43 Notes by Prime Minister's Department on Cabinet Submission No. 1571

Canberra, 13 May 1959


Safeguards on Nuclear Exports

  1. The Submission recommends that Australia support an interim system of safeguards on nuclear exports along lines proposed by the U.S. and U.K.-'interim' because it would eventually be absorbed or replaced by a system of safeguards operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (if and when that body can reach agreement).
  2. This proposal raises a number of important issues which we think ought to be looked at carefully before any decision is taken. In particular we are not convinced of the need for Australia to commit herself at this stage.


  3. The object of a safeguards system is to prevent the diversion to the manufacture of nuclear weapons of source materials, equipment and 'know-how' supplied for ordinary commercial purposes. Nuclear development programmes can serve both military and civil needs. Atomic reactors produce plutonium as a by-product and may be geared, as the British stations are, to maximise this by-product. Plutonium, the essential ingredient in nuclear weapons, may thus be obtained by chemical processing of the 'spent' fuel taken from the reactor; it may be obtained also from natural uranium by a much more expensive process known as diffusion or isotope-separation. Plutonium is also in demand for civil purposes for use in certain types of reactors as part of the initial fuel charge.
  4. The present safeguards proposal began late in 1957 as a proposal for the 'five important supplying countries' (U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and South Africa) to adopt a 'strict and uniform set' of interim safeguards. It has moved, somewhat fitfully, through various discussions and exchanges, until a meeting of the Five in London in February reached (without commitment) certain conclusions described in the present submission as the London Proposals and attached to it as Annex B.
  5. The next move (foreshadowed in the London proposals) is to bring in other Western countries and a meeting has been called by the United Kingdom and United States for 21st May in London to which are invited Australia, Canada, South Africa, France, Belgium, Portugal (i.e. all uranium producers) and Representatives of Euratom Commission.2 We have been told that these talks will concentrate on uranium but 'the equipment aspect necessarily arises due to the presence of the United Kingdom and United States'.

    [matter omitted]

  6. The further questions about accommodating Australia's commercial and other interests in the event that a general safeguards system in the West is considered feasible are ones which can be taken up a little later. We would comment in passing however, that the commercial disabilities involved in operating safeguards should be shared equitably and not made to fall disproportionately on the producers of raw materials. Our experience in the Rum Jungle, Rio Tinto and South Alligator negotiations3 suggests that we should not be soft-hearted or trusting on this point.

[NAA: A4940, C2609]