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Overview Last updated: December, 2014

Australia is a party to all of the major nonproliferation treaties and international export control regimes. Although Australia no longer maintains offensive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, it has sought or deployed some of these capabilities in the past. Australia developed a chemical warfare capability during World War II, and collaborated with the United Kingdom on nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s.

Nuclear

Australia has never produced nuclear weapons, and is a party to all relevant nuclear nonproliferation treaties and international export control regimes. Australia ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1973 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1998. An active proponent of CTBT negotiations from the 1970s forward, Australia played an important role in finalizing the treaty in 1996. [1] The same year, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons delivered the results of its year-long deliberation to the United Nations. [2] Australia is also a party to the Treaty of Rarotonga, which established a nuclear weapon-free zone in the South Pacific.

From the early 1950s through the early 1970s, elements within the Australian government considered nuclear weapons. By the early 1960s, these efforts resulted in discussions between Australia and the United Kingdom which explored the possibility that Australia might directly purchase ready-made weapons. Ultimately the proposal was rejected by the Cabinet, and it is unclear how serious either of the parties was about the discussions. [3] In the late 1960s, Prime Minister John Gorton pressed for developing a domestic nuclear weapons option. [4] Once again, this effort lacked widespread support in the bureaucracy or the political leadership and failed to result in any substantive developments. These efforts ended in January 1973 with Australia's ratification of the NPT. [5]

From 1952 to 1963 Australian territory was an early test-site for British nuclear weapons, resulting in radioactive contamination, injuries to military personnel, and the exposure of native populations to fallout. [6] It is possible that Australian involvement was predicated on the expectation that the United Kingdom would make low-yield tactical nuclear weapons available to Australia.

Australia has very large deposits of uranium and industry estimated that it produced 6,875 metric tons of U308 (yellowcake) in 2013. [7] According to the World Nuclear Association, it is the world's third-ranking producer, behind Kazakhstan and Canada. [8] Uranium exports to nuclear weapon states, including China, France, and India, have been a controversial issue in Australia. [9] In July 2012, Australia signed a nuclear cooperation and technical transfer agreement with the United Arab Emirates setting the stage for future uranium sales. [10] This agreement will last 15 years and Australia will provide uranium fuel for its nuclear plants starting in 2017 for a total cost of AUS$ 20 billion. [11] In September 2014, Australia and India signed a nuclear cooperation agreement allowing Australia to export uranium to India for the country's nuclear power industry, making India the first non-NPT signatory state to purchase Australian uranium. [12] According to Australia's Toro Energy Company, exports could begin within the next five years. Since 1958, Australia has built and operated three separate nuclear research reactors, only one of which is currently in service. [13] Relevant Australian facilities and exports are under IAEA safeguards.

Australia plays an active role in nuclear safety and nonproliferation efforts. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), works with countries in Southeast Asia via ANSTO's Regional Security of Radioactive Sources (RSRS) project to improve the management of security risks associated with radioactive sources. [14] In 2009, Australia signed a memorandum of understanding on nuclear safeguards and security cooperation with Indonesia, South Korea, and Vietnam. [15] Australia has since been working with these countries to develop specific programs and activities. The Australian government also collaborated with Japan to establish the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which concluded its mandate in July 2010. The Commission aimed to enhance and revitalize international efforts on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. [16]

Biological

There is no evidence that Australia has ever possessed, or sought to possess a biological warfare (BW) capability. Australia signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) on 10 April 1972, and deposited a certificate of ratification on 5 October 1977. [17]

Additionally, Australia has sought to promote biosecurity through cooperation with the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). For example, in September 2010, Australia co-hosted a Bio-Risk Workshop with the United States and the Philippines. [18]

Chemical

While Australia historically had a chemical warfare program, it discontinued these activities and is an active member of chemical weapon nonproliferation and export control efforts. Australia ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in May 1994, and has been a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) since its inception in 1997. [19] Australia had previously been a party to the Geneva Protocol, which it ratified in January 1930. [20] Australia was a driving force behind the creation of the Australia Group (AG), an informal arrangement of 15 supplier countries established in 1985 to enhance cooperation on controlling the spread of CW-related materials and to better enable members to harmonize their national export control and licensing measures. The AG was established in response to the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. [21]

Historically, in the late 1930s the Australian government began to investigate offensive and defense CW capabilities. [22] In early 1942, following the defeat of Australian, British, Dutch and U.S. forces in Southeast Asia by Japan, the Australian government urgently requested that the U.K. supply it with chemical weapons. [23] Initial shipments of mustard and phosgene began to reach Australia in May 1942, allowing a substantial arsenal of air-dropped and artillery munitions to be assembled by the middle of 1943. Beginning in May 1942, the U.S. government shipped significant quantities of chemical weapons to Australia for deployment with U.S. military forces based in Australia to defend against a potential Japanese invasion. [24]

Beginning in 1943 and through the end of 1945, Australia, in conjunction with the United Kingdom and to a lesser degree the United States, undertook a program of live agent testing and human trials of mustard gas. The purpose of these tests was to obtain a better understanding of the performance of these agents in tropical conditions as applied to both offensive and defensive chemical warfare. [25]

Following the end of World War II, significant quantities of CW agents, in both bulk and weaponized forms, were dumped at a number of locations off the Australian coast, by both the Australian and U.S. governments. The majority of the agent was dumped between 1945 and 1948, with further operations in 1965 and 1970. The total weight of materials including munitions was 21,000 metric tons; the actual agent weight was significantly less. [26] Small quantities of old chemical weapons continue to be discovered from time to time at former military bases and testing sites. [27] In June 2011, Australia successfully destroyed a cache of more than 140 U.S.-origin World War II shells which contained a mustard chemical warfare agent, which were discovered in Columboola in 2009. [28]

