Australia and weapons of mass destruction

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Australia does not possess weapons of mass destruction, although it has participated in extensive research into nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the past.

Australia chairs the Australia Group, an informal grouping of countries that seek to minimise the risk of assisting chemical and biological weapon proliferation. All states participating in the Australia Group are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, and strongly support efforts under those Conventions to rid the world of chemical and biological weapons.[1] As with chemical and biological weapons, Australia does not possess nuclear weapons and is not at all known to be seeking to develop them.

Biological weapons[edit]

Australia has advanced research programs in immunology, microbiology and genetic engineering that support an industry providing world class vaccines for domestic use and export.[2] It also has an extensive wine industry and produces microorganisms on an industrial scale to support other industries including agriculture, food technology and brewing. The dual-use nature of these facilities mean that Australia, like any country with advanced biotechnological industries, could easily produce biological warfare agents. The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria is researching the Ebola virus[3]. The Australian Microbial Resources Research Network lists 37 culture collections, many of which hold samples of pathogenic organisms for legitimate research purposes.[4]


In the wake of the Japanese advance through South East Asia during World War II, the secretary of the Australian Department of Defence, F.G. Shedden, wrote to Macfarlane Burnet on 24 December 1946 and invited him to attend a meeting of top military officers to discuss biological warfare.[5]

In September 1947, Burnet was invited to join the chemical and biological warfare subcommittee of the New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee and subsequently prepared a secret report titled "Note on War from a Biological Angle".[6] In 1951 the subcommittee recommended that "a panel reporting to the chemical and biological warfare subcommittee should be authorised to report on the offensive potentiality of biological agents likely to be effective against the local food supplies of South-East Asia and Indonesia".[5]

The activities of the chemical and biological warfare subcommittee were scaled back soon after, as Prime Minister Robert Menzies was more interested in trying to acquire nuclear weapons.[5] Australia signed the Biological Weapons Convention on 10 April 1972 and deposited a certificate of ratification on 5 October 1977.[7]

Chemical weapons[edit]

An observer examining an unexploded 25 pound gas shell following a trial of gas weapons at Singleton, New South Wales in 1943.

Australia conducted extensive research into chemical weapons during World War II. Although Australia has never produced chemical weapons, it did stockpile chemical weapons sourced from the United States and Britain.[8] Chemical weapons known to have been stockpiled included mustard gas, phosgene, lewisite, adamsite and CN gas.

Some of the stockpiled weapons in the form of mortar and artillery shells, aerial bombs and bulk agents were sent to New Guinea for potential use against Japanese tunnel complexes.[8] No actual use of the weapons was made although there were many trials using 'live' chemical weapons (such as shown in the adjacent picture).

After World War II, the chemical weapons were disposed of by burning, venting (for phosgene) or by dumping at sea. Some 21,030 tons of chemical weapons were dumped in the seas off Australia near Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. This has been covered in a Defence report by Geoff Plunkett.[1] A complete history of Australia's involvement with chemical weapons – titled Chemical Warfare in Australia – has been published in book form by the Army History Unit (Defence Department) in 2013 (2nd Edn) [2] [3] Again it is authored by Geoff Plunkett [4].

A stockpile of 1,000 pound phosgene bombs was discovered at Embi Airfield, Papua in 1970 and disposed of by Australian Army personnel, and, up to 1990, drums of mustard gas were still being discovered in the bush where they had been tested.[8] Another stockpile of chemical weapons was discovered at Maxwelton, Queensland in 1989.[5] Australia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993 and ratified it with the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act in 1994.[8]

Nuclear weapons[edit]

Operation Hurricane, a 25kt nuclear test, Monte Bello Islands, Australia

Australia does not currently have nuclear weapons and has never had its own nuclear weapons, although several federal governments have investigated the idea and conducted research into the question.[9] Australia investigated acquiring tactical nuclear weapons from the United Kingdom or the United States as early as 1956 when Athol Townley, Minister for Air, wrote to Philip McBride, Minister for Defence, recommending the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons to arm Australia's English Electric Canberra bombers and CAC Sabre fighters.[10][11][12]

