Nuclear seems to be radiating from every medium. On TV, HBO’s blockbuster series Chernobyl is an awards favourite. On social media, influencers are flocking to radioactive sites to pose half-nude in front of nuclear disaster zones. And in politics, nuclear weapons are on everyone’s lips.
Professor Hugh White has suggested in his new book How to Defend Australia that Australia might need to acquire nuclear arms. Iran this week began enriching uranium above internationally agreed upon limits, while North Korea continues to gloat over its nuclear weapons program.
Australia, along with every country except India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan, is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, a United Nation document aimed at halting the development and disarming of nuclear weapons.
But as tensions between the US and China, Iran, and North Korea grow, there have been calls for Australia to tear the treaty in half and begin developing our own nuclear arsenal.
Crikey spoke to nuclear expert Crispin Rovere on just how we’d go about doing that.
Start from scratch
When it comes to uranium, we have boundless plains to share… or sell. Australia has the world’s largest resources of low-cost uranium, exporting 10,000 tonnes of uranium oxide worldwide.
“We have the world’s largest exploitable uranium reserve — we wouldn’t have to worry about being cut off,” Rovere tells Crikey.
Along with uranium, we have nuclear physicists with the know-how. Australians work in civil nuclear power plants around the world, while ANU’s school of nuclear physics, leftover from the cold war, produces top-notch experts, Rovere says. But making weapons isn’t as simple as handing a physicist some uranium. More than 99% of uranium mined is useless uranium 238, which needs to be separated from the good stuff: uranium 235.
Giant centrifuge cascades are needed to convert the uranium into gas, then separate the heavier uranium U-238 from the U-235. It was these machines that were targeted in the US’ 2013 Stuxnet cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear program.
So if Australia wanted to go hell-for-leather and develop nukes, we would have to extract the uranium, build enrichment facilities, then figure out how to develop it into a weapon.
This is all possible, Rovere says.
“If the government decided we wanted nuclear weapons, didn’t care who knew about it and raced to do it, we could absolutely do it in a few years,” he says.
Go nuclear native
To avoid alerting the world to our weapons-of-mass-destruction program, Australia could go down another route: build nuclear power plants. The closest Australia ever came to having a nuclear power station was in 1969 when then-prime minister John Gorton began procuring tenders for a plant in Jervis Bay, New South Wales. This plan was abandoned following a change in government.
But a recent survey found support for nuclear power plants is on the rise in Australia.
“This option is more plausible,” Rovere says. “If Australia makes the decision to develop an indigenous nuclear power program, we would have a nuclear power plant where we can control the reactor. We’d also need a reprocessing facility that Australia would use to service nuclear power programs across the region.”
Full control over the reactor means Australia could, in the future, irradiate the nuclear fuel rods with the goal of maximising the amount of plutonium created. Reprocessing these fuel rods can extract weapons-grade plutonium material. Plutonium makes effective weaponry — several kilos of it was used in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
Recycle nuclear waste
The third and most plausible option would be to recycle spent nuclear rods from other countries, secretly hustling out any leftover plutonium into a weapons program. A reprocessing program, according to Rovere, would be supported by the international community and not raise eyebrows.
“People think that because we’re a major supplier, we should help with storage,” Rovere says.
Currently, Australia’s attitude toward storing uranium is similar to that of our recycling — ship it and forget it. But a Senate committee into the matter found Australia has a moral obligation to consider how the nuclear waste from our exported uranium will be disposed of.
A national radioactive waste management facility has been proposed and scheduled to be operational by 2020, but this is only to process low and intermediate waste, not waste from nuclear power plants. A reprocessing facility would need to be purpose built.
“We have a good reputation and the right safeguards in place, and we’d do it completely legally — people would welcome the fact Australia has changed our position,” Rovere says.
How long would it take?
A crude nuclear weapons program that wasn’t hidden could take a mere three to four years, estimates Rovere. A nuclear power plant could take five to six years, depending on how quickly the political decisions and environmental approvals were made, while a fully mature nuclear fuel cycle capable of supporting a nuclear weapons program is possible within 10 to 15 years.
Finally, Crikey asked Rovere if Australia’s international allies would support, or even aid the decision to build weapons, either secretly or overtly.
“That’s the big nuclear question of our time.”
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