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NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS

3.2. THE EARLY YEARS

Until recently, the major sources of information on the history of nuclear development in Australia were Moyal's (1975) study of the A A E C , the selective sketches found in literature produced by nuclear or scientific agencies, and m a n y studies, mostly b y academics or activists, of particular issues such as the uranium mining industry or the British weapons tests. In 1992, Alice Cawte's Atomic

Australia w a s published; it is a comprehensive history of m a n y aspects of nuclear development in Australia and I d r a w from it substantially in this chapter.

A rudimentary, uncoordinated nuclear program took hold in Australia after World W a r II. The federal government played a leading role, as did a few high-profile scientists. Early initiatives included the establishment of nuclear advisory bodies, the establishment of a school of nuclear physics at the Australian National University, and s o m e limited research b y universities and science agencies into topics such as uranium geology. (Moyal, 1975; Cockburn and Ellyard, 1981; Cawte, 1992.)

There was little interest in the domestic construction of nuclear weapons in the postwar period. Certainly there were concerns and insecurities about defence

-indeed there w a s a good deal of paranoia about perceived threats from the north.

H o w e v e r there were also cost considerations and the perceived security afforded by alliances with the U S and the U K . A s Cawte (1992, ch.2) argues, nuclear policies were guided b y a vision of national economic development. Energy sources,

industry, and export markets were the major concerns. Australia w a s largely

dependent o n imported oil. P o w e r production from coal w a s inefficient. Industrial relations problems in the coal mining industry seemed intractable and recalcitrant gas and electricity unions also figured in the equations. The potential of hydro-electricity had yet to be established. This uncertainty over p o w e r sources w a s a dampener o n industrial development and there w a s great hope that nuclear power would save the day.

The lack of interest in a domestic nuclear weapons capability was not unanimous nor did it last. Moreover the interconnections between civil and military nuclear technologies complicate the issue: in the 1960s, w h e n there w a s greater interest in a domestic nuclear weapons capability, this w a s primarily expressed through the pursuit of ostensibly civil nuclear projects to lower the barriers to weapons

development.

With a limited industrial base and a small scientific establishment, the Australian state and emerging nucleocracy inevitably pursued nuclear development as a diplomatic exercise in acquiring overseas technology. Early efforts to procure nuclear technology from the U K , the U S , or through the United Nations, were largely unsuccessful. It became clear that Australia would need s o m e bargaining chips. Thus Australia supported the weapons programs of the U K and U S through the hosting of British nuclear weapons tests, the hosting of U S military bases, and the supply of uranium. (Cawte, 1992, ch.2; Moyal, 1975.)

Establishing a uranium mining industry was a priority during and after World W a r II. The aims were to provide for Australia's future needs, to exchange

Australian uranium for foreign currency and foreign nuclear technology, and to support the weapons programs of the U S and the U K and to strengthen those alliances m o r e generally. The federal government increased its uranium prospecting through the 1940s and 1950s, and offered generous incentives to encourage private prospecting. The various incentives were sufficient to spark a prospecting b o o m , reminiscent of the nineteenth-century gold rushes. M a n y hundreds of deposits were found, but only a few of these were sizeable. Moreover by the late 1950s, significant uranium deposits had been discovered overseas. The U S had stopped stockpiling uranium for military purposes, and the U K had

sufficient supplies. Only one Australian uranium mine w a s operating by 1964, and that only through government subsidy. (Cawte, 1992; Alder, 1996.)

In the early 1950s, Prime Minister Menzies unilaterally agreed to a British proposal to conduct weapons tests in Australia, partly in the hope that Australia would gain s o m e nuclear expertise in return, and partly because of Cold W a r

paranoia. F r o m 1952, 12 weapons tests took place, firstly on M o n t e Bello Island, off the coast of Western Australia, then at E m u Field and Maralinga in South

Australia. Bomb-related tests continued at Maralinga until 1963. The weapons tests resulted in considerable environmental impact and h u m a n injury to

Aborigines and armed service personnel. Successive governments used legislated secrecy provisions to withhold information about the weapons tests, and then to frustrate compensation claims. The issue resurfaced in the late 1970s and led to a Royal Commission in the mid 1980s. Still it w a s another decade before the

Australian and British governments agreed to pay s o m e compensation to victims and to pay for a clean-up of the Maralinga area.43

42 For literature on the weapons tests, see Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, 1985; Milliken, 1986; M a y n e , 1994; Independent Committee of Inquiry, 1984, pp.98-100; Gardner, 1988;

The hosting of U S military facilities grew slowly but steadily in the post-war generation. The main reason for hosting the facilities w a s to strengthen the alliance with the U S , but at times there w a s also s o m e hope and expectation of assistance in the development of nuclear expertise and facilities in Australia. B y the 1970s, the establishment of a n u m b e r of U S nuclear bases in Australia had tied Australians to the nuclear arms race. The most important bases are those at North West Cape, Pine G a p , and Nurrungar, all of which became operational in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These bases have had a plethora of functions over the years, a m o n g the most important of which are tracking missiles, communicating with U S nuclear-armed submarines, monitoring arms control agreements, and broader espionage operations. The history of U S bases in Australia is one of secrecy and deception. For example, proposals for upgrading equipment at the bases have routinely been developed without consultation with the Australian government or government departments. S o m e of these unilateral developments - such as a n e w satellite ground station at North West C a p e - have been significant in terms of the functions and strategic importance of the facilities. It is also clear that s o m e U S Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations at Pine G a p have never been revealed to the Australian government, and there is considerable evidence that the facilities have been used to gather intelligence o n Australian

communications.44

The strategy of supporting the weapons programs of the US and the UK to facilitate civil nuclear development in Australia had only modest success in the 1940s - assistance amounted to little m o r e than tokens such as the placement of seven Australian research fellows at the British Harwell institute. Nuclear

technologies, such as power reactors, were far from mature even in the most advanced nuclear countries, and those countries were guarding nuclear expertise because of the military implications and to a lesser extent to gain commercial advantage in the nuclear power industry. In the late 1940s and early 1950s,

considerable effort w a s put into the acquisition of an experimental p o w e r reactor from the U K . W h e n Menzies w a s in L o n d o n to discuss the first round of weapons tests, scheduled for 1952, he asked about the possibility of a joint program to build a large power reactor in Australia. The weapons tests went ahead, but assistance in developing a nuclear power industry in Australia w a s slower coming - the British government pointed to the agreement it had with the U S and Canada not to divulge nuclear k n o w - h o w without agreement from all parties. (Cawte, 1992.)

44 For literature on the U S military bases, and the alliance more generally, see Ball, 1980; 1988; Ball and Mathams, 1983; Hayes et al., 1986, pp.409-421; Smith, 1982; Falk, 1983, ch.8; Spigelman, 1972,

3.3. THE AUSTRALIAN ATOMIC ENERGY