb” of “nominal yield of 15/20 kilo-tons” would cost £500,000 sterling.

A 1966 “Paper by Department of Supply and A.A.E.C.: COSTS OF A NUCLEAR EXPLOSIVES PROGRAMME” covered a civil power reactor that covertly doubled as a plutonium producer, plus weapons manufacture, R&D and testing and a diffusion plant for producing highly enriched uranium (U235 for uranium bombs) as well as “tritium, separated lithium isotopes and deuterium for a thermonuclear weapons programme”.

“A capital outlay of $100M could equip [Australia] with the capacity to produce annually sufficient plutonium for thirty nominal (20KT) weapons at a cost of $13M per annum.” The paper concluded: “It must be emphasised that no allowance has been made in the above figures for any delivery system costs”.

But plans for delivery were already well underway as, in October 1963, Menzies had ordered 24 of the highly expensive F-111 fighter-bombers from the US, precisely (but secretly) because they provided the capacity to deliver nuclear bombs. When the Australian nuclear program was cancelled a decade later, they had to be modified, again expensively, for delivering conventional explosives. Those that have not crashed are still in service.

In “Nuclear Weapons Policy; Top Secret AUSTEO” in February 1968, the AAEC confirmed: “If Australia possessed a civil nuclear power generation capability with associated facilities, it could produce the required quantities of weapons-grade plutonium at minimal cost… This would limit the cost of producing nuclear weapons virtually to the design, development and production of the weapons itself, including trials.”

Without stating the obvious, this subterfuge enabled the government and AAEC to hide what it was really doing and its true cost from the public.

The AAEC pointed out: “The cost of development of a nuclear warhead is progressively decreasing as the technology involved becomes public knowledge”.

Baxter, as the real author, played on the fear factor, underlining it for emphasis: “The ease and secrecy with which countries can now develop clandestine nuclear weapons, or clandestinely transfer or conceal existing weapons, has ensured that in future ‘total and complete disarmament’ is not a realistic policy. Nations can no longer have implicit faith in the pledged word of all other nations. Even security guarantees supported by both the USA and Soviet Russia cannot be regarded as credible and would be adopted at peril.”

According to Dr Jim Walsh, a Harvard University historian and expert in nuclear history who has verified the Australian record: “Baxter [was] a brilliant and crafty fellow”.

In describing Baxter’s style in the film, Moyal said: “It was one of the times in policy-making when secrecy was rampant… He fought like a tiger for Jervis Bay, [saying] most people know nothing about the technology; therefore the expert must be trusted.”

The date of the 23-page AAEC memo is significant. Clearly, it had been very carefully prepared by Baxter and kept under wraps for presentation to government at the most favourable time. This moment came when Gorton, the most bellicose of nuclear advocates among the succession of PMs, almost accidentally succeeded Holt after his disappearance in Port Philip Bay. As a Senator in 1957, Gorton had even espoused the need for “intercontinental missiles of our own”.

The remarkably confident AAEC memo landed on the government within days of Gorton announcing his ministry on 28 February 1968. The rush to Australia’s bomb had begun in earnest.

In October 1969 Gorton announced that the government would build a 500 MW power reactor for the AAEC on Commonwealth land at Jervis Bay. A call for tenders was issued.

Next year, before any contracts were let for construction, excavation started at the site and a high quality road was built. The initial cost was $1.25 million. Virtually no information was provided to the public. Secrecy and deception ruled as Gorton denied the project had anything to do with nuclear weapons. A huge rectangular scar is still clearly visible from the air.

Gorton’s wasteful nuclear legacy lives to this day. The fact that this went unremarked in obituaries on his recent death show how little is known about this decades-long drama in Australian history.

But, after McMahon toppled Gorton from the Prime Ministership in March 1971, the project was being quietly shelved up to when he lost office in December 1972. In her Search article, Moyal wrote that McMahon gave “minimal information about the government’s determination to retract from the nuclear program at Jervis Bay”. McMahon’s successor, Gough Whitlam, cancelled it finally a year later.

