69 Record by Evans of Interdepartmental Meeting1

Canberra, 1 July 1965


Introduction of Nuclear Power to Australia

The meeting was chaired by Mr Boswell,2 Secretary of the Department of National Development.

A.A.E.C.Professor Sir Philip Baxter
National DevelopmentMr Boswell
 Mr McCay3
 Mr Sargeant
TradeMr Gothe4
TreasuryMr Garrett5
 Mr Keaney6
SupplyMr Wills7
 Mr Davies8
DefenceMr Blakers
 Mr Caplehorn
Prime Minister'sMr Munro9
External AffairsMr Booker
 Mr Piper
 Mr Evans

The meeting opened with an outline by Sir Philip Baxter of the background of the A.A.E.C. submission.10 He said that for the last ten years the Commission had been involved in building up a body of trained nuclear scientists in Australia and that among other things this had involved considerable exchange of research information with the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and to a lesser extent France and West Germany. Australia had been able to hold its own in these exchanges and its nuclear research activities which had centred on advanced very high temperature gas cooled reactors were well thought of overseas.

During the last five years there had been considerable development overseas in the use of atomic reactors for producing electric power. The stage had been reached where the Commission felt that nuclear power was becoming an economic possibility in Australia, and Sir Philip expected that in the next fifteen to twenty years Australia would experience considerable development in the field.

[matter omitted]

Sir Philip said that the Commission's intention was purely to address itself to the economic advantage of the proposed reactor and it had deliberately not mentioned the defence implications of the reactor. The meeting might however be interested in some technical details. To produce electricity the fuel rods are left in a reactor for the maximum possible time. If, however, it was desired to produce plutonium of weapons grade it was necessary to withdraw the rods at an earlier stage. The reactor would produce about 60 kgs. of spent fuel (plutonium) per year but this would be useless for nuclear explosives if the fuel were left in for the maximum period. Technically, what happened was that the longer fuel rods were left in the reactor the greater was the conversion of the plutonium produced into an isotope Plutonium 240 which was unsuitable for explosives. By shortening the burn-up process it would be possible to obtain a higher proportion of weapons grade Plutonium 239. The operation would involve a larger amount of fuel and some additional plant to extract the weapons grade plutonium. Sir Philip said that the erection of the plant recommended by the A.A.E.C. could in effect shorten from seven years to twelve months the time it would take Australia to produce nuclear weapons, should the Government so decide.

[matter omitted]

Mr Blakers (Defence) said that, as Defence sees it the safeguard question was important. If heavy water was imported would this attract safeguards to the whole operation? Sir Philip said that the heavy water and some other parts of the plant would attract safeguards which would apply to the whole of the plant's operation. It was not really economic or perhaps even possible for Australia to construct a unit from scratch. Nor should we in his view make any such attempt. The existence of safeguards would not prevent the production of explosive grade plutonium, as was clear from the case of India. As long as it was not converted into bombs or weapons there was nothing in safeguards arrangements to prevent the accumulation of Plutonium 239 for peaceful engineering purposes such as Plowshare projects.

[matter omitted]

Mr Booker (External Affairs) said that the interest of his Department was in international implications of the establishment in Australia of a reactor of the type contemplated. The problem of safeguards arose not only if materials etc. were obtained overseas but even if the reactor were entirely 'home grown'. There was now considerable pressure for placing the latter under the international safeguards system. The A.A.E.C.'s proposals would have prestige value for Australia, as well as being of potential security importance, irrespective of any intention to produce nuclear weapons, it might not be a bad thing for other countries to realise that Australia would in the last resort have a capacity for nuclear self defence.

[matter omitted]

Sir Philip said the Commission felt that in the interests of a rational system of development of nuclear power in Australia, the Commonwealth must have direct control over the first reactor to be built. The Commission saw the first reactor was also performing useful demonstration and training functions, a field in which the A.A.E.C. had some direct responsibility delegated by Cabinet. Moreover under the Atomic Energy Act it was not possible for States to own fissionable material. Sir Philip said that the Commonwealth also had the responsibility for the safety of such plants although it had no powers in this respect. The Commission had considered the matter closely and felt that, certainly for the first reactor, when a body of experience would be built up which would be useful for future statutes, the Commonwealth should be the controlling authority.

[matter omitted]

There was further discussion on the nature of Commonwealth and State responsibilities much of which focused on the Commonwealth's responsibility for safeguards. Mr Booker (External Affairs) said that whether the plan were Commonwealth or State financed he would see advantage in an arrangement which preserved Commonwealth control because of the safety, safeguards and other international factors.

[matter omitted]

The meeting was closed by Mr Boswell at 4.30 p.m. with a vote of thanks to Sir Philip Baxter for his attendance, and with the suggestion that the submission be re-examined in the light of the comments which had been made.

[NAA: A1838, 919/12/1 part 1]