The push for nuclear weapons in Australia 1950s-1970s
National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, 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.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS FOR 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.
DOMESTIC WEAPONS PRODUCTION
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).)
PEACEFUL NUCLEAR EXPLOSIVES
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.(4)
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.
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).)
SWORDS TO PLOUGHSHARES?
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 (2006B), 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.
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, http://cns.miis.edu/npr/pdfs/hym71.pdf
Jim Walsh, 1997, 'Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia's Nuclear Ambitions', The Nonproliferation Review, Fall, pp.1-20, http://cns.miis.edu/npr/pdfs/walsh51.pdf
Alice Cawte, "Atomic Australia: 1944-1990", Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1992.
Professor Richard Broinowski, Australian nuclear weapons: the story so far, Austral Policy Forum 06-23A 17 July 2006,
Jim Green website:
Wayne Reynolds, "Australia's bid for the atomic bomb", Melbourne University Press, 2000.
Broinowski, Richard, 2006B, Australia's New Nuclear Ambitions, http://nautilus.rmit.edu.au/forum-reports/0624a-broinowski.html
Cawte, Alice Atomic Australia: 1944-1990, Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1992.
Cousins (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), Research Reactor Review - Transcript of Public Hearing, Canberra, 25 March 1993, pp.919-920.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australian Safeguards Office, Joint Submission to Senate Economics References Committee - Nuclear Reactor Inquiry, 1998.
El Baradei, E.N. and Rames, J., International law and nuclear energy: Overview of the legal framework. IAEA Bulletin, Vol.3, 1995.
Encel, S. and McKnight, Allan, Bombs, Power Stations, and Proliferation. The Australian Quarterly, Vol.42(1), 1970, pp.15-26.
Fainberg, Anthony, The connection is dangerous Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May, 1983, p.60.
Findlay, Trevor, Nuclear Dynamite: The Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Fiasco, Sydney: Pergamon, 1990.
Green, Jim, New Reactor a Missed Opportunity. Search, Vol.28(9), 1997, pp.275-279.
Green, Jim, 1997B, New Reactor - a missed opportunity?, Radio National - Ockham's Razor,
Green, Jim, n.d., A new reactor for scientific research?, http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/30410/20090218-0153/www.geocities.com/jimgreen3/#science
Hayden, Bill, Hayden: An Autobiography, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996, pp.422-423.
Henderson, Ian, N-plant proposal included atomic bomb option. The Australian, 1 January 1996.
Henderson, Ian, Weapons a sub-plot in nuclear power plant story. The Australian, 1 January 1997.
Holdren, John, Nuclear power and nuclear weapons: the connection is dangerous. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January, 1983, pp.40-45.
Holdren, John, Response to Anthony Fainberg (1983): 'The connection is dangerous. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May, 1983B, pp.61-62.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, A new dimension to the nuclear threat, Abolition 2000 Newsletter, 1997.
McSorley, Jean, Australia's Nuclear Connections. Chain Reaction, Number 75, 1996, pp.29-31.
McSorley, Jean, 1998, "The New Reactor: National Interest and Nuclear Intrigues", Submission to Senate Economics References Committee, Inquiry into Lucas Heights Nuclear Reactor. http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/lh
Martin, Brian, Proliferation at Home. Search, No.5/6, 1984, pp.170-171.
Smith, Gary, From ANZUS to Nuclear Alliance. Social Alternatives, Vol.3(1), 1982, pp.10-14.
Stewart, Cameron, Military sought N-bomb option. The Australian, 1 January 1993.
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The Nuclear Club
Max Walsh, The Bulletin, 6 June 2006
The elephant in the room that no one wants to mention in John Howard’s great nuclear debate is whether Australia should prepare itself to join the nuclear club. The idea of Australia acquiring the bomb - and that’s what “joining the nuclear club” means - is no-go territory in political terms.
It’s a public debate that the leaders of the major parties don’t want to have. They know that it would cause division within their own ranks and across the community in general. It would create the mother of all scare campaigns, which could ultimately change the political landscape.
The reality is, however, that the global nuclear equation is changing in such a way that it would be negligent of Australia not to consider its implications.
The fact that we are openly contemplating the sale of uranium to India, a bomb-owning non-member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, illustrates how the rules have changed.
So, too, does the way in which the otherwise puny country of North Korea thumbs its nose at the rest of the world, particularly the United States, because it has the bomb and a delivery system that could certainly target any Japanese city.
It has been suggested that even Australian cities could be in range. While that seems unlikely at the moment, no one doubts that intercontinental ballistic missile technology will ultimately make such a deployment a reality.
Then there is Iran’s determination to, at the very least, build up its nuclear technology capacity. Iran insists it is solely concerned with utilising nuclear power for peaceful purposes, namely electricity generation. However, it has rejected suggestions that the critical element of the nuclear chain, uranium enrichment, should be outsourced to Russia.
The Iran situation is relevant to Australia on a number of counts.
Any credible belief that Iran was actually close to developing a nuclear bomb would create a climate of even greater instability in the Middle East. Any serious disruption to the flow of crude oil would have significant global implications.
The risks are not trivial when the prospective tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two major oil suppliers, are recognised.
Compounding the risks of instability is the beleaguered regional position of Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appears to be growing in local political stature and control, has found his anti-Israel rhetoric is a domestic political asset. Consequently, what may have been dismissed as mere rabble-rousing is beginning to look more and more like a political agenda.
Israel is another bomb-owning non-member of the NPT, and it will not allow itself to be a helpless target of a nuclear attack by Iran.
Despite the provocative behaviour of Ahmadinejad, Iran's record is much more reassuring in terms of rationality and pragmatism. Still, there is always the risk of miscalculation or a misread signal.
The most important feature of the Iran situation for Australia in the short term is that we have something of the same credibility problem. Iran’s insistence that it is only concerned with peaceful applications of nuclear power is undermined by its depth of resources wealth - namely crude oil and natural gas.
The economics of energy for peaceful purposes favour the use of these hydrocarbons over uranium. Consequently, there is a justifiable suspicion that Iran has another agenda.
The same can be said about Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coal and one of its major exporters of natural gas. We have reserves of both that are sufficient for hundreds of years. If we are talking about electric power generation, as is ostensibly the case in the great debate, then uranium offers an inferior outcome in economic terms to coal or gas.
That is certainly the case if we do not take into account external diseconomies such as pollution and global warming. To bolster the government’s pro-nuclear case, Science Minister Julie Bishop has been pushing the case of uranium versus coal by comparing their carbon dioxide output.
That’s quite legitimate except that “clean coal” power generation is still an infant industry but one that is growing rapidly. Curiously, perhaps, in this era of spin over substance, one of the better primers on clean coal technologies was posted last month on the website of the Melbourne-based Uranium Information Centre.
Nuclear power generation per se will not make Australia eligible for prospective membership of the nuclear club.
For that to happen, we would have to be in the enrichment business, potentially an economically justifiable activity if we are to maximise returns from our uranium exports. However, it would also almost certainly involve the return of nuclear waste. That would normally be unacceptable in political terms unless it was seen as a price worth paying in terms of guaranteeing our nuclear potential.
Doubtless, John Howard will phrase the terms of reference for the nuclear debate in such a way that the elephant in the room remains unmentioned.
That might work locally. But you can bet our neighbours will notice.