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THE NATIONAL INTEREST

N o w to consider the most important sub-debates taken u p during the R R R . A number of these issues will be explored in greater depth in chapters 5-8, insofar as they relate to radioisotope production.

reactor, but by proponents of the project w h o advanced a host of arguments under the rubric of the national interest.

ANSTO is considered by some to be a strategically important and unique

institution by virtue of its nuclear fuel cycle expertise, and this expertise is said to be largely dependent on the operation of a research reactor. This expertise is said to improve Australia's capacity to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime, and to provide the government and other arms of the state with

intelligence and advice. These themes c a m e through in the Review's (p.2) comments that national interest issues connected to the operation of a research reactor concerned "how necessary it is to maintain s o m e degree of nuclear

capability to assist non-proliferation initiatives, to find out what others are doing, or to protect its o w n national interest if occasion demanded." Elsewhere the

Review (p.97) identified four areas of national interest: national security; the provision of expert advice; the ability to influence international and regional

nuclear affairs; and commercial opportunities arising from nuclear facilities in the region.

I will now take up various threads of the national interest debate. A number of these threads are cryptic and nebulous, none m o r e so than an issue which

received hardly any direct attention - the weapons connection.

THE WEAPONS CONNECTION

Literature on the possibility of an Australian nuclear weapons capability tends to focus on the post-war generation, and in particular on the flurry of activity from

1969-71. H o w e v e r the issue would still appear to be a sub-text in debates over nuclear development in Australia, submerged within the national defence/

security component of the national interest debate.

The interest in and support for a weapons capability fell away through the 1970s, along with the nuclear p o w e r and P N E projects. Since that time, there has been

little or n o high-level support for the systematic pursuit of a domestic nuclear weapons capability. H o w e v e r there m a y be s o m e support, within political,

military, and nuclear institutions, 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 w a s evident in a leaked 1984 defence document called The strategic basis of Australian defence policy. The document implied that the government could simply disregard the N P T if it decided to develop nuclear weapons - which as Martin (1984B) notes

does not sit well with the government's heavy reliance o n the N P T as the guarantee against military use of Australian uranium exports.

There was very little open discussion during the RRR about the potential to use H I F A R or a replacement reactor directly or indirectly in support of nuclear

weapons. There were s o m e cryptic references by the Review panel itself; for example it is not clear that reference to "national security" refers only to such issues as maintaining a role in the I A E A , nor is it clear what is meant by asking

"how necessary it is to maintain s o m e degree of nuclear capability to protect its o w n national interest if occasion demanded", and the Review's comparison of a research reactor with a frigate or a submarine must have raised s o m e eyebrows.

The weapons connection was not taken up by anti-reactor campaigners to any substantial degree. Perhaps the only exception w a s a c o m m e n t in the submission of the Lucas Heights Study G r o u p (1993):

We contend that indeed there is a possibility that a new reactor could be used for weapons research and production, depending on the policy of future

Governments and the course of world events in the next 50 years. Certainly weapons research was carried out at the AAEC in the 60's. Such research would effectively make the establishment a target in time of war, hence the extreme security on site during the Gulf War.

In submissions from ANSTO and from government departments, there was no mention of the weapons connection (so far as I a m aware), nor even any cryptic references such as those offered by the Review. It is however possible that there remains s o m e support within political, military, and nuclear institutions for the view that weapons development should not be ruled out. The leaked 1984 defence document is suggestive, and it is worth noting that it would be seen as counter-productive as a political/diplomatic manoeuvre for such views to be publicly expressed if indeed they are held.

A private submission to the Review (Watford, 1993) was perhaps indicative of what could be a broader sentiment in political, military, and nuclear circles. This submission argued the following case. Australia should not develop nuclear

weapons in the foreseeable future, one reason being that it could lead to a regional nuclear arms race. H o w e v e r the time m a y c o m e w h e n it would be necessary or desirable to develop nuclear weapons and to this end a civil nuclear program must be maintained. While it would not be practical or desirable to attempt to achieve civil or military nuclear parity with India or China, a civil nuclear

program at least the equivalent of other countries in the Asian region should be maintained. Moreover nuclear development in Australia should be boosted by resumption of w o r k on uranium enrichment; this would add value to uranium exports and also facilitate w e a p o n s development. A s a m i n i m u m step towards halting the decline of nuclear fuel cycle expertise, H I F A R must be replaced (Watford, 1993):

The statements made by ANSTO and others concerning national security

are not overstatements or exaggerations. The replacement of HIFAR as proposed 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 the more limited sense of defence.

