The Weekend Australian August 31st 2019

The push for an Aussie bomb

It took a former PM almost three decades to come clean on his ambition for Australia to have a nuclear bomb.


Britain's first detonation at Maralinga, SA, 1956. Picture: supplied
Britain's first detonation at Maralinga, SA, 1956. Picture: supplied

In December 9, 1966, the Australian Government signed a public agreement with the US to build what both countries described as a “Joint Defence Space Research Facility” at Pine Gap, just outside Alice Springs. The carefully misleading agreement expressed the two countries’ mutual desire “to co-operate further in effective defence and for the preservation of peace and security”.

Officially, Pine Gap was a collaboration between the Australian Department of Defence and the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, but the latter was a red herring meant to conceal the real power at Pine Gap: the Central Intelligence Agency.

Behind the public agreement lay a classified “Implementing Arrangement” between the CIA and the Department of Defence. The document had been drafted by two senior CIA officers, one of whom, Richard Lee Stallings, would become the first US chief of facility at Pine Gap. While the Australians successfully negotiated access to all “product” from Pine Gap, the truth was that the Joint Defence Space Research Facility was joint in name only and its purpose was not (and never would be) “research”. It was a spy station designed to collect signals from US surveillance satellites in geosynchronous orbit over the equator.

Soon after becoming prime minister, Harold Holt had infuriated Australians opposed to the Vietnam War with his notorious, unscripted promise that Australia would be “all the way with LBJ”. Passionately pro-American, Holt trusted Washington to guarantee Australia’s security. As prime minister, he viewed the 1951 ANZUS Treaty with New Zealand and the US as the cornerstone of Australia’s defence strategy. Pine Gap and the other US bases on Australian soil were to be the cornerstone of ANZUS. “There is a price to pay for the alliance,” Holt’s defence minister, Allen ­Fairhall, would declare, “and the price we pay takes the form of the facilities provided at Woomera [in South Australia], Pine Gap [NT] and North West Cape [Western Australia].”

Click here for further background on Woomera, home to a joint Anglo-Australia Defence Project 1947-1971 and a joint US-Australia Defence Project 1969-1999. After September 1999 the US operations were moved to the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap.

Click here for Pine Gap, a US satellite surveillance base operated by both Australia and the United States.

Click here for North West Cape, a Naval Communication Station for US and Australian ships and submarines. With a transmission power of 1 megawatt, it is the most powerful transmission station in the Southern Hemisphere.

PM John Gorton in Vietnam, 1968. Picture: supplied
PM John Gorton in Vietnam, 1968. Picture: supplied

On December 17, 1967, Holt waded into a wild surf at Cheviot Beach in Victoria, never to be seen again. His successor, John Gorton, did not share Holt’s unshakeable faith in the US security guarantee. A maverick former fighter pilot, Gorton had warned the Australian Senate as far back as 1957 that rather than rely on its nuclear-armed allies to deter enemy aggression, Australia needed “some measure of atomic or hydrogen defence” — in other words, an Australian bomb.

On April 6, 1968, the US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, flew to Canberra for what turned out to be a fiery confrontation with the new Australian prime minister. Australian and US soldiers were fighting and dying side by side in Vietnam and the Canberra talks were expected to focus on the war. But Gorton was fixated on another matter. The US and Britain, along with the USSR and more than 50 other nuclear and non-nuclear states, were ­preparing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, pledging not to transfer to other countries weapons, technology or materials that could enable the production of nuclear weapons. Australia, which had sheltered for more than two decades under the US nuclear umbrella, was resisting.

When Rusk arrived for his meeting with ­Gorton, Australian scientists were secretly exploring the possibility of the country developing its own nuclear weapons. A number of senior government bureaucrats were eager for Australia to have its own atomic bomb. Signing up to the non-proliferation treaty would have put an end to Australia’s nuclear ambitions. Acutely aware of the ongoing political and military instability in South-East Asia, Gorton was fiercely opposed to Australia giving up its “nuclear option” when it could not be ­certain how events would unfold in the region.

Paul Hasluck, left, with US Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Picture: supplied
Paul Hasluck, left, with US Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Picture: supplied

Dreams of an “Aussie bomb” dated back to the end of World War II. Nearly two decades before the CIA began scheming for a spy station at Pine Gap, the British government had approached Canberra with a proposal for another “joint” project whose fallout would be even more controversial. British scientists had played a central role in the Manhattan Project that led to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. While the war lasted, the head of the British scientific mission, Professor James Chadwick, was in no doubt that Britain’s obligation was to give up its own nuclear ambitions and put all its energies into helping the US.

The Anglo-American nuclear collaboration came to a sudden halt, however, after the war when the US government decided to protect its monopoly by withholding research, raw materials and test facilities from its former partner. After initially sounding out the Canadians, Britain turned its attention to Australia as the place to develop an atomic bomb. In February 1946 Britain had been given permission to use Woomera as a rocket-­testing site; later, under the Menzies government, it would be granted sites on the Montebello Islands in Western Australia and at Maralinga in South Australia for testing atomic weapons. According to historian Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s Labor prime minister, Ben Chifley, accepted the Woomera rocket testing “subject to Australia having full access to information and being able to manufacture modern weapons” at some future date.

