76 Briefing Note from Morris1 to McIntyre2

Canberra, 20 October 1965

Top Secret

Defence Committee Meeting—Agendum 59/1965

The paper circulated as Agendum 59/653 touches on the range of problems affecting the possible acquisition by Australia of nuclear weapons, in particular in relation to the imposition of 'safeguards on any nuclear plant and material acquired by Australia which we might want to divert from peaceful to defence purposes'. These matters are likely to be covered in some detail by Sir Leslie Martin. The notes below set out some comments on these issues raised which in general we think need further inter-departmental analysis before the Defence Committee is asked to make any policy recommendations on them.


  1. The Australian Government has consistently supported all genuine efforts to achieve both general and complete disarmament and the banning of nuclear tests. In the absence of substantial progress towards world disarmament, Australia has however been careful to leave the way open for the acquisition of a nuclear capability in some form should future circumstances make this necessary for Australian security. In particular, Australian policy has been to avoid giving support to moves which could interfere with the possible stationing of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear countries by the nuclear powers on the grounds that this would prevent possible stationing by the United Kingdom or the United States of nuclear weapons in Australia should this ever be necessary. Australia's reservations on proposed disarmament schemes have stemmed mainly from concern over the intentions of Communist China and its probable unwillingness to be bound by any international arrangements. Against this background, Australian defence policy has been concerned with the use of defence resources in the conventional field.

Proposal for an Australian Nuclear Power Reactor

  1. As the Defence Committee paper points out, there is at present before Cabinet a submission by the Australian Atomic Energy Commission for a design and cost study for a nuclear power reactor which the Commission recommends should be erected in South Australia. The A.A.E.C. submission is argued purely on economic grounds. During preliminary discussions it has been apparent that the Department of the Treasury is concerned at the possible precedent of the Commonwealth becoming involved in financing a power unit which is normally a State responsibility. The Department of Defence, on the other hand, sees the reactor as having possible defence value and feels that the defence aspects of the proposed reactor should be looked at more closely.
  2. In departmental advice submitted to the Minister4 for his possible use in Cabinet, the following points were made on this proposal:
    1. We have given departmental support to the planned cost study put forward by the A.A.E.C. in its submission;
    2. There would be some advantage for us in international standing and prestige to be among those countries capable of undertaking a civilian nuclear power programme. It would not greatly matter, from this aspect alone, whether the programme were State or Commonwealth financed and controlled.
    3. Insofar as nuclear reactors can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, the erection of a nuclear reactor has defence significance. It would not be possible for Australia to develop its own nuclear potential, if this were found necessary, without a reliable source of adequate amounts of weapons-grade plutonium, such as the reactor would provide. There might be some advantage in other countries being aware that, in the last resort, Australia would have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons within a few years.
    4. It would be necessary to preserve the Commonwealth's ability to discharge its international responsibilities in respect of safeguards arrangements and for the control and use of fissionable materials. The External Affairs and Defence interests in these matters should not be prejudiced by any decision which might be taken at this time.
    5. There would accordingly be advantage in an arrangement which preserved some Commonwealth control. In any event, these matters should be fully examined before any decision is made by the Commonwealth not to retain some measure of control which would allow proper exercise of some responsibilities.

[matter omitted]

Transfer of Bilateral Safeguards to IAEA

  1. Australia is one of 38 countries which has a bilateral agreement with the United States for Co-operation in the Civil Uses of Atomic Energy. It is stated United States policy that they wish to transfer the safeguards provisions of their agreements to the International Atomic Energy Agency. So far they have been successful in negotiating 19 such transfers. We have just received a copy of a note presented by the United States State Department to our Embassy in Washington on 11th October, 1965,5 containing a draft proposed tripartite agreement between ourselves, the U.S.A. and the I.A.E.A. on safeguards under which the I.A.E.A. would administer the safeguards at present contained in the bilateral agreement. The Department has been aware that such a proposal was likely but while the matter was brought to the Secretary's attention and has been discussed within the Department, we do not as yet have a firm departmental view on the matter which raises a number of complex issues.
  2. In our various advices to the Australian Atomic Energy Commission we have, however, suggested that if A.A.E.C. officials received approaches on the matter from U.S. officials they might say that the question of safeguards transfer and related matters are under preliminary examination by the Australian authorities but that a Government decision would be involved.
  3. A Cabinet decision in September 1960 made clear the feeling at that time that Australia's atomic energy arrangements with the United Kingdom and the United States should not become subject to I.A.E.A. safeguards and in particular that I.A.E.A safeguards inspectors should not be permitted to have access to Australia's nuclear resources and facilities. In 1959 we sought and obtained an assurance from the U.S. that they would not press Australia to transfer administration of the bilateral safeguards to the I.A.E.A. The U.S. preferred to have this assurance on an oral basis but assured us that it was nonetheless binding. Since then the U.S. has become firmly wedded to the principle that all bilateral safeguards should be transferred to the I.A.E.A. as a step towards a world disarmament system.

[matter omitted]

Non-Dissemination of Nuclear Weapons

  1. A further aspect of the background to discussions on Australian nuclear policy is the current pressure for the completion of a workable non-dissemination treaty to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. While they have diametrically opposed views on the concept of a nuclear force for NATO countries, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. profess the necessity for an early conclusion of a non-dissemination treaty. Although the chances of early agreement do not seem good, if a treaty were to be concluded this would probably include as a major provision an undertaking by nuclear powers not to assist other non-nuclear countries to develop a nuclear weapons potential. This issue raises a whole series of problems which it is not proposed to discuss here other than to point out that the conclusion of such a treaty could have repercussions for the defence options which the Australian Government has always wanted to keep open. Consideration would need to be given to the sort of assurances which might be sought if such a 'non-dissemination' agreement looked like becoming a reality.


  1. The Defence Committee is unlikely to take any substantive decisions on the complex material put forward in the Agendum papers, or on Sir Leslie Martin's report.6 However, if the question of further action to be taken is raised it is suggested you adopt the following position:
    1. Support the view of the Defence Scientific Adviser that the effect of 'safeguards' on the possible use of any Australian reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium should be further considered (paragraph 10 of D.C. Agendum);
    2. recommend that the range of issues covered in the A.A.E.C. paper relating to safeguards should also be further examined from the technical, defence and external affairs point of view;
    3. suggest that this examination be carried out by the ad-hoc Committee already set up for this purpose (consisting of Defence, A.A.E.C., and External Affairs) with a view to producing a paper which could be submitted to the Defence Committee defining the issues and recommending policies which the Government might adopt. This paper could then go to Ministers.

[NAA: A1838, TS919/10/5 part 1]