“It will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Elections and Enduring Realities: Australia’s Nuclear Debate
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Jeffrey S. Lantis

In November 2007, voters in the Commonwealth of Australia went to the polls in a hotly contested national election. Their choice was between the two major-party candidates, incumbent Prime Minister John Howard of the conservative Liberal Party, and his challenger, Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party. The parties differed vocally over issues ranging from Aboriginal rights to the plight of the middle class. Another serious issue sharply divided the parties but received less public debate: nuclear energy policy.

During the campaign, the Howard government sought to dampen debate on the subject even as it joined the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and called for Australia to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle and expand uranium sales to developing countries, including India.

Meanwhile, Labor leaders made clear their opposition to nuclear power. Candidate Rudd argued, “Nuclear energy and nuclear power plants for Australia are not an option. They don’t represent a sensible case on economics, [and] they don’t represent a sensible case on how you deal with radioactive waste.”[1] Peter Garrett, Labor’s shadow minister for climate change and the environment (and a former rock star), warned that even in the face of global warming, “to choose an option such as nuclear energy, while aware of its pitfalls, is the worst kind of denial.”[2] Nonetheless, the Labor Party victory, combined with some recent world events, raise serious questions about whether and to what degree the Rudd government will retain this stance on nuclear power, particularly when it comes to providing uranium to nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) outliers such as India.

Over the past few decades, Australia has carved out a unique role in nuclear policy. It is one of the world’s few wealthy, advanced industrial democracies not to have developed a nuclear energy infrastructure. Instead it has established a reputation as a global champion of nonproliferation. Time and again, Australian diplomats have led the way on nonproliferation treaty commitments, especially Canberra’s pledge not to supply uranium to NPT nonsignatories for fear it might inadvertently contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Yet, Australia possesses the world’s largest reserves of uranium (more than one-third of the global total) in its network of mines in the Northern Territory and South Australia. Canberra therefore has strong countervailing economic and energy security incentives to change course and participate more fully in the recent renaissance of interest in nuclear energy, especially helping to supply fuel for the scores of reactors planned for Asian countries such as India and China.[3] Australian uranium export deals with these and other countries have the potential to be highly lucrative. They also provide developing countries needed guarantees for expansion of their energy infrastructure. Critics, however, warn that exports may also contribute inadvertently to nuclear proliferation.

Still, in the lead-up to last year’s election, even the Labor Party endorsed steps that may inevitably expand the country’s role in the global nuclear energy cycle, and public opinion polls also hint that Australians may be slowly coming to terms with nuclear energy.

Australia’s Nuclear History

Contemporary policy debates in Australia regarding nuclear energy derive from a complicated history on the question. In periods of Liberal Party rule in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Australia pressed forward on nuclear energy and even sought nuclear weapons. Liberal Party leaders have appeared beholden to the views of major corporations who have seen nuclear energy as a growth industry. Meanwhile, the Labor Party traditionally has opposed nuclear energy for Australia and appeared more responsive to general public unease with nuclear power and the problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

Australia first entered the controversial nuclear arena in 1944 when the government mined uranium for use in the Manhattan Project. Several Australian scientists also participated in the British atomic bomb research program and returned home with valuable expertise. After World War II, larger deposits of uranium were discovered, mined, and exported to the United Kingdom and the United States for use in their weapons programs.[4]

The Australian government became more directly involved in nuclear weapons development in the 1950s under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies. In 1951, Australia signed a security pact with the United States and New Zealand (the ANZUS Treaty) that saw the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases in Australia. Menzies also invited the United Kingdom to test nuclear weapons in his country. The first British bomb was tested in 1952 on an island off the coast of Western Australia; later, aboveground British tests were conducted at Woomera and Emu Field in South Australia. Analysts have suggested that Menzies saw cooperation with the United Kingdom primarily as a way to deepen security ties between the countries. It also offered an opportunity to gain scientific expertise on nuclear weapons development.

In 1953 the government established the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), chaired by nuclear physicist Sir Philip Baxter, and five years later, Australia acquired its first nuclear research reactor from the United Kingdom. Under pressure from Baxter and some military officers who believed that nuclear weapons should be the centerpiece of a modern force, Australian leaders also began making secret requests to acquire bombs from allies.[5] Defense planners interpreted Australia’s Cold War strategic situation as similar to that of Western European countries and saw reliance on nuclear weapons as a strategic inevitability.