Fresh Evidence

From 1994-97, Parkinson was the Commonwealth’s overseer of the clean-up of the nuclear weapons waste that Britain left at Maralinga. He was removed after querying the government’s management and cutting of corners (AS, April 2000, pp.20-22; July 2000, p.16).

In the film Parkinson asked: “What did Australia get [from its nuclear liaison with Britain]? Hundreds of square kilometres of plutonium-contaminated land, which they still have. But no bomb. Crazy.”

Parkinson had entered the bomb story in 1965, unaware of the high-level plots behind the scenes. He had been working on designing reactors for the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) when he was recruited to do similar work for the AAEC at Lucas Heights. Two years later, he was one of a team of 25 AAEC staff seconded to UKAEA for 2 years to develop designs for an Australian reactor.

The AAEC, he says, had already been looking at the Snowy River and Mt Isa as possible sites. But, after he was seconded to Canada and then to the USA, Jervis Bay was announced in 1970 and he worked on tender assessment while in the USA.

Only after he returned late in 1970 did he “twig to the realisation that the reactor type selected – a Steam Generating Water Reactor with on-line refuelling – enabled continuous production of plutonium 239, as used in Nagasaki-type bombs. Yet, all of us engineers wanted a Pressurised Water Reactor without on-line refuelling. We were overruled.”

Parkinson says: “I then met a guy [he declines to name him] who had been brought from UKAEA specifically to design a plutonium separation plant. A modular design got on paper. Also, a team of 30 in the AAEC labs had gone further by developing gas centrifuges for enriching uranium 235.

“‘Hang on,’ I asked myself. Why do we need a plutonium separation plant that does not fit into a power program? And, once uranium enrichment exceeds 3% (for reactor fuel) it approaches weapons grade. My suspicions had become firm by September 1975.”

Reynolds brought the nuclear secret up to date in concluding the film. He believes Australians “want to have the capacity to develop our own bomb quickly, in the event that the Americans are not forthcoming… I think it’s fair to assume that that capacity is still on the books”.

Fortress Australia

ABC showed a remarkable documentary called ‘Fortress Australia’ revealing the hidden weapons agenda behind the plan to build a nuclear power reactor on Commonwealth land at Jervis Bay. Currently (2022) the video is not on youtube but hopefully it will reappear. It might be possible to get it from the ABC (see notes below).

ABC information about Fortress Australia

Broadcast: 22/8/2002

Fortress Australia uncovers one of the most extraordinary chapters in Australia’s history – the brazen attempt by successive Australian governments to fortress their nation with atomic weapons. Recently released top secret documents finally allow this astonishing story to be told. They reveal a web of intrigue, in which Australia’s nuclear industry became inextricably linked to a quest for atomic weapons technology.

Set against a backdrop of cold war paranoia and fear of Asian aggression, Fortress Australia explores the motives of the politicians, defence chiefs and scientists who set out to buy, then ultimately build, a nuclear arsenal.

From uranium exploration and guided weapons research to A-bomb tests on Australian soil, the film shows how Canberra aided both Britain and the United States in the hope of sharing their nuclear secrets. But it proved to be an extraordinary double-game in which both allies and enemies treated Australia with mistrust.

This groundbreaking film penetrates the murky world of atomic espionage and counter-espionage. It exposes KGB infiltration of crucial political offices, which almost thwarted Australia’s nuclear ambitions. It also brings to light the secret role of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in the quest for nuclear weapons — in particular, the ill-fated Jervis Bay Nuclear Reactor Project, which could have enabled Australia to build as many as 30 nuclear weapons a year.


Fortress Australia had a long gestation. Two decades ago I picked up a self-published book – Without Hardware – penned by Catherine Dalton, daughter of British poet and historian Robert Graves, of I, Claudius fame.

