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THE AUSTRALIAN ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION

NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS

3.3. THE AUSTRALIAN ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION

3.3. THE AUSTRALIAN ATOMIC ENERGY

right across the nuclear fuel cycle: thus for example a union ban on the supply of spare parts for mining equipment could theoretically lead to a seven-year jail sentence. This legislation w a s intimidatory to employees and in later years to anti-nuclear campaigners. It w a s not repealed until 1987. In practice the major effect of the security provisions w a s to stifle A A E C employees and ex-employees w h o might otherwise have had m o r e opportunities for constructive contribution to public debates on nuclear matters. (Independent Committee of Inquiry, 1984, p. 162;

Evans, 1986.)

Phillip Baxter soon emerged as the most prominent figure within the AAEC.

Baxter had played a role in the Allied nuclear weapons program during World W a r II, producing Britain's first uranium hexafluoride in 1941. H e later worked on the chemical separation of plutonium at the Windscale plant in England. H e w a s part-time Chairman of the A A E C from 1953 to 1957, and full-time Chairman from 1957 until he resigned from the A A E C in 1972. H e w a s also worked for m a n y years at the N e w South Wales University of Technology. Baxter w a s an extremely enthusiastic advocate of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, peaceful nuclear

weapons, uranium mining, in short of all things nuclear. H e w a s very m u c h a technocrat, arguing for example that (purported) trends towards participatory democracy in Western countries were a "dangerous heresy" that might bring about the military dominance of the "planned-economy countries" (Baxter, 1975).

Like others of his time and his class, he w a s paranoid about national security -this paranoia initially focused on Japan, then Indonesia, then China, and still later the Soviet Union. A s Venturini (1993) puts it, "This w a s Menzies' Australia: a bastion of white British Imperialist Protestant Christianity - and racist to boot, the 'frightened country'." That racism w a s also evident in the lack of concern by

Baxter and others about the impact of weapons tests and uranium mining on Aborigines. (Moyal, 1975; Martin, 1980; Baxter, 1975; Spigelman, 1972.)

By 1956, to draw from Cawte's (1992, pp.62-63) summary of the situation, Australia had access to considerable foreign nuclear expertise, the A A E C had been

established, a uranium industry w a s established, nuclear tests had been conducted in Australia thus improving (if only modestly) the bargaining position with

Britain, and the potential for domestic nuclear power generation w a s at a high-point. Yet there w a s a darker side: improvements in the prospects for

conventional fuels in Australia m a d e nuclear power less important; the uranium mining industry w a s about to c o m e unstuck; weapons testing and uranium

mining had d a m a g e d or destroyed the lives of m o r e than a few Aborigines, servicemen, and miners; and there w a s significant environmental destruction and contamination at test sites and uranium mines.

The A A E C wanted a commercial nuclear power plant and it wanted it

immediately. H o w e v e r no nuclear power station in the world fed a national electricity grid, and the economics of nuclear power were dubious. A research reactor seemed both appropriate and feasible: it would be a pilot plant in order to gain experience, to test design principles, and to provide research facilities. A n agreement w a s struck in 1954 for a U K company to build such a reactor. The federal government approved and provided funding - £5.5 million over five years. The reactor w a s a 10 M W , heavy-water moderated, high-flux materials testing reactor. The U K Atomic Energy Agency agreed to supply enriched fuel rods, which it would redeem for reprocessing. ( A N S T O , 1993D.)

Baxter wanted the reactor as close to him as possible - in fact he wanted it ten minutes from his University of Technology office in the densely-populated

eastern suburbs of Sydney. H o w e v e r it w a s decided to locate the reactor at Lucas Heights, 20 k m s south of Sydney. Partly this w a s because of safety concerns, not that they were paramount, and partly it w a s because isolation w a s seen as desirable for security reasons. The High Flux Australian Reactor, H I F A R , first went critical (i.e. achieved a sustained uranium fission reaction) on Australia Day, 26 January 1958. The reactor w a s in routine operation by 1960. (Cawte, 1992, ch.6.)

A second reactor, MO AT A, achieved criticality in 1961. It was a low-power (originally 10 k W , later upgraded to 100 k W ) , graphite and water moderated

reactor procured from the U S . A s with H I F A R , M O A T A ' s design reflected plans to introduce nuclear power into Australia. It w a s permanently shut d o w n in 1995, because of limited utilisation and high operating costs. (Anon, 1995C; A N S T O , 1993N; 1995-96.) M O A T A w a s never as contentious as H I F A R - because it w a s so m u c h less powerful - and need not be discussed further.