By the 1960s, as the international community celebrated progress toward agreements to limit nuclear proliferation, Australia’s conservative government grew increasingly worried. Menzies conveyed his opposition to a formal declaration of nuclear haves and have-nots at the outset of U.S.-Soviet-British negotiations on a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At one point, the frustrated prime minister told his allied counterparts that if major nonproliferation treaties were to come into force, “Australia should insist on nuclear weapons on demand.”[6] China’s first nuclear test in 1964 only deepened Australia’s security concerns.

Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton actually took his nation to the brink of nuclear capability in the late 1960s. Gorton shared Baxter’s view that the NPT, opened for signature in 1968, represented a serious roadblock to Australia’s plans to construct nuclear reactors, expand uranium exports, and even acquire nuclear weapons. The prime minister refused to sign the NPT until February 1970 and believed he could continue to keep Australia’s nuclear options open by not ratifying it.

With the support of the AAEC, Gorton’s government negotiated a secret deal with France for construction of a uranium-enrichment plant in Australia. The Liberal government also advanced a plan to develop a large (500 megawatt) nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay in New South Wales. Gorton’s intention was to solicit bids for a reactor that could run on indigenous natural uranium, such as a CANDU plant, or highly enriched uranium (HEU) produced by a plant on Australian soil. Although ostensibly a civilian power plant, this would give the government the option of either reprocessing spent fuel or diverting HEU for military purposes. In the end, Baxter and the AAEC decided on a safer and more reliable British light-water reactor plan.[7]

This pattern of behavior ended in the early 1970s, however, when the Labor Party took over the government. The new prime minister, Gough Whitlam, cancelled the Jervis Bay project and fired Baxter from his longtime post at the AAEC. In 1973, Australia ratified the NPT, and the Labor government delayed uranium-mine expansion plans citing concerns about Aboriginal land claims. In 1975, Labor adopted an official party proclamation that limited uranium mining to existing mines (the “Three Named Uranium Mines Policy”). Australia seemed firmly committed to the international nonproliferation regime in the 1980s and 1990s. Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, for example, appointed the country’s first ambassador for disarmament and lobbied other governments to establish a global ban on nuclear testing. Australian diplomats helped sponsor the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty in 1985, an agreement whereby signatories pledged not to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons, to prevent territorial stationing of any nuclear weapons, to ban nuclear testing, and to oppose radioactive waste dumping at sea.[8]

Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl only deepened concern about the risks of nuclear energy among Australians. When French President Jacques Chirac announced in 1995 that his country would conduct a new round of nuclear tests in the South Pacific, tens of thousands of Australians protested in the streets and threatened boycotts of French goods. Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating condemned France’s decision and sponsored an international convention of nuclear weapons experts in Canberra that called for global nuclear disarmament.[9] Even after Labor’s defeat in March 1996, the party’s legacy continued to influence government policy. Australia remained an active supporter of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the indefinite extension of the NPT, and the ruling by the International Court of Justice declaring the use of nuclear weapons illegal in cases other than national self-defense.

The debate over nuclear energy and Australia’s role in the global nuclear fuel cycle came to a head once again during 2006-2007 as a result of several new developments. Like other countries, Australia showed renewed interest in nuclear energy because of perceived threats to energy security, soaring prices in energy markets, and rising concern over global warming. Moreover, the signing of the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2007 raised anew the question of whether or not Australia should sell uranium to a non-NPT state. The Bush administration’s new GNEP program prompted the Howard government to commit to new multinational nuclear energy initiatives. At home, Howard ordered a comprehensive study of nuclear power and then announced plans for construction of a robust nuclear energy program, possibly including more than 50 power plants, uranium-enrichment facilities, and waste repositories.

Nuclear Masala? Cooperation Deals With India, China, and Russia

The 2007 U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation agreement opened a Pandora’s box of opportunities and challenges for Australia. The agreement called on India to “separate” its military and civilian nuclear facilities, placing only civilian reactors under international safeguards, in exchange for nuclear trade with the United States and its allies.