The story dealt with the mysterious death in the late 1950s of Catherine’s husband Clifford Dalton, a leading engineer at the newly established Atomic Energy Commission’s research facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. Dalton drew a picture of a highly secret institution, which she believed had a malicious hand in her husband’s untimely demise. In 1983, with the financial assistance of the Australian Film Commission, I set about writing a feature-length dramatic screenplay based on the book.

Some years later, when the American nuclear film Silkwood and two Australian features with nuclear themes were released, I realised the project would not survive in an already saturated market. After more than a dozen drafts, I relinquished the option. What I didn’t drop was an interest in the affairs of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) in the 1950s and 60s. That interest deepened when I came upon an extraordinary interview in the archives with the Commission’s Chairman, Sir Philip Baxter, in which he called for a biological, chemical and nuclear-armed Australia.

I also discovered a newspaper article from the early 1970s in which Baxter suggested that Australia was capable of producing nuclear weapons within a matter of years. I wondered how this could be achieved without the scientific infrastructure, the means to produce plutonium and the years of research and development required for such an enormous undertaking. The only conclusion I could come to was that these essential precursors to bomb production already existed. And if they did exist, then there must have been the political will in Australia at some time to build atomic weapons. But in the early 1980s, the official Government documents relating to nuclear defence and atomic matters were unavailable, due to the 30-year secrecy rule. A few people, however, had investigated the subject.

In a 1975 feature article for Search (a journal published by the Australian & New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science) historian Ann Moyal questioned both the highly secretive research agenda of the AAEC and the Gorton Government’s decision in 1969 to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay. In Moyal’s view, the economics of the reactor didn’t add up, unless it was to be used to provide plutonium for atomic weapons. Alice Cawte, in her excellent book, Atomic Australia, made a similar deduction.

In September 2000, I felt it was now time to revisit the story. I knew that documents relating to Australia’s early atomic history would now be open to inspection. To my surprise, there were more documents relating to Australia’s interest in nuclear weapons than for both uranium and atomic energy put together.

Many of the documents about nuclear weapons’ policy came from the Department of Defence, the Prime Minister’s Department and the Department of Supply, but those relating to the technical, scientific and economic aspects of bomb production were authored by the AAEC and often bore the signature of its Chairman, Sir Philip Baxter.

They revealed:
* A serious concern between 1946 and 1971 about Australia’s inadequate defences in the atomic age.
* Prime Minister Robert Menzies in the early 1950s believed that the defence forces would inevitably be armed with nuclear weapons.
* Growing doubts as to whether Australia’s allies, the United States and Britain, would provide nuclear protection.
* The Menzies government had made numerous but unfruitful approaches to Britain and America to secure nuclear technology.
* In 1958 Menzies made a direct approach to his British counterpart Macmillan to buy British nuclear weapons.
* Sir Philip Baxter, the Chairman of the AAEC, continually pressured the government to either acquire the weapons or create the infrastructure to build them in Australia.
* A growing fear of our northern neighbours (especially after China exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964, and Indonesia boasted that it would soon have the bomb) resulting in the government calling on the AAEC to provide costs for building the bomb.
* How Australian uranium was denied to Britain in 1966 so that there would be enough radioactive materials to start a nuclear weapons program.
* Baxter’s preferred tenders for the Jervis Bay Nuclear Reactor were those that could produce plutonium for building the bomb.

Other defence related documents provide an extraordinary insight into the mistrust held by Australia, not only of its potential enemies, but also of its allies. They reveal both a country fearful of its future and a belief that battlefield nuclear weapons were the answer to Australia’s defence needs.

With many of these documents in hand, I went to Film Australia, as it seemed a natural project for its National Interest Program. The greatest challenge was to bring the story alive on film. As a specialist in archive film, I knew sourcing newsreels and informational films dealing with defence and politics wouldn’t be difficult. But this project also required footage not in the public domain. More than 50 hours of archive footage was located, many hours of which have never before been released for public screening.