Robert Menzies. Picture: supplied
Robert Menzies. Picture: supplied

It was not just real estate that Britain needed for its atomic program but scientific brains and manpower. A crucial part of Australia’s contribution to Britain’s atomic project was to be the creation of a national university capable of advanced research. With its established political and administrative infrastructure, Canberra made the perfect site for a new Australian National University. But the capital had a more strategic advantage: its proximity to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the centre of a projected domestic nuclear power industry. According to Reynolds, the Snowies were an “ideal location for the construction of a plutonium-producing … fast breeder reactor” that would require “vast amounts of water … for cooling and for moderation”.

Convinced that there was no chance of gaining access to US nuclear test sites, Britain threw all its efforts into the atomic partnership with Australia. US observers were not invited to the first test, on the Montebello Islands, in October 1952. After a successful series of atomic tests in central Australia, Maralinga became a permanent test site, eventually hosting seven atomic detonations and hundreds of other experiments.

The building of an experimental reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney’s south was supposed to be the first step in a nuclear program that within a decade would see the development of full-scale nuclear power reactors. Mark Oliphant, an ­Australian physicist who’d played an important part in Britain’s wartime research, was anxious that the government didn’t close the door on ­Australia producing its own weapons. This did not mean actually building a bomb, he said, since power plants producing plutonium and uranium-235 could be converted to the manufacture of atomic weapons “in a matter of hours”. The ­creation of a thermonuclear weapon (a second-generation nuclear device vastly more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) would require more sophisticated plant and installations but these “could be tackled by any industrialised nation”. Oliphant had no doubt that “Australia could best be defended by nuclear weapons”.

John Gorton agreed, arguing in a 1957 speech to the Senate that while “a potential attacker of this country might be deterred by the possession of hydrogen bombs by the [US or Britain]… I think that we should be trusting very much indeed to the help that those great countries could give if we put our faith solely in a deterrent held by them”.

During the 1950s Australian defence chiefs ­lobbied vigorously for an Australian bomb. When it became clear that the prime minister, Robert Menzies, had reservations, they went behind his back. Menzies did agree, however, to let Britain test its nuclear weapons in Australia — a decision, according to historian Jacques Hymans, taken “almost single-handedly… without consulting his Cabinet and without requesting any quid pro quo, not even access to technical data necessary for the Australian government to assess the effects of the tests on humans and the environment”.

Behind Menzies’ offer was an expectation that Britain could be relied on for a nuclear guarantee that would make an Aussie bomb unnecessary. But by then Britain was already winding back its regional security commitment. If anyone was going to offer Australia a nuclear guarantee it would have to be the US, not Britain.

The successful detonation of a nuclear device by China in October 1964 sent shivers through Canberra. Chinese co-operation with the Soviets had ended in 1959 when Khrushchev refused to supply Beijing with a prototype bomb. The 1964 test device, built without Russian help, was highly sophisticated and roughly as powerful as the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki. In its aftermath Australia expected the ­Chinese to have a nuclear force capable of threatening a significant part of South-East Asia by the end of the ’60s, if not before.

The Menzies government responded to the threat by ramping up efforts to ingratiate itself with Washington. This meant bowing to pressure to support the US in Vietnam. Australia had been derided in the US Senate for its failure to match its bellicose rhetoric with troops on the ground. In 1964 a US senator ridiculed Paul Hasluck’s decision as minister for external affairs to double the number of Australian military advisers in Vietnam. “Who does the Foreign Minister of Australia think he is fooling?” he demanded. “Why, Australia is increasing its advisory force from 30 to 60 advisers and you can be sure they will keep them away from the combat zone… it is all right with Australia to have American boys die in South Vietnam.”

In fact, as well as doubling the number of advisers Hasluck had also agreed to their switching to a combat role. That decision, which broke from the previous policy of offering political support for the war while staying out of the fighting, led inevitably to Menzies’ decision in April 1965 to commit a full infantry battalion to Vietnam.

Pine Gap, 1968. Picture: supplied
Pine Gap, 1968. Picture: supplied

While negligible beside the 175,000 American soldiers already in Vietnam, Australia’s military support represented an important act of solidarity with Washington. After Menzies retired, Harold Holt more than quadrupled the Australian troop commitment. At the same time, Holt made another down-payment on US military protection by agreeing to host US intelligence bases at North West Cape, Nurrungar and Pine Gap.

Within two years, however, the situation had dramatically altered. Americans were sick of Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement, on March 31, 1968, of a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and his decision not to seek re-election, signalled a wider US disengagement from the war. It was less than a week later that Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, flew into Canberra for his meeting with the new Australian prime minister, John Gorton.