Given its vast uranium reserves, Australia traditionally has played a critical role as a supplier state to allies but dutifully toed the line on international export controls. It is one of 45 member states of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), established in 1975 to regulate the supply and export of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology in support of the nonproliferation regime. The NSG calls for potential recipients to have full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in place, effectively ruling some countries, notably India, Israel, and Pakistan, off-limits for this commodity trade. The Australian government was even more selective, requiring that its customers be signatories to the NPT and complete bilateral safeguards agreements to ensure no chance for diversion of uranium to weapons programs. Its traditional customers included France, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. At the same time, Australia refused to export uranium to countries such as India, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Taiwan.

All this seemed to change late in the Howard government when, with prices soaring, Australia opened negotiations with China, India, and Russia for the export of uranium. When the U.S.-Indian deal was first announced, the Bush administration pledged to “work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India.”[10] The Australian government jumped eagerly into this mix. Just days after a U.S.-Indian plan that claimed to separate India’s military and civil facilities was announced in March 2006, Howard arrived in New Delhi, and one of the topics of discussion in his private meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was reportedly the export of uranium to India.[11]

An Australian-Chinese export deal was completed in April 2006 and ratified in January 2007, and an Australian-Russian uranium-export agreement was signed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney in 2007. The China deal is highly lucrative: starting in 2010, Australia will export up to 20,000 metric tons of uranium to China per year.[12] The plan has since been endorsed by the Rudd government as a complement to the prime minister’s initiatives to strengthen relations with Asia. The agreement with Russia, penned by Howard and President Vladimir Putin, would also help promote Australian-Russian ties. Both deals included safeguards agreements preventing diversion of uranium for military use or sale to third parties.

The most vexing issue for Australian policymakers regarding uranium sales today is India’s status as a nonsignatory of the NPT. In the 1990s, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated firmly that his country had a “legal obligation not to provide nuclear material unless subject to safeguards required by Article III.1 of the NPT, that is, full scope safeguards.”[13] India’s rejection of the NPT and 1974 explosion of a nuclear device made it the target of export controls on dual-use and nuclear-related technology for decades. Sanctions were tightened in the wake of its 1998 nuclear tests. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission runs its nuclear reactors below capacity because India possesses only a limited amount of indigenous uranium. India also faces difficulties developing a thorium-based reactor that could alleviate reliance on domestic uranium.

Throughout 2006, Australian authorities steadfastly denied that they were considering selling uranium to India, but quiet diplomatic negotiations were already underway. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials saw the prospect of selling uranium to India as appealing. With countries such as China and India developing rapidly and expanding their nuclear power programs, Australia could emerge as the regional uranium supplier of choice.

By 2007, the Howard government was making a concerted push to change the nature of the debate on the matter. Seemingly overnight, editorials and reports began to appear in prominent newspapers suggesting that Australians rethink their relationship with India. One opinion piece argued that India would be a reliable partner: “Since it first tested in 1974 India has not shared its nuclear technology or materials with anyone. Its non-proliferation record is better than some countries that have signed the treaty like China which is widely believed to have helped Pakistan go nuclear.”[14] A May 2007 brief from the conservative Lowy Institute for International Policy claimed that “selling uranium to India offers major potential benefits for exports and foreign policy.”[15] The problem, supporters argued, was less with India as a strategic partner and more with an outdated and flawed nonproliferation regime.

In August 2007, Howard officially announced his government’s decision to export uranium to India, subject to certain preconditions. Australia would require that India finalize a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, pending NSG approval of the deal. Australia would also await ratification of a “123 agreement” for nuclear cooperation between the United States and India. The 123 agreement (so-named in reference to Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act) requires establishing ground rules for civilian nuclear cooperation. Ratification was not seen as a major hurdle at the time; the deal had been completed in July 2007 and submitted to each country’s legislature for review. All signs suggested that the U.S.-Indian deal would be completed and that Australia would finalize a very lucrative uranium-export arrangement in the near future.

Events in 2007-2008 have since called this into question. As a candidate, Rudd was on the record opposed to the export of uranium to India. Rudd’s new foreign minister, Stephen Smith, said that Australia would not export to India or other nonsignatories of the NPT during a visit to Washington in January 2008. Meanwhile, ratification of the 123 agreement has been held up in India by opposition from Communist parties allied to Singh’s Congress Party. This provided the Rudd government a needed reprieve on the issue.