While there may be on ongoing degree of interest in a nuclear weapons program, this should not be overstressed. It is extremely unlikely that any Australian

government w o u l d pursue a weapons program in the foreseeable future barring a dramatic shift in international circumstances. There are m a n y reasons for this, such as the possibility of sparking a regional nuclear arms race, the

inappropriateness of nuclear attack as a response to any conceivable threat to Australian sovereignty, the possibility that a weapons programs would threaten the U S alliance, cost considerations, and so on. Thus if there is any interest in a weapons program, this interest would go no further than leaving open the weapons option as a longer term contingency.

So much for speculating about possible high-level support for the maintenance of nuclear fuel cycle expertise to lower the barriers to nuclear weapons. N o w to

c o m m e n t on h o w a H I F A R or a replacement reactor could facilitate weapons development in Australia.

Each of the fuel rods irradiated in HIFAR contains only about 0.5 grams of plutonium (Coleby, 1986). Even with 1600 spent fuel rods accumulated over the best part of 40 years, the total volume of plutonium stored at Lucas Heights is about 1600 x 0.5g = 800 grams. This is just one tenth of the 8kg figure which is often put forward as the m i n i m u m required for a b o m b - 8kg of plutonium is one

"significant quantity" in nukespeak. Cruder devices could be m a d e with a smaller volume, and high levels of technical sophistication can off-set limitations

imposed by low volumes of fissile material. For example Spector et al. (1995) argue that a country with a high technical capability could build a 20 kiloton b o m b with as little as 3kg of plutonium-239 or 5kg of H E U , and a 1 kiloton device might require half these amounts. Even so, it would be a cumbersome exercise to extract

800g of plutonium from 1600 fuel rods, all the m o r e so since there are no

reprocessing facilities in Australia. A n y effort to use spent fuel rods supplied by the U S and the U K in support of a weapons program would almost certainly meet with extreme opposition from those countries.

Plutonium production could be maximised by reducing the fuel irradiation time in H I F A R or a replacement reactor. If L E U is used for a n e w reactor, as is proposed, then this could be a net positive in terms of reducing the potential for weapons production given that H E U is of considerable concern with respect to weapons proliferation. H o w e v e r L E U reactors are m o r e efficient plutonium producers and thus increase the feasibility of production of plutonium weapons.

HEU weapons construction may be a more feasible route, either by diversion of fresh fuel or extraction of H E U from spent fuel. For uranium-235, 25kg is one

significant quantity (SQ) and the inventory of spent fuel at Lucas Heights contains over 5 S Q of uranium-235 (Australian Safeguards Office, 1993). Fresh fuel stocks are maintained at less than I S Q (Australian Safeguards Office, 1993). Diversion of fresh fuel would almost certainly result in termination of fuel supply from

abroad, unless the diversion went undetected. Alternatively, the A A E C / A N S T O ' s enrichment research could be restarted. The Liberal/National Coalition

government has evidently ruled out a resumption of enrichment research (Uranium Information Centre, 1996).

Extraction of HEU (or plutonium) would require reprocessing facilities. The government w a s considering the possibility of establishing a domestic

reprocessing plant as at early 1997, with a view to reprocessing spent fuel from H I F A R , and perhaps also from a future reactor. It would be highly speculative, and perhaps even a little paranoid, to suggest that the weapons connection is a significant factor in the government's deliberations on a reprocessing plant. Apart from providing s o m e sort of solution to the problem of ridding A N S T O of

stockpiles of spent fuel rods, a reprocessing plant would enable a commercial-scale demonstration of Synroc, the glass encapsulation technology which has been under development in Australia since the late 1970s. That said, with a n e w , high-power research reactor and a reprocessing plant, it is likely that significant

quantities of plutonium could be produced and separated, or that fissile uranium-233 could be produced (by irradiation of thorium) and separated. In addition, large quantities of H E U could be separated from spent H I F A R fuel.

If a nuclear weapons program was pursued, many other factors would need to be considered other than the relative feasibility of H E U or plutonium b o m b s . These

factors w o u l d include supply of reactor fuel, suspension or maintenance of N P T / I A E A membership, delivery systems, the m a n y technical and engineering aspects of w e a p o n s development other than production of fissile material, and so on.

