Australia nuclear proliferation history

Government sources


Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy – 1971, Department of Defence

192. Finally there is, in our opinion, no present strategic need for Australia to develop or acquire nuclear weapons; but the implications of China’s growing nuclear military capacity, and of the growth of military technology in Japan and India, need continuous review. We consider that the opportunities for decision open to the Australian Government in future would be enlarged if the lead time for the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability could be shortened. We recommend regard to this, without undue claims upon resources, in the future development of Australia’s nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes, in the Defence research and development programme, and in other relevant ways.

Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy – 1976, Department of Defence

96. No requirement is seen in Australia’s present and prospective strategic circumstances for acquisition of nuclear weapons. Any steps taken in this direction would at a certain point seriously concern the US and probably cause strong opposition from other nuclear powers. It could alarm countries of major strategic concern to Australia and stimulate further nuclear proliferation. (See also paragraph 382 in Chapter Ten).

382. No requirement is seen for Australia now to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the possible requirement to keep the lead time for Australia matched with contingent developments in other relevant countries, calls for keeping up-to-date in developments and for a review periodically of Australia’s potential for development of nuclear weapons, against the possibility that the country might be forced to consider turning to them for protection at some indeterminate time in the future.

United States

“Australia’s Prime Minister Wanted ‘Nuclear Option’”, 40th Anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, National Security Archive, 1 July 2008.

  • Document 16a: Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, U.S. Embassy Canberra cable 4842 to Department of State, 6 April 1968, Secret Nodis, National Security Archive

In my talk with Prime Minister Gorton I ran into a full battery of reservations about the Non-Proliferation Treaty. You could almost repeat everything the Germans have said and put them in Australian mouths. Gorton is deeply concerned about giving up the nuclear option for a period as long as twenty-five years when he cannot know how the situation will develop in the area. He sounded almost like 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 on Australia. I will not recount here what I said to him but I opened up all stops. One of the things which s getting in the way is objections coming out of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and Defense on all sorts of picayune problems on which we have been able to satisfy the Germans and others.

  • Document 16b: U.S. Embassy Canberra cable 4923 to Department of State, “NPT,” 10 April 1969, Secret/Limdis
  • Document 16c: State Department Cable 144920 to Embassy Canberra, “Australian Concerns regarding NPT,” 11 April 1968, Secret, Limdis
  • Document 16d: Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Memorandum of Conversation, “Consultations with Australians on NPT and Status of Interpretations on Articles I and II,” 24 April 1968, Secret

Mr Bunn [ACDA] said that they [ACDA and AEC officials] were particularly impressed by the independece of the officials representing the Australian AEC, the confidence of their ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon and desire to be in a position to do so on ver short notice. …The political rationalization of these officials was that Australia needed to be in a position to manufacture nuclear weapons rapidly if India and Japa were to go nuclear. Mr. Bunn indicated that the Australians were fully aware of the implications of the six interpretations offered to the Soviet Union on April 28, 1967. Indeed the Australian officials indicated they would 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.



Australia’s Quest to Enrich Uranium and the Whitlam Government’s Loans Affair, Wayne Reynolds, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 54, Issue 4.

Australian nuclear weapons: the story so, Richard Broinowski, Austral Policy Forum 06-23A 17 July 2006

Australia’s New Nuclear Ambitions, Richard Broinowski, Austral Policy Forum 06-24A 24 July 2006.

Australia’s Nuclear History, Rear Vision, ABC Radio National, 4 June 2006.

Exploring The Nuclear Option, Pathfinder: Air Power Development Centre, issue 29, August 2005.

Fact or Fission, the Truth about Australia’s  Nuclear Ambitions, Richard Broinowski, Scribe Books, 2003.

Fortress Australia, ABC television documentary, Peter Butt – Director/Co-producer/writer/editor
Broadcast: 22 August 2002.

Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb, Wayne Reynolds, Melbourne University Press, 2001.

“Isotopes and Identity: Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999”, Jacques E. C.Hymans, Nonproliferation Review, Vol.7, No.1, Spring, pp.1-23, 2000.

Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions, Jim Walsh, Nonproliferation Review 5 (Fall 1997), pp 1-20.

This paper examines how Australia pursued nuclear weapons from the mid-1950s until signing the NPT in 1973, first through attempted procurement and then by developing indigenous capacity.

Atomic Australia 1944-1990, Alice Cawte,University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1992.

Australia and Nuclear Policy, Desmond Ball, in Strategy and Defence: Australian Essays, Desmond Ball (ed.), George Allen and Unwin, 1982, pp. 320-343.

Proliferation at home, Brian Martin, Search, Vol. 15, No. 5-6, June/July 1984, pp. 170-171

Although an overt bomb lobby has not recently been conspicuous, influential opinion exists within the government and the Department of Defence that nuclear weapons should not be ruled out. This is precisely the current of thought revealed in a defence document called ‘The strategic basis of Australian defence policy’ revealed by The National Times in March 1984. Brian Toohey (1984) summarises the implications regarding Australian nuclear weapons in this way: ‘The Hawke Government has accepted a defence planning document that says Australia should be in a position to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as any neighbour that looks like doing so.’

The policy document reveals a cavalier disregard for Australian government obligations under the NPT, giving the impression that the NPT would simply be ignored if the government decided to move towards a nuclear weapons capability. This disregard does not sit well with the government’s heavy reliance on the NPT as the guarantee against military use of Australian uranium exports.

While there may be no influential groups actively pushing for Australian nuclear weapons, the acceptance of the ‘strategic basis papers’ suggests that neither is there much principled opposition to nuclear weapons in Cabinet or the Defence Department. Changes in political circumstances could well lead to a quick resurgence of the influence of the bomb lobby.

Popular support for Australian nuclear weapons might not be hard to create and channel. An opinion poll reported in March 1981 that over one third of Australians favoured Australia having nuclear bombs (Bulletin, 1981) – similar to the level of support for this option a decade earlier (Anon., 1969a).

Australia in the Nuclear Age, Ian Bellany, Sydney University Press, 1972.

See also