Evidence suggests that the Rudd government will be forced to re-evaluate its position if the safeguards agreement with the IAEA is finalized and the decision taken to the NSG. In February 2008, Australia’s ambassador to India, John McCarthy, stated that Rudd’s decision on exports does “not mean that Australia will oppose the NSG exemption when the group votes on the matter.”[16] Given Australia’s ties with great powers and its emerging trade relationship with India, it appears highly unlikely that Australia would reject the special deal in the NSG. Furthermore, with the blessing of a special exemption, some experts believe that Australia will eventually find a way to export uranium to India.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

In February 2006, the Bush administration announced plans for GNEP. The core of the partnership was collaboration between the United States and other countries with advanced nuclear energy programs to develop new technologies to reuse elements in spent nuclear fuel so that that they might reduce nuclear waste without increasing nuclear proliferation. One initial goal of the program was to discourage new countries from developing uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities, because these plants could not only produce nuclear fuel for power plants but fissile material for nuclear weapons, and instead “lease” fuel from facilities in states that already have enrichment or reprocessing plants.

For almost a year after the initial announcement of the partnership, however, the precise nature of its scope and activities remained unclear to Australian authorities. Indeed, these have changed considerably over time. According to a government task force report:

GNEP envisions whole-of-life fuel leasing…but is a long term proposal which has only recently been launched, so it can be expected to evolve considerably over time. Some of GNEP technologies are already well established, others require major development. A timeframe of the introduction of new technologies as envisaged under GNEP may be around 20-25 years.[17]

Nevertheless, Howard’s government expressed interest in joining up even before the outlines of the partnership were clear. One high-ranking government official speaking on background explained that Australia has a vested interest in any discussion of the nuclear fuel cycle and that the Howard government was willing to follow the U.S. lead on the matter.[18] In July 2006, Howard said that Australia had an opportunity to become an energy superpower by selling more uranium on world markets: “We are part of the nuclear fuel cycle whether we like it or not,” he declared. “The real question is whether Australia should fully consider our interests and responsibilities in the global nuclear energy debate or whether we succumb to the dogma of denial.”

Howard and Downer made several requests to the United States to become partners in the initiative but at the same time made sure that, by doing so, they would not preclude Australia’s ability to acquire enrichment facilities.[19] Bush confirmed plans to expand membership of the organization during the APEC summit in Sydney in September 2007. Australia and 10 other states became official members of GNEP later that month, and Australia participated in its first steering committee meeting in December 2007.

At this writing, however, many questions and uncertainties remain about the future of GNEP in its domestic and international dimensions. These have only contributed to a fear that Australia’s most important role in GNEP may turn out to be as a vast international nuclear waste repository.

The Switkowski Report

Perhaps the most significant event that shaped the nuclear energy debate in Australia in recent years was the release of the government’s “Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy Taskforce Report” (UMPNER) in December 2006. The report was the product of a special study commissioned by Howard and led by Ziggy Switkowski, former CEO of Telstra International and head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. The task force was given the mandate to conduct a comprehensive review of uranium mining and processing and nuclear energy. The group consisted of respected members from the sciences and academia, but critics immediately denounced the enterprise as no less than the creation of a “roadmap for Australia to go nuclear.”[20]

The task force investigated all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to enrichment to management of nuclear waste. They also examined relevant social concerns, safety and proliferation issues, and the potential impact of nuclear energy on the environment. The task force held public hearings in Australia, consulted with scores of individuals and institutions around the world, and visited nuclear energy plants, mines, enrichment facilities, waste repositories, and nuclear regulatory agencies. They also made it a point to visit more controversial sites associated with nuclear energy, including Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the United States.