In recent years, Australia has focused extensively on regional and international cooperation on chemical safety as a component of counter-terrorism. For example, the Australian Attorney General established a chemical security coordination unit responsible for developing a risk management framework to examine supply chain vulnerabilities of high-risk chemicals, and to raise public awareness on related issues. [29]

Missile

Australia possesses no long-range cruise or ballistic missiles, however does deploy AGM-158 air to surface cruise missiles on its F/A-18A/B aircraft. [30] Historically, it provided facilities for British developmental testing of the Blue Streak ballistic missile in the late 1950s, but these activities did not lead to the development of any domestic missile capabilities. Australia became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1990. [31] Australia hosted an MTCR plenary in 2008 and chaired the MTCR from 2008 to 2009. Australia was also one of the original subscribing states to the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), which is a non-legally binding effort to bolster the work of the MTCR in curbing the proliferation of ballistic missiles. [32] Additionally, Australia is a participating state to the Wassenaar Arrangement. [33]

Sources:
[1] "The 'End Game' Cont.," Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, www.ctbto.org.
[2] "Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons," Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, www.dfat.gov.au.
[3] Jacques Hymans, "Isotopes and Identity, Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999," The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2000 (7:1), p. 5.
[4] Jacques Hymans, "Isotopes and Identity, Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999," The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2000 (7:1), p. 5.
[5] Jim Walsh, "Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia's Nuclear Ambitions," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1997 (5:1), pp. 1-20; Jacques Hymans, "Isotopes and Identity, Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999," The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2000 (7:1), pp. 1-23.
[6] "War Crimes, Weapons Trials, Naval Disasters: Atomic Weapons Trials," National Archives of Australia, www.naa.gov.au.
[7] “Australian Uranium Production, Exports, and Export value (tonnes of U308),” Australian Uranium Association, August 2013, www.aua.org.au.
[8] "Australia's Uranium," World Nuclear Association, August 2013, www.world-nuclear.org.
[9] For an outline of the "NUKEM Scandal" of 1988 surrounding exports to France, and a more general outline of ongoing concerns regarding uranium exports to China see: Marko Beljac, et. al., An Illusion of Protection: The Unavoidable Limitations of Safeguards on Nuclear Materials, (2006) p. 34, www.icanw.org.
[10] "Australia, UAE Agreement Paves Way for Uranium Sales," Reuters, 31 July 2012, http://www.reuters.com; “Nuclear Power in the United Arab Emirates,” World Nuclear Association, January 2014, www.world-nuclear.org.
[11] “Business Between the UAE and Australia,” Bluestone, 9 September 2013, bluestoneme.com.
[12] “Australia ends ban on selling uranium to India,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 5 September 2014, www.abc.net.au.
[13] For information on Australia's active research reactor (OPAL), see: "ANSTO's Research Reactor," Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), www.ansto.gov.au. To learn about the two earlier and now decommissioned research reactors, see: "Research Reactors," ANSTO, www.ansto.gov.au.
[14] "Australia's Implementation of UNGA Resolution 64/38: Measures to Prevent Terrorists from Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction," www.un.org/disarmament.
[15] "Australia's Implementation of UNGA Resolution 64/38: Measures to Prevent Terrorists from Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction," www.un.org/disarmament.
[16] International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, www.icnnd.org.
[17] "Status of the Convention Showing Dates of Signature, Ratification and Accession," Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), www.opbw.org.
[18] "Australia's Implementation of UNGA Resolution 64/38: Measures to Prevent Terrorists from Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction," www.un.org/disarmament.
[19] "OPCW Member States," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), www.opcw.org.
[20] "States Parties to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, Done at Geneva June 17, 1925," 17 June 1925, http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu.
[21] Australia Group, www.australiagroup.net.
[22] Geoff Plunkett, Chemical Warfare in Australia, (Loftus: Australian Military History Publications, 2007), pp. 8-13. Although this book can be difficult to find, Mr. Plunkett maintains a website presenting information from the book at: www.mustardgas.org.
[23] Geoff Plunkett, Chemical Warfare in Australia, (Loftus: Australian military History Publications, 2007), p. 7.
[24] Geoff Plunkett, Chemical Warfare in Australia, (Loftus: Australian military History Publications, 2007), pp. 30-37.
[25] Bridget Goodwin, Keen as Mustard: Britain's horrific chemical warfare experiments in Australia (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1998).
[26] Geoff Plunkett, Chemical Warfare Agent Sea Dumping off Australia (Revised and Updated edition), (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2003), p. 4, www.hydro.gov.au.
[27] Stuart Cumming, "Shell find raises memories," The Chronicle (Toowoomba), 14 November 2009, www.thechronicle.com.au.
[28] Hon. David Feeny, Australian Department of Defense, “Defense Destroys WWII Weapons in QLD,” 1 June 2011, www.minister.defence.gov.au.
[29] "Australia's implementation of UNGA Resolution 64/38: Measures to Prevent Terrorists from Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction," www.un.org/disarmament.
[30] "AGM-158A/B (JASSM/JASSM-ER)," Missile Threat, http://missilethreat.com.
[31] "MTCR Partners," Missile Technology Control Regime, www.mtcr.info.
[32] "Non Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament: Missiles," Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, www.dfat.gov.au.
[33] "Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies," Wassenaar Arrangement, www.wassenaar.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Australia

  • Holds ~23% of the world's natural uranium reserves
  • Exports ~7,000 metric tons of yellowcake uranium yearly
  • Conducted chemical weapons research jointly with the United States and the United Kingdom during WWII