Apart from the possibility of HIFAR or a replacement reactor being used directly for weapons development, there are the indirect links. A n e w reactor could be

used for weapons-related research. M o r e generally, nuclear fuel cycle expertise developed through the operation of a research reactor lowers the technical and economic barriers to weapons development. A related issue is the strident pro-nuclear stance that is c o m m o n a m o n g people and institutions directly involved in nuclear development - Phillip Baxter is the classic example of this - and their potential role as a political constituency for nuclear weapons.

From a stand-point of unqualified opposition to nuclear weapons, the weapons connection is a legitimate argument against the operation of research reactors -though of course other arguments need to be considered also. It should be noted that proponents and even qualified opponents of nuclear weapons could easily agree with the premise but not the conclusion; in other words the fact that the operation of a domestic research reactor lowers the barriers to nuclear weapons can be seen as an argument in favour of a n e w reactor, "just in case".

INTELLIGENCE. INFLUENCE AND ADVICE

The major overt component of the national interest debate during the RRR was whether a reactor is required to maintain nuclear expertise, and whether such expertise facilitated Australia's capacity to influence international

non-proliferation initiatives and to procure and process information relating to overseas nuclear developments. M o r e generally, the Review (1993, p.2) asked

"whether Australia could exert better influence in such issues as non-proliferation by remaining an active m e m b e r of the international nuclear community or by working from outside".

One of the arguments was whether operation of a research reactor was essential to maintain Australia's designated seat on the Board of the I A E A - an argument

with s o m e history, dating at least from 1985 (ASTEC, 1985). While arguing for a continuing role in international nuclear forums such as the I A E A , the Review (p. 102) w a s m o r e sceptical about the need for a domestic reactor to secure

Australia's designated position on the IAEA's Board of Governors. It referred to comments by the I A E A which suggested that other issues were m o r e important,

such as Australia's role as a major uranium exporter and Australia's significant contribution to I A E A technical assistance programs. The Review also mentioned the example of N e w Zealand, which does not operate any reactors but still has periodic representation o n the Board for a m i n i m u m of two years out of six, on a rotating basis.

The Review also touched upon some other issues relating to the IAEA, if only to note comments m a d e by opponents of a n e w reactor. These issues include the

extent to which Australia has influence on the I A E A Board given that the Board has no less than 35 members; whether Australian representatives on the Board actively promote non-proliferation or whether their interest is m o r e in technical assistance programs which might expand potential markets for Australian

uranium; and whether Australia might lose its designated place on the Board

regardless of the operation of a research reactor, given the advancement of nuclear programs in regional countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The Review said there w a s no real data on h o w Australia would suffer in influence or any other w a y if it were not a designated Board m e m b e r . There might even be advantages, the Review said, in not being so closely identified with s o m e of the IAEA's stances. (RRR, 1993, pp.100-103.)

The most substantial submission in relation to intelligence, influence, and advice, w a s that of the C o m m o n w e a l t h Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

The D F A T considered national security to be the key plank of the national

interest. It said that it w a s government policy to keep the world and in particular the region free of nuclear weapons, and pursuit of this policy required access to

"objective" information. The D F A T argued that operation of a research reactor w a s essential to maintain expertise for purposes such as monitoring nuclear

materials exported from Australia (e.g. uranium) and keeping informed about the

"clandestine practices of certain countries". The D F A T also argued that the

expertise gained through operation of a research reactor m a d e it easier to "assess quickly and independently any nuclear terrorist threat in Australia or to

Australia's interests abroad." The D F A T also said that the operation of a research reactor assisted in the provision to government of commercial advice.

The claim from the DFAT that it is dependent on ANSTO for "objective" advice was at best naive given the A A E C / A N S T O ' s history of advocacy of and/or

involvement in everything from nuclear w e a p o n s to "nuking" termite nests. A s Greenpeace (1993) argued, A N S T O is "part of an industry deeply committed, both emotionally and career-wise, to the expansion of the global nuclear industry ".