The final report delivered to the prime minister in December 2006 reached several conclusions, although it is worth noting that, for political reasons, the task force was prevented from labeling these “recommendations.”[21] First and foremost, the task force expressed the seeming inevitability of a rise in the use of nuclear energy around the world and that “nuclear should be on the table” again in the Australian energy debate, including discussion of greater Australian involvement in other elements of nuclear fuel cycle.[22]

The report also outlined basic criteria for establishment of a nuclear infrastructure, including the need for a regulatory regime, training and investment in nuclear research and education, and a comprehensive energy strategy. The task force had consulted with companies working in the nuclear fuel cycle, such as San Diego’s General Atomics and the European enrichment consortium URENCO. Task force member Professor George Dracoulis reports that URENCO representatives discussed details of a hypothetical partnership deal in which they could build and manage an enrichment facility in Australia for approximately AU$2 billion (about US$1.6 billion at current exchange rates). When the task force discussed the controversial question of building a uranium-enrichment facility with Downer, he seemed receptive. Downer reportedly said at the time that DFAT could effectively “manage” world opinion and domestic opposition if the government decided to move forward.[23]

Australia’s Nuclear Future

In late April 2007, at the official opening of a new nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights, Howard proclaimed nuclear energy “a source of hope” and “part of Australia’s future.”[24] Soon thereafter, the prime minister announced his decision to launch a full-scale nuclear energy program. The government would follow the steps toward nuclear energy outlined in the UMPNER, including plans to develop a regulatory regime, promote nuclear engineering research, and launch a public information campaign. These actions were necessary precursors to the establishment of a national network of nuclear power plants (possibly more than 50, according to Switkowski) and domestic uranium enrichment. In the weeks that followed, DFAT officials also confirmed they had begun talks with new countries on uranium exports and that Australia would participate in the international Generation IV Advanced Nuclear Reactor Research program.

Howard’s announcement set the Liberal Party’s position on nuclear energy distinctly apart from that of Labor in the lead-up to the November 2007 election.[25] Prior to the election, Rudd and Labor leaders stated their opposition to nuclear power and uranium-enrichment plants in Australia, as well as uranium exports to India and Russia. Rudd called the prime minister’s endorsement of nuclear power “too expensive, too dangerous, too slow, when it comes to impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”[26] Another Labor leader chided, “John Howard has been in Parliament for over 30 years and suddenly the Australian people are expected to believe that he discovered a new way to fast-track nuclear power…. Australia has abundant supplies of gas and coal which will supply our energy needs for hundreds of years.”[27] Queensland Nuclear Free Alliance Spokesperson Robin Taubenfeld called the move “highly irresponsible” and predicted that the prime minister had committed “political suicide.”[28]

Notably, Howard’s nuclear plan also drove a wedge between federal and state governments. Premiers of large-state governments (under Labor Party control) vowed to fight federal plans, claiming that their own state laws prevented stationing of reactors in their territories. New South Wales (NSW) Premier Morris Iemma said he would use every means available to make sure that no nuclear power stations were built there: “If the Prime Minister wants to build a nuclear power station in NSW, he’ll have to get past me first.”[29] South Australian Premier Mike Rann echoed this sentiment, vowing, “They [the Commonwealth] won’t be building a nuclear power plant in South Australia while Labor is in office.”[30] Nevertheless, by early 2007, the federal government had already begun exploring legal routes by which state laws could be overridden to construct nuclear power stations, enrichment facilities, and even waste depositories.[31]

On November 24, 2007, Rudd and the Labor Party won the national parliamentary election soundly, defeating Howard and the Liberal/National coalition government. What followed was a consolidation of power by Rudd, including the naming of Julia Gillard as deputy prime minister, representing the left wing of the party, and Peter Garrett as the new environment minister. One of Rudd’s first actions in office was to announce that Australia would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the United States as the only advanced industrialized power not to join.[32] Meanwhile, the Liberal Party imploded with Howard’s defeat and the withdrawal from party leadership of embittered former Treasury Minister Peter Costello.

Merely a Change in Speed?

The dramatic change in government gave encouragement to Australians opposed to nuclear power and greater involvement in the global nuclear fuel cycle. Rudd signaled a shift in foreign policy away from close cooperation with the Bush administration, and Smith’s announcement that Australia would not export uranium to India was met with praise by anti-nuclear activists. Still, celebrations of the Labor victory by many anti-nuclear advocates may have been premature. Some evidence suggests that the nuclear choice has effectively already been made for Australia.

