110 Note by Plimsoll on Defence Committee Meeting

Canberra, 7 March 19681

Top Secret

Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

The Defence Committee considered this question on the morning of 7th March.

  1. The Chairman2 began by inviting those present to express any queries they had about the papers circulated by the various Departments, without having any discussion or answers to the queries at that stage.
  2. On the External Affairs paper3 Sir Philip Baxter queried a number of points.
    1. Paragraph 18. He mentioned that the present safeguards system applied and could be varied at will by the Board of Governors.
    2. Paragraph 19. He disagreed with the statement that the safeguards contemplated did not amount to a full-scale system of inspection and control.
    3. Paragraph 20. He considered that 'the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes' might be interpreted much more strictly than External Affairs thought. He said that the United States had recently prevented the United Kingdom from supplying fuel to Italy for the nuclear-propelled ship

    [matter omitted]

    1. f. Paragraph 33. He said that External Affairs seemed to assume that, if Australia adhered to the Treaty, it would nevertheless be able to continue to take some measures that would put it in a position to advance more quickly in making nuclear weapons if a decision were made to withdraw from the Treaty. Australia could make little progress in that direction under the continuous inspection which the Treaty would require. It would take Australia at least five years from the time of withdrawal to make nuclear weapons.

[matter omitted]

  1. Sir Philip Baxter said that the Treaty would have very serious repercussions in the peaceful field over a wide range including mining and beach sands. There would be restraint and inspectors on every activity of this kind. When Australia moved into manufacture of nuclear power, inspectors would move into every activity. It was hard to say how far it would go or how much it would cost, but the cost could be considerable every year. Sir Philip expected that within the next few years Australia could construct its first nuclear power station (it would be operating in 1975) and it would have full manufacturing facilities, and other things that would attract international inspection. A lot of Australian companies would refuse to co-operate in the construction of the station and in other ways if they were going to be subjected to international inspection, because they would fear that the inspectors would be spying on behalf of other countries and on behalf of other manufacturers.
  2. Mr Boswell (Secretary of the Department of National Development) disagreed with the United States answer to an Australian query (telegram No. 94504 from Washington, paragraph E) to the effect that mines and all processing plants would be inspected. Mr Boswell said that, to be effective, the inspectors would have to go back to the source material and hence to the mining stage. If they did not do so, there could be no check on leakage of material. Sir Philip Baxter expressed agreement, and said that Australian companies would be reluctant to give inspectors details, for example the grade of ore or the processes. Whereas European countries might be inspected by permanent international civil servants of Euratom, inspectors in Australia would be under only two-year contracts and would therefore be able to misuse the material they discovered.
  3. Sir Henry Bland said that he fear that adherence to the Treaty might cut Australia off for all time from a lot of scientific research and development.
  4. The discussion then turned briefly to nuclear weapons. Mr Cooley5 (Secretary of the Department of Supply) said that he had the impression that immense technical progress had been made on making nuclear weapons. Therefore a safeguards system would have to be very comprehensive. If we decided to sign the Treaty, we would be doing so on the basis of insufficient information.
  5. Sir Philip Baxter said that in one particular field there were indications that a great deal of progress had been made which would make manufacture of nuclear explosives easier and cheaper. The United States had imposed a rigid security ban on this work in the United States and also clamped down on completion of what had been done in Germany. The A.A.E.C. was now working in that field itself to try and break through. Sir Philip said it could not be assumed that nuclear weapons could not be made easily and cheaply within the next few years by countries that did not tie themselves to the Treaty.
  6. Sir Philip said that Australia and perhaps South Africa6 were in a unique position. In one category were the 'have' powers. In the next categories were countries which had the capacity to make weapons within a few years and had gone some stage along the way: Japan, India, Sweden, Germany and perhaps some others. Australia and South Africa had potential capacity but had not done much to develop it. Therefore they would be giving up something very real if they signed the Treaty. Most of the other countries of the world could not make a nuclear bomb if they wanted to, or develop nuclear capacity, and consequently they would not be signing anything away by adhering to the Treaty.
  7. I spoke along the following lines. I said I thought that the Defence Committee should indicate it favoured Australia adhering to the Treaty, and it should consider whether any amendments should be sought or whether any understanding should be expressed as to the meaning or execution of the Treaty. It would then be for consideration how far these clarifications should be pressed. I said that the Australian Government for many years had indicated that it believed that nuclear weapons should not be disseminated among countries which do not already possess them because of the implications for world peace. It would be a big achievement if the United States and the U.S.S.R. reached agreement in this field. We should not look at the Treaty solely in terms of what restrictions it would impose on Australia and what we would be foregoing by accepting it. We should bear in mind that the Treaty would impose similar restrictions upon other countries that adhered to it, and the Treaty was designed if possible to restrain all countries. If Australia said that if would not sign the Treaty because of the limitations which it imposed, we would be saying in effect that Germany, Indonesia, India and Japan should not sign either. The inspection system as outlined by Sir Philip Baxter sounded onerous, but it would apply also to the other countries which signed the Treaty. Australia and other Western powers had argued for nearly twenty years that it was not possible to have effective systems of disarmament or arms control without inspection. I said that we also had to bear in mind what the attitude of the United States would be if Australia refused to sign. Despite what the A.A.E.C. thought, I believed there was a strong likelihood that the United States would cease cooperation with Australia in the atomic energy field if we refused to sign the Treaty. There might also be other implications.
  8. Sir Henry Bland said that if Australia decided not to sign the Treaty, he did not imagine that it would be announced bluntly in the General Assembly of the United Nations. The announcement could be wrapped up in a palatable form. The Australian representative could say that, though Australia was not signing the Treaty, it had no present intention of making any nuclear weapons. I said that such a statement would cut no ice whatever. What the Australian representative would be saying would be that Australia was not going to manufacture nuclear weapons, but it had no intention of allowing anybody to verify whether it was making them or not.
  9. Sir Richard Randall (Treasury) spoke at this stage and supported what I had said earlier about paragraph 34 of the Department of Defence paper,7 indicating that an independent nuclear weapon programme would not be beyond Australian resources. Sir Richard said that he thought the costs would be high and that, in addition to the delivery systems and infrastructure which I mentioned, there would probably be heavy additional costs in installing special defence systems in the cities because Australia would probably become a target of higher priority in the event of hostilities. Sir Richard said also that he was not shocked at the idea of inspectors, because obviously if one was to have control of armaments one had to have inspectors.
  10. Sir Henry Bland intervened to draw the discussion together and said that there were three alternatives for the Government:
    1. to sign the Treaty as it stood, possibly with some statement of understandings,
    2. to sign the Treaty but limit its duration to ten years, after which Australia would consider whether to continue or not, and
    3. not to sign it at all.
    Sir Henry favoured the second of these courses. He did not think there would be very great limitations on Australia over the next ten years. There was a lot of agreement around the table on that point, but I said that I was not happy with it and would need to think about it. There were quite a number of reasons for thinking that a Treaty limited to ten years would not be effective.
  11. Sir John Bunting said that he disliked the idea of inspectors, but did not see why they would be more acceptable for ten years than for twenty-five years. But the big consideration in his mind is what effect it would have on the Australian alliance with the United States. He thought that this should be the overriding consideration, and suggested that before taking a final decision the Australian Government should talk about it with the United States.
  12. The Defence Committee decided to set up a sub-committee consisting of Defence, External Affairs, A.A.E.C., Supply and the Treasury to prepare a paper for further consideration. The target dates are Thursday, 14th March for the preparation of the paper, and 21st March for consideration in the Defence Committee.

[NAA: A1838, 680/10/2 part 3]