One such film was a ‘classified’ version of a documentary called Operation Blowdown, which covered the scientific and military aspects of a simulated nuclear blast in North Queensland in 1963. This bizarre experiment assumed that the next war involving Australia would take place in the jungles of South East Asia or even New Guinea and involve nuclear weapons. Out of the US National Archives came extraordinary footage of the first Chinese Nuclear blast in 1964 – an event that so worried Menzies he called for a report on the costs of producing Australia’s own bombs.

Spectacular colour footage of the British bomb tests in Australia, the Woomera rocket range and the Lucas Heights research facility was also uncovered. ANSTO – the modern incarnation of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission – generously supplied splendid historical footage and gave the production permission to film its HIFAR Reactor. Candid ABC interviews with AAEC Chairman, Sir Philip Baxter, provide a chilling insight into both the risks for Australia of another global war and the hazards of allowing scientists to plan for it. Baxter’s call, in 1972, for nuclear weapons to repel refugees from a global catastrophe is one of the most disturbing interviews I have ever seen.

A rewarding aspect of the production was meeting the twelve interviewees who bring the story to life with surprising insights about Australia’s bold bid for a nuclear arsenal. A fortunate find was Jim Walsh, a Harvard University researcher, who investigates countries that have pursued atomic weapons options and either failed or succeeded, then renounced them. Walsh’s grasp of the Australian nuclear weapons story is unequalled.

During production we were able to uncover many relics of Australia’s nuclear history. Central to the story is the proposed Jervis Bay nuclear reactor, which would have provided the plutonium required for nuclear weapons’ production. In 1970, hectares of eucalypt forest were removed to provide foundations for the reactor. Today, the scar on the landscape remains as a stark reminder of our secret interest in developing a nuclear bomb.

We also travelled to Woomera Rocket Range, where Australia joined with Britain to develop guided missiles for the nuclear age. The crumbling launching pads and the spent weapons that litter the range represent the last vestiges of our defence relationship with Britain.

The most striking aspect of filming these places is that we were visiting territory once prohibited to all but scientists and defence personnel. These were places that were meant to provide the nation’s protection in the event of another global war, yet at the same time they were escalating the tension and suspicions that could have precipitated it.

Ultimately, we have produced Fortress Australia to allow Australians to understand the thinking of their political, scientific and defence leaders who flirted with the bomb.

It is a story about the all-too-trusting relationship between science and society. A tale from the height of the Cold War about secrecy and deception with poignant lessons for democracy – a story that powerfully resonates into the present day.

− Peter Butt, Producer/Director

The DVD is available for purchase from: Sales and Distribution Coordinator, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Level 1, 45 Murray Street Pyrmont NSW 2009, ph +61 2 8202 0144. If you’re going to buy the DVD, consider also getting the remarkable Silent Storm DVD about the British bomb tests and the role of whistleblower Hedley Marston.

Atomic Australia

October 1997

Book review by Jim Green

Review of Alice Cawte, ‘Atomic Australia: 1944-1990’, Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1992.

Keith Alder, ‘Australia’s Uranium Opportunities: How Her Scientists and Engineers Tried to Bring Her into the Nuclear Age but were Stymied by Politics’, Sydney: P.M. Alder, 1996,  83 pp.

How close did Australia come to building nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s? By far the most interesting analysis of this issue is in Alice Cawte’s Atomic Australia. Cawte takes a critical look at the whole scope of Australia’s nuclear industry, but her major contribution is some detective work on the weapons issue. Cawte draws on academic literature, newspaper reports, and a considerable volume of unpublished archival material such as Cabinet submissions from the government’s Defence Committee, Ministers, and Phillip Baxter (Chairman of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission from 1953 to 1972). The archival research is particularly revealing.