First and foremost, nuclear insiders believe that the choice on nuclear policy offered up to voters might not be as distinct as it was portrayed in the media. Indeed, they contend that many Labor leaders already quietly accept the intellectual arguments for nuclear energy and emphasize a gradual evolution in thinking underway in the Australian polity on the question. Although a pause in government progress toward nuclear energy is likely, insiders believe that the Labor government will move to address critical nuclear issues within three to four years of taking office.[33] At a business forum after the 2007 election, Switkowski repeated the claim that Labor would eventually endorse nuclear energy:

We will get there [to nuclear energy]. I’m sure that we will get there, whether it happens in the next term of government or the one after…. The attitude in Australia, I think, will move from concern to grudging acceptance, to enormous relief that we have this very efficient technology and these vast reserves that will give us…the lowest cost, safest, cleanest form of base load electricity.[34]

Second, the Labor Party has already taken a critical step in support of an expanded role for Australia in the global nuclear energy cycle. In 2007, party leaders began debating whether they should overturn the Three Named Uranium Mines Policy of the past and expand Australia’s involvement in the lucrative growing market of uranium mining. Pragmatists including Rudd saw potential in the expansion of uranium mining and exports. Australia was the second-largest exporter of uranium in the world behind Canada, even with its restrictive policies, and spot uranium prices were spiking. Rudd was able to gain the support of opponents on the left and the party voted to allow expanded uranium mining at its leadership conference in April 2007.

Third, advocates of nuclear power in Australia have long believed that there is latent public support for the enterprise. A 2005 survey conducted for the IAEA showed that “levels of support for nuclear power in Australia, particularly when put in context of climate change, are similar to those in a number of other countries including Indonesia, the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and France.”[35] Elite framing may be one key to understanding this phenomenon over time. When the prospect of nuclear power first captured the attention of conservative governments in the 1960s and 1970s, they championed it as a potential solution to the expected shortage of fossil fuels. Liberal governments appeared to enjoy a diffuse base of public support for nuclear power in Australia, but polling was notoriously inconsistent. Following the election of the Whitlam Labor government, a majority of Australian citizens favored NPT ratification in 1973 and the country’s responsibility to support the international nonproliferation regime.

In 2006 and 2007, the Howard government began to revive interest in nuclear energy in part by tapping into the diffuse base of public support. This time around, however, nuclear energy advocates had a new trump card: global warming. Nuclear energy was presented as the best response to growing concerns about energy security and climate change, and the argument seemed to be effective. The 2005 IAEA survey, for example, found that although 60 percent of Australians opposed the construction of nuclear power plants in their country, opposition fell dramatically when respondents were asked whether they would support “the use of nuclear power to help combat climate change” (evenly split at 47 percent for and 47 percent against).[36] In a May 2006 poll, a plurality of Australians (49 percent) approved of the construction of nuclear power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[37] Similar Newspoll surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007 charted a gradual decline in opposition to nuclear power plants along with an increase in undecided citizens. It is also noteworthy that the proportion of young people (aged 18-34) who were strongly opposed to nuclear energy fell dramatically, from 43 percent to 32 percent, between May and December 2006.[38]

These data suggest both latent support for nuclear power as a response to climate change and the potential for elite framing to shape public attitudes on the nuclear question. Indeed, the Howard government attempted to seize on what it saw as support in the buildup to the 2007 national election. Conservatives also knew that the framing of nuclear energy as a potential solution to global warming would place its opponents on the left in a true political dilemma. Skeptics might be forced to see the issue in a new light and would be hard-pressed to raise the same level of challenges voiced in earlier decades. Meanwhile, those on the left who accepted the intellectual argument regarding nuclear energy might be forced to reveal their cards to the voting public, thereby undermining the swell of support for a change in government. By raising the nuclear question, the Liberals believed they had masterminded a catch-22 for Labor.

Finally, Rudd himself seems committed to strengthening relations between Australia and key Asian partners, and international economic trends suggest that the focus will be squarely on commodity exports. Rudd’s personal understanding of the dramatic growth in Asian economies and their dire need for energy resources may resonate as well. All signs pointed to a massive increase in worldwide electricity demand, much of it originating in Asia. In 2006, China was already building 13 new nuclear power plants, with dozens more on the drawing boards; India had 16 reactors either under construction or planned. Meanwhile, Australian-Indian nuclear ties have already begun: a recent private sector deal was struck between Reliance Industries, India’s biggest private sector company in the energy and materials market, and Uranium Exploration Australia for exploration in Australia.[39] The fact that the Australian-Chinese and Australian-Russian uranium-export deals were only recently wrapped up means that these deals will effectively go forward on Rudd’s watch.