Air Chief Marshal Frederick Scherger and Minister for Air Athol Townley supported acquiring nuclear weapons, both for international prestige and because of the small size of the country's military. While Scherger's British and American counterparts were encouraging, the Macmillan and Eisenhower governments were not. Prime Minister Robert Menzies' government decided that domestic production would be too difficult due to cost and international politics.[13]

Australia hosted British nuclear testing in Monte Bello Islands (Operation Hurricane), Emu Field and Maralinga between 1952 and 1963. Maralinga was developed as a joint facility with a shared funding arrangement.[14] During the 1950s, Australia participated in the development of the Blue Streak missile, a Medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) intended for delivery of a nuclear warhead.

The Australian HIFAR nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, Sydney, operated from 1958 to 2006 and has now been replaced by the OPAL reactor in 2006. The new reactor is designed to use low-enriched uranium fuel and an open pool light water system.[15]

Australia has substantial deposits of uranium which account for 30% of the world's known reserves.[16] Until 1996 government policy restricted exploitation of uranium deposits to three established mines. A fourth site at Four Mile uranium mine was approved in July 2009.[17] Current policy is to develop the export potential of Australia's uranium industry by allowing mining and export of uranium under strict international agreements designed to prevent nuclear proliferation.[18]

Although the RAAF continued to occasionally investigate obtaining nuclear weapons during the 1960s,[13] Australia signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on 27 February 1970 and ratified the treaty on 23 January 1973.[19] Sir Philip Baxter first head of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), now the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and first Vice Chancellor of the University of New South Wales openly advocated Australia acquiring a weapons grade plutonium stockpile and thus nuclear weapons.[20]

During the 1970s and 1980s, ANSTO scientists developed centrifuge enrichment technology, claimed to be comparable with the commercial URENCO centrifuge technology of the time. Such technology, if deployed on an industrial scale, would have been capable in principle of producing highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The research lost government funding in the mid-1980s.[21]

A commercial-scale enrichment plant would also be capable of producing sufficient highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program. An Australian company has been actively developing a novel process for uranium enrichment, Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX).[22]

The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, began a study in 2006 into the issues surrounding an increase in Australia's uranium usage.[23] Amongst the topics of the study were a domestic uranium enrichment plant for supplying low-enriched fuel for nuclear power reactors, either domestic or foreign.

In 2015–2016, a Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was held in South Australia. Tasked with investigating opportunities and risks associated with increasing the state's role in the nuclear industry, its chief recommendation was that the Government of South Australia explore the prospect of importing spent nuclear fuel from other nuclear nations for storage and disposal. While the Commission was led by retired Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, its Terms of Reference specifically excluded the consideration of military applications of nuclear materials. The dump idea was abandoned after "Two-thirds of a citizens' jury rejected the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's findings and reported it did not want South Australia to store high-level nuclear waste "under any circumstances".[24]

Australia is considered a "nuclear capable state".[25]

Delivery platforms[edit]

An Australian F-111

Like virtually every other developed nation and most larger developing nations, Australia has weapons systems which could be used to deliver nuclear weapons to its neighbours, if nuclear weapons were developed.[26] The Royal Australian Air Force has 71 F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters and 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters.

Australia previously operated the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk ground-attack aircraft and the English Electric Canberra and General Dynamics F-111C bombers, which were theoretically capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and F-111G tactical bombers which converted from United States Air Force FB-111A strategic nuclear bombers. Prior to the delivery of the F-111C, Australia briefly operated the McDonnell Douglas F-4E leased from the United States Air Force, standard Block 43/44 models capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

As part of Air Staff Requirement (Operational Requirement/Air) 36 for bomber aircraft in the 1950s, the Royal Australian Air Force specified a requirement for "an offensive tactical strike capability" and "strategic defence of Australia" with targets "as far north as the Kra Peninsula". The bomber was required to have a range of not less than 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km) and be capable of carrying at least 20,000 pounds (9,100 kg) of conventional bombs or one BLUE DANUBE nuclear weapon (which had been air dropped at Maralinga on 11 October 1956).[27] Locally manufactured versions of the Avro Vulcan or Handley Page Victor nuclear bombers were some of the options considered.