It is difficult to see the logic in the DFAT's argument that operating a research reactor helps in assessing nuclear terrorist threats or the "clandestine practices of certain countries". There might be examples w h e n A N S T O is able to provide useful information, concerning for example the technical aspects of safeguards or covert w e a p o n s programs. H o w e v e r those instances are likely to be infrequent. N o concrete examples were given to back u p the claims m a d e in relation to

intelligence, influence, and advice. Security and intelligence networks are of far greater importance than any information A N S T O could provide, and it is unclear that any information provided by A N S T O would be crucially dependent on the skills associated with operation of a domestic reactor. Moreover a research reactor could itself be targeted by terrorists - A N S T O has indeed been subject to terrorist or sabotage threats in the past.

The DFAT's argument that operation of a research reactor is essential to maintain expertise for purposes such as monitoring nuclear materials exported from

Australia is difficult to assess. Such monitoring is largely dependent o n the I A E A regime and the monitoring provisions associated with bilateral safeguards

agreements. Certainly s o m e A A E C / A N S T O staff have been involved in these activities. Whether their proficiency is markedly increased through experience with the operation of H I F A R is another matter. It is difficult to imagine that this experience would be of m u c h use in the monitoring of uranium, which is the only export requiring safeguards monitoring (and then only after conversion to uranium hexafluoride). Experience with H I F A R would be of use w h e n inspecting reactor facilities, as s o m e A A E C / A N S T O staff have done through the I A E A ; but again, this experience m a y not be crucial nor has it been established that the I A E A safeguards regime would be m u c h the poorer without the handful of Australian inspectors w h o have been involved in overseas reactor inspections over the years.

As for commercial advice, another point raised by the DFAT and other government departments, these issues were not spelt out clearly but uranium would be the principal concern. Presumably the argument is that HIFAR-related expertise enables engagement in activities such as regional nuclear cooperation projects; in the process knowledge is gathered, friendly and cooperative relations established, and this can facilitate uranium sales. It is not in A N S T O ' s charter to act as a sales agent for uranium mining companies, and in any case it could continue in the absence of a domestic reactor.

The Review largely accepted the view that operation of a reactor was important for purposes such as gathering intelligence and providing advice to government.

For example it said (pp.97-98) that the

DFAT has a key role in assessing the impact of nuclear activities, which could pose risks directly for Australian territory or for Australians generally, whether accruing in our region or worldwide. Its concerns that a replacement for HIFAR was needed in the national interest to keep abreast of nuclear

science and technology had to be given very considerable weight.

In short the Review accepted the cryptic and unsubstantiated arguments put forward b y institutions such as the D F A T in relation to intelligence, influence, and advice; this despite claiming (p.2) that it w a s appropriate to be "particularly sceptical" about claims m a d e for the national interest, "because claims of national standing or influence are so often overstated all around the world."

Along with the DFAT, numerous other federal government departments and

agencies supported a n e w reactor and claimed to be dependent o n A N S T O to s o m e extent for policy advice.55 These submissions dealt with issues such as nuclear safeguards, nuclear regulation, radioactive wastes, visiting nuclear warships, off-shore nuclear accidents, occupational and public health, and radiation protection.

Most of these submissions argued that the continued operation of a research reactor of a significant p o w e r level w a s important for the provision of expert advice. (RRR, 1993, pp.99-100.) T h e C S I R O (1993) said that A N S T O ' s expert knowledge in nuclear and related sciences allowed Australia to take a

technologically-advanced position in the provision of advice to the Pacific Rim, to maintain a sophisticated position in negotiating defence agreements, and it

facilitated technical sophistication in the handling of radioactive materials which is important given Australia's uranium mining and export industry.

The CSIRO (1993) also said that a new research reactor would allow Australia to be strategically placed should Australia ever need to develop nuclear power. This

w a s one of only a very small n u m b e r of submissions to refer to the potential for future development of nuclear power.

As with the DFAT submission, it was not convincingly demonstrated in the submissions of government departments and agencies that A N S T O ' s nuclear expertise is indispensable for the various purposes mentioned, nor that the

operation of a research reactor w a s essential for the maintenance of that expertise.

55 The Departments of Industry, Technology and Regional Affairs; Primary Industries and Energy;

Environment, Sport and Territories; Health, Housing and Community Services; and Defence. The agencies included the CSIRO, Australian Safeguards Office, Australian Radiation Laboratories, the Commonwealth Environment Protection Agency, the Office of the Supervising Scientists, the Office of the Chief Scientist, and the Office of National Assessments.