What emerges from Cawte’s research that there was sustained, high-level interest in a nuclear weapons capability through the 1950s and 1960s, though it was not seen as an urgent matter nor was their consensus on the issue. The Menzies government was not intent on developing nuclear weapons – most of the time it just wanted to keep its options open. To this end, the government was willing to support civil nuclear projects – such as nuclear power – in order to lower the barriers to nuclear weapons. There was also considerable interest in the purchase of nuclear weapons from the US or the UK, or for the stationing of American nuclear weapons in Australia.

Nuclear cowboys such as Baxter sought to drum up business for themselves by pushing for nuclear weapons – it was no coincidence that the strongest push came in the late 1960s, when the AAEC was at a loose end and its future insecure. A second, more important driving force was ruling-class paranoia about Australia’s position as an isolated outpost of British imperialism. At various times this paranoia was focused on Japan, Russia, China, and Indonesia. Always there were nagging doubts as to whether Australia’s imperialist allies, the US and the UK, would come to the rescue in the event of threats to Australia’s sovereignty. Hence the sycophancy – the weapons tests, the US bases, Australian troops in Vietnam, and so on. And hence the interest in the purchase or construction of nuclear weapons.

On numerous occasions through the 1950s, nuclear cowboys and politicians argued for the introduction of nuclear power. Often it was argued that one reason for building a nuclear power plant was to lower the barriers to nuclear weapons. The connection was twofold: plutonium could be separated from spent fuel from power reactors, and the expertise gained through a power program would be invaluable for a weapons program. While generally supportive of the various proposals put forward, the government continually deferred making a decision on nuclear power, largely because of the immature state of the industry overseas and the abundance of fossil fuels in Australia.

In the 1950s, the government’s Defence Committee, which included the chiefs of the armed forces, approached the US about the possibility of stationing nuclear weapons in Australia. No dice. In 1958 an informal approach was made to buy bombers and tactical nuclear weapons from the UK. Again, no dice. The 1963 decision to buy F-111 bombers from the US was partly motivated by the capacity to modify F-111s to carry nuclear bombs if required; better still, their range of 2000 nautical miles made them suitable for strikes on Indonesia if such were needed to put an end to Sukarno’s “adventurism”.

In 1965, the AAEC and the Department of Supply were commissioned to examine all aspects of Australia’s policy towards nuclear weapons and the cost of establishing a nuclear weapons program in Australia. The AAEC also began a centrifuge uranium enrichment program in 1965. For the first two years, this program was carried out in secret because of fears that public knowledge of the project would lead to allegations of intentions to build nuclear bombs.

There were several plausible justifications for the enrichment project, such as the potential profit to be made by exporting enriched uranium. While there is no concrete evidence, it is also possible that the weapons implications counted in favour of the government’s decision to approve and fund the enrichment program. Its worth noting that South Africa covertly built highly-enriched uranium bombs using enrichment facilities, and Pakistan has almost certainly done the same.

Despite the glut in the uranium market overseas, the Minister for National Development announced in 1967 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 momentum continued to build in the late 1960s. (Sir Phillip) Baxter was still an influential advocate of nuclear weapons, as were some other nuclear scientists and administrators including Australia’s second Nuclear Knight, Sir Ernest Titterton. The Democratic Labor Party, strongly Roman Catholic and fiercely anti-communist, advocated a nuclear weapons capability in official policy statements. Sundry other politicians argued the case for nuclear weapons. The Returned Services League advocated a weapons program, though equivocally at times, and there was some support within the military.

The intention to leave open the nuclear weapons option was evident in the government’s approach to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from 1969-71. By this time John Gorton was Prime Minister. He had openly advocated the production or acquisition of nuclear weapons in the late 1950s. Gorton was determined not to sign the NPT, and he had some powerful allies such as Baxter. When the United Nations General Assembly met in April 1968, the Australian position was one of obfuscation and rejection of the NPT. A host of specious arguments were put forward, such as that signing the NPT would retard Australia’s economic development. Back in Australia, the Minister for National Development admitted that a sticking point was a desire not to close off the weapons option.