  1. ^ "The Australia Group : An Introduction". The Australia Group. Archived from the original on 20 February 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  2. ^ "Biotechnology capability overview". Austrade. Archived from the original on 27 August 2006. Retrieved 23 April 2006.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Culture Collections". Australian Microbial Resources Research Network. Archived from the original on 22 February 2007. Retrieved 19 April 2006.
  5. ^ a b c d Bromage, David (2002). "Australia: Biological weapons". Federation of American Scientists. Archived from the original on 17 May 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  6. ^ Nicholson, Brendan (10 March 2002). "Burnet's solution: The plan to poison S-E Asia". Melbourne: The Age. Archived from the original on 8 April 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  7. ^ "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction". Australian Government Publishing Service. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  8. ^ a b c d "Australia: Chemical weapons". Federation of American Scientists. 2 September 2002. Archived from the original on 8 July 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2006.
  9. ^ Broinowski, Richard (2003). Fact or Fission?. Scribe Publications. ISBN 1-920769-03-X.
  10. ^ National Archives of Australia, Department of Defence; A5954 1400/15 Re-equipment of RAAF Bomber and Fighter Squadrons with atomic weapons, 1956
  11. ^ National Archives of Australia, Department of Defence; A1209 1957/4067 Nuclear Weapons for the Australian Forces, 1956–1958
  12. ^ National Archives of Australia, Prime Minister's Department; A1945 186/5/3 Procurement of nuclear weapons for Australian forces, 1957
  13. ^ a b Lax, Mark. From Controversy to Cutting Edge: A History of the F-111 in Australian Service. Canberra, Australia: Air Power Development Centre, Department of Defence (Australia). pp. 11–12. ISBN 9781920800543.
  14. ^ "British nuclear tests at Maralinga". National Library of Australia. 2001. Archived from the original on 9 February 2006. Retrieved 8 May 2006.
  15. ^ "ANSTO" (PDF). Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 May 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  16. ^ "Australia's Uranium". Uranium Information Centre. Archived from the original on 6 April 2006. Retrieved 19 April 2006.
  17. ^ Grattan, Michelle; Fitzgerald, Barry (15 July 2009). "Garrett gives nod to uranium mine". The Age. Melbourne. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  18. ^ "Uranium mining-Key text". Australian Academy of Science. Archived from the original on 5 April 2006. Retrieved 19 April 2006.
  19. ^ "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons" (PDF). Australian Government Publishing Service. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 April 2010. Retrieved 19 April 2006.
  20. ^ Hymans, Jacques E.C. "Isotopes and Identity: Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949–1999" (PDF). Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 July 2004. Retrieved 24 June 2006.
  21. ^ Andrew Fowler; Renata Gombac (15 June 2007). "Uranium enrichment program revived after 20 years" (program transcript). The 7.30 Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 7 July 2007.
  22. ^ "Silex". Archived from the original on 4 May 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
  23. ^ "Australia in nuclear power review". BBC. 6 June 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2006.
  24. ^ "SA's nuclear dump proposal abandoned". ABC News. 8 June 2017. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  25. ^ "Nuclear Weapons Archive, 7.5 nuclear capable states".
  26. ^ "50th Anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty". United States Australian Embassy. Archived from the original on 17 July 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2006.
  27. ^ National Archives of Australia, Department of Defence; A1945 1/501/694 PART 1 Royal Australian Air Force. Air staff requirement (Operational Requirement/Air 36). Bomber aircraft., 1954 – 1958

Further reading[edit]