The AAEC research laboratories were completed in the early 1960s and included facilities for metallurgy, engineering, chemistry, radiochemistry, chemical

engineering, and health physics. By June 1961 A A E C staff totalled 840. Various reciprocal research and training arrangements were in place with a n u m b e r of countries including the U K , the U S A , Canada, and s o m e south-east Asian countries. (Moyal, 1975; Cawte, 1992, ch.6; Baxter, 1963.)

The principal justification for HIFAR was to develop the means for nuclear power generation through reactor design research, in particular the testing of reactor

materials under extreme radiation and temperature conditions. The intention w a s to introduce natural-uranium power reactors and to fuel them with domestic

uranium, and thus the A A E C decided to embark u p o n a research program into the potential use of beryllium (or beryllium compounds) as a moderator in gas-cooled, natural-uranium reactors. Plans to use H I F A R for testing of beryllium moderators w a s well underway by the time H I F A R w a s in operation. Another reactor design w a s researched, based on liquid metal cooling, but it received less attention and w a s abandoned in 1958. (Moyal, 1975; Baxter, 1963.)

As the research plans proceeded, so too did plans to produce isotopes for medicine, industry, and agriculture. In 1956 the A A E C began active promotion of

radioisotopes by establishing a Radioisotope Advisory Service. Yet radioisotope production w a s regarded as little more than a by-product of the research program.

For example the production of cobalt-60 began because there w a s surplus reactor space until irradiation rigs for the research program were ready. All isotope and radiation research w a s lumped under the miscellaneous category of "Support and Associated Research". N o m o r e than 5-10% of the total workforce at Lucas Heights would be devoted to radioisotope research and production - nothing w a s to

interfere with the beryllium research. Radioisotope production provided good

opportunities for propaganda even if it w a s a marginal activity: in 1956 the head of the Commission's isotopes program published a book called the World of

Radioisotopes (Gregory, 1956), and in 1957 an "Isotopes for Industry" exhibition was held in Sydney, attracting 20 000 visitors. (Alder, 1996, pp.8-9; Anon., 1968.) Britain was less interested in supporting Australia's nuclear ambitions as the

1950s c a m e to a close. The uranium glut had struck. The major weapons tests had taken place. A s a result of these changed circumstances, Australia w a s left to continue the beryllium experiments on its o w n , whereas previously it had been a joint project. With the British feeding electricity from the Calder Hill plant into a power grid, there w a s s o m e questioning of the need for reactor research in

Australia. Thus the beryllium project w a s in s o m e trouble before H I F A R w a s even operational, but the A A E C had already invested four years into the planning of the project, and there w a s a "can-do" attitude and a good deal of optimism and m o m e n t u m within the A A E C . (Moyal, 1975; Cawte, 1992, ch.6.)

Coal production rose significantly from the mid 1940s, and continued to do so through the 1950s and 1960s. Domestic oil production began in the 1950s and

steadily grew through the 1960s and 1970s. This w a s a considerable disincentive to pursue nuclear power, which w a s barely tested let alone proven through the 1950s. A further problem w a s the impact of the decline in the uranium industry.

The A A E C w a s also generating ill-will with the government and the federal bureaucracy because of its questionable assessments on matters such as cost

estimates and the strength of overseas markets for uranium. S o m e changes were m a d e in the organisation of the A A E C , to lessen its independence from the government and the bureaucracy. (Moyal, 1975.)

Although on the surface the beryllium research was going smoothly, the research w a s making little progress. B y 1963, if not before, A A E C scientists were privately admitting that Australian reactor technology simply could not compete with developments overseas. T e a m s in both France and the U S had investigated and abandoned beryllium moderator research. The development of nuclear power overseas w a s proving to be m u c h slower, more expensive, and m o r e difficult than most had anticipated. Thus the prospect of nuclear power reactors in Australia in the short-term w a s unlikely. Moreover American and British suppliers usually offered turn-key contracts and few countries were developing indigenous reactor technology. T h e rationale for the beryllium research, particularly given the poor results, w a s fading but n o alternative project w a s evident. Eventually the

beryllium research w a s w o u n d d o w n from the m i d 1960s. (Alder, 1996; Moyal, 1975.)

3.4. NUCLEAR POWER, NUCLEAR WEAPONS,