Another episode in the late 1960s was the “peaceful” nuclear explosions fiasco. The AAEC and the government offered Australia as a guinea-pig for an American project to test massive nuclear explosions. The plan was for five 200-kiloton explosions to create an artificial harbour off the coast of Western Australia; by contrast, the Hiroshima bomb was 12-15 kilotons. Thankfully, that project was abandoned, and the AAEC’s “Plowshare Committee” was disbanded soon after.

Nuclear power was back on the agenda in 1969. A plan was approved to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay on the NSW south coast. The project was abandoned in 1971, though not before considerable preliminary work had been completed and a number of tenders from overseas firms had been received and reviewed. There is a wealth of circumstantial evidence – too much to discuss here – to suggest that the Jervis Bay project was motivated, in part, by a desire to bring Australia closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

The financial costs associated with nuclear weapons were never likely to be insurmountable. Developing the technical and manufacturing expertise and facilities would have taken considerable time and effort, a significant but not prohibitive obstacle. The major barriers to nuclear weapons manufacture in Australia have been political. There were (and are) considerable doubts as to whether any advantages of acquiring nuclear weapons would outweigh negatives such as the possibility of sparking a regional nuclear arms race, or the possibility of threatening the alliance with the US.

Overall, Cawte’s analysis of the weapons issue is intriguing and convincing. Cabinet documents from 1962-66, released in the five years since Cawte’s book, all confirm the general thrust of her arguments. Cawte’s book has, by and large, met with deafening silence from the nuclear industry, but there have also been some attacks. One such attack is that of Keith Alder in his book Australia’s Uranium Opportunities (which is mostly focused on the AAEC’s enrichment project).

Alder was centrally involved in much of the AAEC’s work from the mid 1950s until 1982. He claims that “…… there was never any planning or work done by the AAEC towards the development of nuclear weapons in Australia …… (All), repeat all, of the Commission’s own work was directed at all times to the peaceful uses of Atomic Energy, and those who say otherwise are remoulding history to suit their own false views and political purposes.”

In fact, all of the AAEC’s work lowered the barriers to nuclear weapons to a greater or lesser degree, regardless of intentions. Here is Phillip Baxter arguing the point: “Almost every action, every piece of research, technological development or industrial activity carried out in peaceful uses of atomic energy could also be looked upon as a step in the ‘manufacture’ of nuclear weapons. There is such a large overlap in the military and peaceful uses in these areas that they are virtually one.”

Whether there was ever any research at the AAEC directly and deliberately related to weapons is an open question. If a decision was ever made to systematically pursue a weapons program – and its unlikely that there was such a decision – it would have been in the late 1960s under Gorton. For the inside information on that period, we’ll have to wait a couple more years for the declassification of documents under the 30-year rule.

More generally, Alder’s ranting misses the point. He ignores Baxter’s arguments, repeated over the years, that projects such as nuclear power and enrichment should be pursued to lower the barriers to nuclear weapons. He ignores (or is unaware of) the overtures made by the federal government’s Defence Committee to the US and UK in relation to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. He says nothing about the AAEC’s Plowshare Committee and the “peaceful” nuclear explosions nonsense. He says nothing about the refusal of the government to sign the NPT in the late 1960s. He ignores the public advocacy of Gorton and several other politicians for a nuclear weapons “deterrent”. And he ignores much else besides.

All that Alder can do is to assert that neither Baxter nor anyone at the AAEC supported nuclear weapons development or supported civil nuclear projects to lower the barriers to nuclear weapons. He repeatedly says that those who claim otherwise are politically-motivated, anti-nuclear dogmatists whose arguments rely on dubious sources. Alder’s perspective is one of embitterment at the failure of so many of the AAEC’s nuclear projects. In short, his erudite thesis on Australia’s nuclear history is that “Dogma won, over national interest.”

