Australian Atomic Energy Commission Nuclear Weapons Policy
This paper presents an A.A.E.C. - Department of Supply assessment of Australia's capability to produce and manufacture nuclear weapons within the existing framework of Safeguards requirements attaching to any nuclear equipment, materials or information received from overseas.
Summary of Conclusions
- During the last ten years considerable advances have taken place in nuclear weapons technology and further advances will follow. The quantity of fissionable material required for one weapon has been appreciably reduced, as has the cost per weapon. Some relevant information is published in the open literature. The principles involved are well understood in Australia and a research and development programme would lead rapidly to a detailed weapon design.
- This information is available not only to the nuclear weapons States but also to an increasing number of other countries. Moreover, it will have been known to a large number of non-nuclear weapons States for some years and in some of these cases has been used to bring them close to the point where they can explode nuclear weapons.
- Australia has the information, the nuclear skills and the industrial capacity to set up and operate facilities to produce fissionable material (i.e. plutonium or enriched uranium) of weapons grade, either alone or with overseas assistance. A major breakthrough in the enrichment of uranium by the centrifuge process has been reported in Holland.1 This was expected by the A.A.E.C. and its significance lies in its very low capital cost.
- If the Government holds to its established policy of retaining its options it could make these more meaningful by promoting a nuclear weapons power programme in Australia and by initiating a modest research effort on uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons design.
- If Australia accedes to the Non Proliferation Treaty, work on the development of knowledge relevant to the design of nuclear weapons in Australia will be prohibited.
- If Australia does not accede to the N.P.T. the production of atomic weapons could be expected to require a minimum lead time of seven years, provided the necessary action to produce weapons material and to design a weapon proceeded concurrently.
- Current Commonwealth stocks of uranium and privately held reserves not available for export would be sufficient to maintain an annual production rate of 240 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium for ten years. There is little doubt that further uranium reserves could be discovered if an exploration programme were undertaken. The provision of a domestic market would stimulate the private search for uranium.
- For a capital outlay of $75 million, Australia could equip itself with the capacity to produce annually 26 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium (i.e. more than sufficient for three 20-kiloton weapons) at a cost of $346,000 per annum, including amortization. A capital outlay of $100 million would provide the capacity to produce annually 240 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium (i.e., sufficient for thirty 20-kiloton weapons) at a cost of $13 million per annum, including amortization at 4%.
Enriched Uranium Production
- The commonly used method for enriching uranium is the gaseous diffusion process. All gaseous diffusion plants built in the western world are of very large capacity. A typical U.S. enrichment plant can produce 27,000 kilograms of weapons grade enriched uranium annually and requires a power input of some 2,000 megawatts. Australia does not have access to diffusion technology but the principles are well known. It is not possible to scale these U.S. figures down to modest production sizes with any confidence. Subject to this qualification it seems that a diffusion plant capable of producing 250 kilograms of weapons grade uranium a year (i.e. ten 20 kiloton weapons) might cost $80 million and require 30 megawatts of power. Research and development work would be necessary before Australia would be in a position to construct such a plant.
- Research and development on an alternative process using gas centrifuges is reported as having achieved a major breakthrough. The significance of this process lies in its very low capital cost. Such research and development on centrifugal separation proceeded under normal 'commercial' security until 1961, when the U.S.A. classified all work on it as secret and urged other countries to do likewise because of the implications of a solution to the small scale low cost production of enriched uranium.
- Because enriched uranium is also a valuable reactor fuel for civil power generation the A.A.E.C. has begun a research and development programme on the gas centrifuge process.
- Australia has the information, the nuclear skills and the industrial capacity to set up and operate plutonium production facilities either with overseas assistance or on its own. Overseas assistance with the design and construction of the reactor and plutonium extraction plant would appreciably reduce the cost of setting up plutonium production facilities and shorten the time required to do so.
- A power reactor of overseas design with an electrical output of 250 megawatts together with facilities as listed above could be provided at a capital cost of $75 million. This would allow the production of 26 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium (i.e. approximately three 20 kiloton weapons) annually. If the electricity was sold for 4 mills a kilowatt hour, the cost of producing the plutonium would be $106,000 for each 20 kiloton weapon.
- The same reactor could be operated at a lower electrical output to produce a maximum of 240 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium (i.e. thirty 20 kiloton weapons) a year.
[NAA: A1838, TS919/10/5 part 5]