Australian nuclear proliferation – contemporary


The question of Australia “re-visiting” the question of developing an Australian nuclear weapons capacity has been raised by several analysts in recent years, either directly or indirectly. The Deputy Director of the Lowy Institute suggested in late 2007 that “a failure to sustain and strengthen our current non-proliferation regime may force us to consider such an option”. Earlie the same year, a senior Australian security academic and former ONA analyst suggested that nuclear weapons proliferation trends in Northeast Asia and nuclear energy developments in Indonesia support what was viewed as the Howard government’s rejection of US demands to permanently foreclose the option of an Australian uranium enrichment capacity.  In early 2008, a former junior advisor to Kevin Rudd while in opposition argued that as result of what was seen as a weakening US committment to extended nuclear deterrence for Australia, then Australia would need to choose between developing its own nuclear weapons or a missile defence capacity as part of a strategy of “nuclear denial”. Indonesian security analysts aware of the past history of Australian nuclear weapons amitions with that countr in mind noted these developments with some alarm.

Government sources

Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Archive of Commission official site, includes full text of report.

Analysis and commentary

A delicate issue: Asia’s nuclear future, Rod Lyons, ASPI, 2009-12-14, [PDF, 845 KB]

Over the coming decade or two—say, out to about 2030, the time horizon of the recent White Paper—Australia should attempt to strike a balance between its ordering and hedging strategies. For as long as possible, we should support a low?proliferation Asian security environment and reinforce impulses towards a stable, benign regional nuclear order. We should push an ordering strategy for the good reason that our strategic interests are best
served by that approach.

But our advocacy of order might not be enough. In a darker Asian future of rising nuclear disorder, Australian strategy would be driven by a different set of imperatives. Where possible, we should try to retain hedging options during a possible turbulent era in regional security, and that means we’ll need to keep a weather eye on our own nuclear capacities as the future unfolds.

Australia might decide that it can take its time hedging. But there’s a problem: long lead?times. To retain the option of nuclear hedging in the future, we’d need to grow the prerequisites—nuclear expertise, a nuclear industry, proficiency in the sensitive technologies of enrichment and reprocessing, and the delivery vehicles that might offer assured penetration to target (which is important for an arsenal with relatively
few warheads).

Nation given N-bomb warning, Christian Kerr, Australian, 2009-12-14

Australia may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to tackle deteriorating Asian security, a government-funded defence think tank has warned. Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Rod Lyons said a loss of confidence in US nuclear deterrence or the appearance of a new nuclear state in Asia could force Australia to take the nuclear arms option. The comments will embarrass Kevin Rudd ahead of the launch of the report from the international commission on nuclear disarmament during his visit to Japan this week.

Australia’s Nuclear Dilemma: Dependence, Deterrence or Denial?, Raoul E. Heinrichs, Security Challenges*, Volume 4, Number 1, 2008, pp. 55-67 (*Subscription required)

“An outright offensive deterrent is not the only mechanism which might eventually reduce Australia’s reliance on the US nuclear umbrella. An Australian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) shield, by shifting to a strategy of nuclear denial, may in time reduce the burden on the United States to maintain a credible offensive threat against Australian adversaries.”

Australia and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence, Robyn Lim, Issue Analysis No 82, Centre for Independent Studies, 1 March 2007

“Australia, including for reasons of distance, can afford to rely more than Japan does on extended deterrence in relation to both China and North Korea. But it may not elect to do so if in future Indonesia were to decide it needed its own deterrent….So for security as well as economic reasons, Australia is successfully resisting aspects of President Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) that would have seen Australia required permanently to give up the option to enrich uranium.”

A reply to Richard Tanter, Martine Letts, 12 November 2007, Austral Policy Forum 07-20B

“’Richard Tanter appears to have carefully deconstructed my contribution to the Lowy Institute’s Voters’ Guide and put it back together again through the rather artificial conceit of a ‘realist’ approach to international relations, which leads to some wrong conclusions about what my article really means.’ Letts argues that ‘a future government should consider the ‘what if’ questions too – what if we live in a region with not just one, but two and maybe three nuclear-armed states. I for one hope that the very prospect of Australia needing to revisit its decision not to consider a nuclear deterrent would be sufficient to encourage us to work harder to shore up and strengthen the existing global nuclear governance arrangements and not to further undermine them. This involves more than pious slogans and adherence to old ways of doing things. To conclude that the logical consequence of this line of argument is to advocate for an Australian nuclear weapon is about as credible as the search for those elusive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.’”

The Re-emergence of an Australian nuclear weapons option? Austral Policy Forum 07-20A, 29 October 2007.

“Australian nuclear policy does indeed need to be reviewed. But such reconsideration of our current policy failures needs to be genuinely and comprehensively realist, informed by abiding commitments to the avoidance of nuclear next-use, and eschewing any suggestion that if our half-hearted arms control measures do not bear fruit, then Australia too will take the genocidal option, and once again and try to join the nuclear club.”

Australian Voters’ Guide to International Policy: Non-proliferation and Arms Control, Martine Letts, Lowy Institute, 15 Oct 2007 [80KB PDF]

“An incoming Australian government will need to assess the changed global nuclear environment and develop strategic policy options to protect and project our interests. Some of these options may be controversial and unpopular.

“Nuclear weapons proliferation and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists are at the top of the global security agenda. Global demand for nuclear energy is a signifi cant, if partial, solution to the global problems of climate change and has put pressure on the comparatively contained nuclear world we have lived in so far. These and related developments have implications for Australian policy settings over the next five years. They traverse our non-proliferation policy, its intimate relationship with our role as a major supplier of uranium, our strategic relationships with the United States and major Asian powers, and our own decisions on the role nuclear weapons will play for the future security of Australia.

“A thorough nuclear policy review should also consider which strategic circumstances might lead to Australia’s revisiting the nuclear weapons option. As extreme as this may sound, failure to sustain and strengthen our current non-proliferation regime may force us to consider such an option. In the current strategic circumstances, no government could leave such an eventuality entirely out of mind.”

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

“Outlandish as it may seem to many Australians, the challenge may soon be to reassure Australia’s neighbours, especially Indonesia, that Mr Howard has no plans to build nuclear weapons in Australia.”

See also