In many ways, the Australian-Indian nuclear export deal will be a key barometer of the evolution of Australian nuclear policy. If Labor leaders truly accept the intellectual argument in favor of greater involvement in the global nuclear fuel cycle, then they will find it difficult to ignore the potential for uranium exports to India. A pending NSG vote could put the Rudd government in a position of tacit endorsement for special exemptions to the NPT. As noted earlier, this may pave the way for the government to come around to a position that endorses broader exports with special safeguards agreements so that Australia can remain a viable player in the global nuclear renaissance.


What is clear about Australian nuclear policy in 2008 is that Rudd will have to walk a fine line in balancing principle and practical politics. Of course, Australians are not alone in confronting difficult choices on nuclear energy in the 21st century, but their unique role in nonproliferation and their vast reserves of uranium give them special influence on these issues.

Australia’s decision to pursue a broader role in the global nuclear fuel cycle is significant for the market as well as for political and security considerations in Australasia. Not only would a potential doubling of Australian uranium exports by 2015 to current nuclear powers help ensure increases in baseload power capacity, but the government could also reach out to supply newer civilian nuclear power programs.

A greater role in the global supply chain, however, also means greater responsibility. Australia’s first hurdle in an expanded uranium-export program will be to overcome charges of double standards. Exports to Russia with its ties to controversial regimes such as Iran and Syria could draw Australia into a web of proliferation crises. Exports to China with its controversial human rights record also raises important policy questions. Exports to India, an NPT nonsignatory, would be interpreted as the ultimate double standard in the Labor government’s foreign policy profile. As one prominent critic of this policy direction has already articulated, the Rudd government may appear to be arguing that “nuclear power is something Australians support—so long as it is not in their country.”[40]

Other important questions of responsibility also arise. For example, any move toward development of uranium-enrichment capability for Australia could also foster a regional energy or arms race. Because GNEP “envisions a system whereby supplier states take back spent fuel,” Australians will have to confront questions of the return and storage of nuclear waste sooner rather than later. As early as 2005, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke publicly suggested that Australia had an “environmental responsibility” to open a global nuclear waste repository.[41] Finally, can Australia ensure the viability of bilateral safeguards agreements as well as the robustness of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime while becoming a larger player in the nuclear fuel cycle?

Australia has a fascinating yet contradictory nuclear history. Various governments have made efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, develop enrichment capacity, and take strong stands on nuclear disarmament. Yet, the forces at work that have shaped past Australian policies remain in play today. The nuclear debate has also intensified as a result of contemporary challenges such as global warming and real economic opportunities. In summary, despite the hopes of some Australians today, nuclear power remains an issue that will not go away.

Jeffrey S. Lantis is an associate professor of political science at The College of Wooster and was a 2007 Fulbright Senior Scholar at Australian National University.


1. Kevin Rudd, Interviewed by Steve Liebmann, Radio 2UE, December 12, 2006.

2. Peter Garrett, “Nukes Not the Answer to the Greenhouse Threat,” The Age, April 28, 2005.

3. Sharon Squassoni, “Risks and Realities: The ‘New Nuclear Energy Revival,’” Arms Control Today, May 2007, pp. 1-9.

4. Wayne Reynolds, “Rethinking the Joint Project: Australia’s Bid for Nuclear Weapons 1945-1960,” Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1998), pp. 853-873.

5. Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 5 (Fall 1997), pp. 1-20; Richard Tanter, “The Re-emergence of an Australian Nuclear Weapons Option? Implications for Indonesia and the Asia Pacific,” Japan Focus, November 5, 2007, http://japanfocus.org.

6. T. V. Paul, Power Versus Prudence: Why States Forgo Nuclear Weapons (Montreal: McGill/Queen’s University Press, 2000), p. 75.