Alder’s vision is for Australia to provide the world with “total nuclear fuel cycle services including reprocessing and waste disposal”, and if the ignorant, politically-motivated dogmatists have their way, Australia risks invasion from Asian countries in need of uranium. Baxter argued that last point many years ago.

Further reading on Australia’s bid for the bomb

Nautilus Institute, Australia nuclear proliferation history

Jacques E.C. Hymans, 2000, “Isotopes and Identity: Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999”, Nonproliferation Review, Vol.7, No.1, Spring, pp.1-23,

Jim Walsh, 1997, ‘Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions’, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall, pp.1-20,

Alice Cawte, 1992, “Atomic Australia: 1944-1990”, Sydney: New South Wales University Press.

Wayne Reynolds, 2000, “Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb”, Melbourne University Press.

Richard Broinowski, Australian nuclear weapons: the story so far, Austral Policy Forum 06-23A 17 July 2006,

Richard Broinowski, 2006, Australia’s New Nuclear Ambitions,

Richard Tanter, ‘The Re-emergence of an Australian nuclear weapons option?’, APSNet Policy Forum, December 1, 2007,

Tom Hyland, 6 July 2008, ‘When Australia had a bombshell for US’,

Greg Ansley, 1 Jan 2002, ‘N-club tempting for military chiefs’,

‘Australia’s defence chiefs pushed for atomic weapons research as part of the nation’s nuclear energy programme, despite the signing of the non-proliferation treaty 15 months earlier, secret 1971 cabinet documents reveal.’

Jim Green website archive:

Australia – nuclear proliferation history

Please see the Nautilus Institute webpage which is likely to have updated material.

Government sources


Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy – 1971, Department of Defence

  1. Finally there is, in our opinion, no present strategic need for Australia to develop or acquire nuclear weapons; but the implications of China’s growing nuclear military capacity, and of the growth of military technology in Japan and India, need continuous review. We consider that the opportunities for decision open to the Australian Government in future would be enlarged if the lead time for the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability could be shortened. We recommend regard to this, without undue claims upon resources, in the future development of Australia’s nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes, in the Defence research and development programme, and in other relevant ways.

Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy – 1976, Department of Defence

  1. No requirement is seen in Australia’s present and prospective strategic circumstances for acquisition of nuclear weapons. Any steps taken in this direction would at a certain point seriously concern the US and probably cause strong opposition from other nuclear powers. It could alarm countries of major strategic concern to Australia and stimulate further nuclear proliferation. (See also paragraph 382 in Chapter Ten).
  2. No requirement is seen for Australia now to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the possible requirement to keep the lead time for Australia matched with contingent developments in other relevant countries, calls for keeping up-to-date in developments and for a review periodically of Australia’s potential for development of nuclear weapons, against the possibility that the country might be forced to consider turning to them for protection at some indeterminate time in the future.

United States

“Australia’s Prime Minister Wanted ‘Nuclear Option’”, 40th Anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, National Security Archive, 1 July 2008.

Document 16a: Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, U.S. Embassy Canberra cable 4842 to Department of State, 6 April 1968, Secret Nodis, National Security Archive

In my talk with Prime Minister Gorton I ran into a full battery of reservations about the Non-Proliferation Treaty. You could almost repeat everything the Germans have said and put them in Australian mouths. Gorton is deeply concerned about giving up the nuclear option for a period as long as twenty-five years when he cannot know how the situation will develop in the area. He sounded almost like De Gaulle in saying that Australia could not rely upon the United States for nuclear weapons under ANZUS in the event of nuclear blackmail or attack on Australia. I will not recount here what I said to him but I opened up all stops. One of the things which s getting in the way is objections coming out of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and Defense on all sorts of picayune problems on which we have been able to satisfy the Germans and others.