Gorton’s posturing caught Rusk on the hop. In a secret cable to Washington Rusk caricatured Gorton as behaving “like [French President Charles] de Gaulle in saying that Australia could not rely upon the United States for nuclear ­weapons under ANZUS in the event of nuclear blackmail or attack … I will not recount here what I said to him but I opened up all stops.” Rusk urged the State Department to send a special ­mission to Australia led by “someone who is ­thorughly [sic] competent on the technical side on nuclear ­matters and of the non-proliferation treaty to eliminate as many as possible of the ­misunderstandings and irrelevancies which are floating around the Australian Government”.

While Gorton offered tepid support for the “idea” of a non-proliferation treaty, Rusk correctly foresaw that Australia would prevaricate about signing the treaty while “[hiding] behind objections raised by other delegations”.

Gorton’s political reservations about the non-proliferation treaty masked a deeper fear: that signing the treaty might cause Australia’s ­nascent atomic energy industry to be “frozen in a primitive state”. Gorton and the head of Australia’s Atomic Energy Commission, Philip Baxter, were both committed to pursuing the development of an Australian bomb. Scientists at the AEC worked with government officials to draw up cost and time estimates for atomic and hydrogen bomb programs. According to the historian Hymans, they outlined two possible programs: a power reactor program capable of producing enough weapons- grade plutonium for 30 fission weapons (A-bombs) per year; and a uranium enrichment program capable of producing enough uranium-235 for at least 10 thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs) per year. The A-bomb plan was costed at what was considered to be an “affordable” $144 million and was thought to be feasible in no more than seven to 10 years. The H-bomb plan was costed at $184 million over a similar period.

Aware of opposition to any talk of an “Aussie bomb”, ­Gorton carefully played down the military aspect and argued instead for the economic benefits of a nuclear power program. But Rusk and the US delegation quickly smelt a rat. Exasperated by a series of objections they thought had been cleared up during nuclear non-proliferation negotiations in Geneva, the Americans tried to allay Canberra’s fears of being left behind in the development of nuclear power, arguing that the “so-called peaceful spin-off” from the development of nuclear weapons had been obtained “at great cost long ago” and was available to countries like Australia in open technical literature. In short, the Americans found it “difficult to believe Australia would choose to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to ‘rediscover’ what is now generally known”.

In his Washington cable Rusk explained that the object of the special emissary would be “to deal with as many of the technical problems as possible in order to clear away that underbrush rather than to take on the major political issue as to whether Australia should give up the nuclear option”. Rusk’s advice was followed and a US ­mission did visit Canberra. At the end of April 1968, US arms control officials briefed a top ­British diplomat in Washington about the ­Canberra ­mission. Their view of the Australians was much more positive than Rusk’s. Officials from the AEC had impressed the US visitors with “the confidence of their ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon and desire to be in a position to do so on very short notice”.

The Australian officials, they said, had “studied the draft NPT [non-proliferation treaty] most thoroughly… the political rationalisation of these officials was that Australia needed to be in a position to manufacture nuclear weapons rapidly if India and Japan were to go nuclear… the Australian officials indicated they could not even contemplate signing the NPT if it were not for an interpretation which would enable the deployment of nuclear weapons belonging to an ally on Australian soil.”

Eighteen months after Rusk’s fractious visit to Canberra, Gorton called a general election. He declared his commitment to a nuclear-powered (if not a nuclear-armed) Australia, announcing that “the time for this nation to enter the atomic age has now arrived” and laying out his scheme for a 500-megawatt nuclear power plant to be built at Jervis Bay, on NSW’s south coast. While the defence benefits of such a reactor were unspoken, there was no mistaking the military potential of the plutonium it would be producing.

The Jervis Bay reactor never got off the drawing board, although planning reached an advanced stage. Detailed specifications were put out to tender and there was broad agreement over a British bid to build a heavy-water reactor. A Cabinet submission was in the pipeline when Gorton lost the confidence of the party room and was replaced by William McMahon, a nuclear sceptic who moved quickly to defer the project.

It would be another 28 years before Gorton finally came clean on the link between the reactor and his ambition for Australia to have nuclear weapons. In 1999 he told a Sydney newspaper that “we were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and… if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb”. Gorton did not identify who he meant by “we” (although Philip Baxter was almost certainly among them) but Gorton and those who shared his nuclear ambitions were unable to win over the doubters in his own government.

Australia signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1970 but even as it did so it was clear that Gorton had no intention of ratifying the treaty. Australia would not ratify it until 1973, and then only after McMahon’s Coalition government had lost power to Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party. As well as ratifying the treaty, the Whitlam government cancelled the Jervis Bay project that had been in limbo since McMahon became prime minister. And with that, Whitlam effectively ended Australia’s quixotic bid to become a nuclear power.

Australia never got its own bomb, although as late as 1984 the foreign minister, Bill Hayden, could still speak about Australian nuclear research providing the country with the potential for nuclear weapons. The Morrison Government is unlikely to let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, with a spokesperson from the Department of Defence telling The Weekend Australian Magazine that “Australia stands by its Non-Proliferation Treaty pledge, as a non-nuclear weapon state, not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons”. Nearly 70 years since Australia signed the ANZUS treaty, the department continues to argue that “only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the US can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia”.

Project Rainfall: The Secret History of Pine Gap by Tom Gilling (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is out next week.


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