7. Jacques E.C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 129-131.

8. Toshiki Mogami, “The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone: A Fettered Leap Forward,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 25, No. 4 (December 1988), pp. 411-430.

9. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” August 1996.

10. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Joint Statement Between U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,” July 18, 2005.

11. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, March 21, 2007.

12. Australia-China Nuclear Material Transfer Agreement and Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, November 2007.

13. Daryl G. Kimball, “Fixing a Flawed Nuclear Deal,” Arms Control Today, September 2007, p. 3.

14. Christopher Kemmer, “Facing Up to the Nuclear Question,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 29, 2007, p. 13.

15. Ron Walker, “Uranium for India: Avoiding the Pitfalls,” Policy Brief, Lowy Institute for International Policy, May 2007, p. 1.

16. “Australia Not to Sell Uranium to India,” The Hindu, February 6, 2008.

17. Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce, “Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy—Opportunities for Australia?” 2006, p. 243.

18. Australian government official, Interview with author, Canberra, Australia, March 21, 2007.

19. Jill Parillo and Rebecca Cooper, “Potential ‘Receiver’ Nations Rebuff Fuel Leasing Overtures,” Nuclear Weapon and Materials Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 29 (July 9, 2007); Rebecca Cooper, “More Countries Sign on to GNEP as U.S. Modifies Approach,” Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 27 (September 24, 2007).

20. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, March 20, 2007.

21. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, May 17, 2007.

22. Ziggy Switkowski, interview with author, Adelaide, June 7, 2007.

23. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, May 17, 2007.

24. Richard Macey, “Nation’s Energy Future Is Nuclear: Howard,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 21, 2007, p. 1.

25. Phillip Coorey, “PM Sets Nation on Nuclear Path,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2007, p. 1.

26. Katharine Murphy, “PM Puts Faith in Nuclear Power,” The Age, December 30, 2006, p. 1.

27. “ALP Slams Nuclear Policy,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 28, 2007, p. 1.

28. “Howard Nuclear Plan a Worry: Protestors,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 28, 2007, p. 3.

29. Stephanie Peatling and Marian Wilkinson, “Bid to Overturn Nuclear Ban,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 30, 2007, p. 6.

30. “Rann Rules Out Nuclear Plant for South Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 27, 2007, p. 1.

31. Peatling and Wilkinson, “Bid to Overturn Nuclear Ban,” p. 6.

32. Michael Fullilove, “Don’t Be Fooled: There’ll Be More Change Than Continuity in Foreign Policy,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 20, 2007, p. 6.

33. Ziggy Switkowski, interview with author, Adelaide, June 7, 2007.

34. Catherine Best, “Nuclear Power Inevitable, Says Ziggy,” www.news.com.au, November 16, 2007.

35. Globescan, “Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA: Final Report From 18 Countries,” October 2005 (prepared for the International Atomic Energy Agency).

36. Ibid. See Andrew Macintosh, “Who Wants a Nuclear Power Plant? Support for Nuclear Power in Australia,” Australia Institute Research Paper, No. 39 (January 2007).

37. Roy Morgan Research, “More Australians Approve Than Disapprove of Nuclear Power Plants,” Finding, No. 4032 (June 10, 2006).

38. Newspoll 2006, “Opinion Polls,” November 30, 2006; Newspoll 2007, “Opinion Polls,” January 8, 2007. Not surprisingly, many Australians oppose specific initiatives that may strike closer to home. For example, a 2006 poll found that 87 percent of Australians were concerned about the disposal of nuclear waste in their country. When Australians are asked about hypothetical construction of a nuclear power plant in their local area, 66 percent of respondents oppose the idea, with only 10 percent strongly in favor; Roy Morgan Research, “More Australians Approve Than Disapprove of Nuclear Power Plants.”

39. “RIL Goes to Oz for Uranium,” The Economic Times, December 11, 2007.

40. Senator Christine Milne, “Election Silence 2: Uranium Exports,” GreensBlog, November 22, 2007, http://greensblog.org.

41. Mary Beth Dunham Nikitn et al., “Managing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Policy Implications of Expanding Global Access to Nuclear Power,” CRS Report for Congress, RL34234, November 1, 2007, p. 31; “Hawke Backs Australia as Nuclear Waste Repository,” ABC News Online, September 27, 2005.