Document 16b: U.S. Embassy Canberra cable 4923 to Department of State, “NPT,” 10 April 1969, Secret/Limdis

Document 16c: State Department Cable 144920 to Embassy Canberra, “Australian Concerns regarding NPT,” 11 April 1968, Secret, Limdis

Document 16d: Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Memorandum of Conversation, “Consultations with Australians on NPT and Status of Interpretations on Articles I and II,” 24 April 1968, Secret

Mr Bunn [ACDA] said that they [ACDA and AEC officials] were particularly impressed by the independece of the officials representing the Australian AEC, the confidence of their ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon and desire to be in a position to do so on very short notice. …The political rationalization of these officials was that Australia needed to be in a position to manufacture nuclear weapons rapidly if India and Japan were to go nuclear. Mr. Bunn indicated that the Australians were fully aware of the implications of the six interpretations offered to the Soviet Union on April 28, 1967. Indeed the Australian officials indicated they would not even contemplate signing the NPT if it were not for an interpretation which would enable the deployment of nuclear weapons belonging to an ally on Australian soil.


Australia’s Quest to Enrich Uranium and the Whitlam Government’s Loans Affair, Wayne Reynolds, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 54, Issue 4.

Australian nuclear weapons: the story so, Richard Broinowski, Austral Policy Forum 06-23A 17 July 2006

Australia’s New Nuclear Ambitions, Richard Broinowski, Austral Policy Forum 06-24A 24 July 2006.

Australia’s Nuclear History, Rear Vision, ABC Radio National, 4 June 2006.

Exploring The Nuclear Option, Pathfinder: Air Power Development Centre, issue 29, August 2005.

Fact or Fission, the Truth about Australia’s  Nuclear Ambitions, Richard Broinowski, Scribe Books, 2003.

Fortress Australia, ABC television documentary, Peter Butt – Director/Co-producer/writer/editor Broadcast: 22 August 2002.

Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb, Wayne Reynolds, Melbourne University Press, 2001.

“Isotopes and Identity: Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999”, Jacques E. C.Hymans, Nonproliferation Review, Vol.7, No.1, Spring, pp.1-23, 2000.

Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions, Jim Walsh, Nonproliferation Review 5 (Fall 1997), pp 1-20. This paper examines how Australia pursued nuclear weapons from the mid-1950s until signing the NPT in 1973, first through attempted procurement and then by developing indigenous capacity.

Atomic Australia 1944-1990, Alice Cawte,University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1992.

Australia and Nuclear Policy, Desmond Ball, in Strategy and Defence: Australian Essays, Desmond Ball (ed.), George Allen and Unwin, 1982, pp. 320-343.

Australia in the Nuclear Age, Ian Bellany, Sydney University Press, 1972.

Proliferation at home, Brian Martin, Search, Vol. 15, No. 5-6, June/July 1984, pp. 170-171:

Although an overt bomb lobby has not recently been conspicuous, influential opinion exists within the government and the Department of Defence that nuclear weapons should not be ruled out. This is precisely the current of thought revealed in a defence document called ‘The strategic basis of Australian defence policy’ revealed by The National Times in March 1984. Brian Toohey (1984) summarises the implications regarding Australian nuclear weapons in this way: ‘The Hawke Government has accepted a defence planning document that says Australia should be in a position to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as any neighbour that looks like doing so.’

The policy document reveals a cavalier disregard for Australian government obligations under the NPT, giving the impression that the NPT would simply be ignored if the government decided to move towards a nuclear weapons capability. This disregard does not sit well with the government’s heavy reliance on the NPT as the guarantee against military use of Australian uranium exports.

While there may be no influential groups actively pushing for Australian nuclear weapons, the acceptance of the ‘strategic basis papers’ suggests that neither is there much principled opposition to nuclear weapons in Cabinet or the Defence Department. Changes in political circumstances could well lead to a quick resurgence of the influence of the bomb lobby.

Popular support for Australian nuclear weapons might not be hard to create and channel. An opinion poll reported in March 1981 that over one third of Australians favoured Australia having nuclear bombs (Bulletin, 1981) – similar to the level of support for this option a decade earlier (Anon., 1969a).