The development of Uranium in South Australia.
Truth is rarely pure, and never simple.
This Chapter provides a fresh view regarding the uranium resource in the South Australian context, and considers its importance in both the atomic/nuclear age and the Joint Project.
Richard Broinowski, makes the observation that:
‘For more than three decades Australian politicians and military, scientific and cabinet officials conducted a campaign to persuade the government of the day to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. The fact is that Australia has the resources and technology to develop its own nuclear weapons’.
Both Uranium and the Joint Project need to be viewed in this light. From the Australian perspective, our government believed that the Joint Project operations and the military spending would allow Australia link to atomic capability and the possible of acquiring atomic/nuclear weapons. Like the Joint Project, uranium exploration was always predicated for military weapons development. Uranium gave Australia entry into the nuclear club.
As we saw earlier, in 1944, the British government approached PM Curtin to brief him on the atomic bomb effort and the pressing need for Australian uranium for ‘Empire and war purposes. On 2 July 1944, had issued a cable from the British Chancellor of Exchequer to PM Curtin, stating:
“That the United Kingdom Government would wish to arrange for the purchase of all uranium concentrates produced in Australia. The Chancellors letter continues. I confirm that this project is absolutely essential and therefore one which in spite of the manpower position in Australia we should wish to press the Commonwealth Government to undertake immediately.”
In 1944, Australia entered the nuclear arena by supplying uranium for the use in the Manhattan Project in the United States. There was further controversy when newspapers reported that Australian uranium was contained in the bombs that were dropped on Japan. For the next month, the Australian press sought answers from the Commonwealth government whether South Australian uranium was used in the dropping of the bombs on Japan.
The government rode out the political storm and denied any wrong doings. Even though, the historical evidence suggests that the Belgian Congo was the main, established supplier of uranium and in 1940, some thirty tons of uranium ore had been shipped from the Belgian Congo to New York, for eventual use in the Manhattan Project. This still remains an open question.
Britain’s’ request for uranium ore was a direct result of the McMahon Act, and she feared that access to uranium ore would be restricted. Hence the urgent request to the Australian government. Nuclear cooperation between Great Britain and the United States ceased with the McMahon Act of 1946 so Britain started developing its own nuclear arsenal as protection against the Soviet threat.
This resulted with Britain, offering to buy at guaranteed prices, small quantities of uranium found in the Empire, which resulted in the expansion of uranium in South Australia.
There were newspaper stories written in The Daily Telegraph, that stated
‘As a contribution to research on atomic bomb, Australian mined uranium, the material from which the bomb derived its energy. The element was taken from an abandoned shaft at Mt. Painter, in an inaccessible part of the Flinders Ranges, in South Australia. The mining was one of Australia’s most guarded war secrets. The project, developed by the South Australian Government, was undertaken regardless of cost. The material from which the mineral was extracted was carried by camel to the railhead.’
Atomic issues dominated the Cold War era with massive stockpiling of atomic weapons by the superpowers with other countries like Britain, France China, acquiring atomic capabilities. Australia’s keen interest in atomic weapons and nuclear technology needs to be viewed from the standpoint of our alliances to both the UK and the US. Australia’s imperative subservience to both the ‘mother Country’ and the ’new-found powerful friend’ was also extended to the supplying of both UK and the US with uranium, for their weapons programs. Australia’s reserves of uranium were a source of national pride, clinching the emerging nation’s status as a place of importance in the post-war period. Australia’s involvement in both uranium and atomic technology meant industrial progress, bringing Australia into the modern world.
From September 1945 to February 1946, the Commonwealth government sent the Australian Scientific Mission to Japan. This was led by Brigadier JWA O’Brien, whose task was to secure scientific, technical and industrial information, from Japan, as part of war reparations. Representatives of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR] and the Departments of Aircraft Production and Mineral Resources Survey, were also represented.
The resulting report indicated benefits to be gained in about a dozen areas. Some fields in which the Japanese were advanced, including aeronautical engineering, magnetic steels and geophysical work.
These findings benefitted Australia in its quest for nation building projects and developing atomic technology.
Within hours the Australian government put out a press release and argued that only a small quantity of Australian uranium had been shipped to Britain, not enough to produce an atomic bomb. There is fresh evidence which sheds new light on why Australia was kept out of the atomic loop.
According to Darren Holden research, which uncovered talks about a high-ranking meeting between Oliphant, Nobel laureate Ernest Lawrence and General Groves who was in charge of the military operations of the Manhattan Project. At this meeting General Groves stated that atomic research would not be shared with the British, and that the Americans were planning to double-cross the British after the war by restricting the manufacture and storage of nuclear materials to North America.
Oliphant reported the US intentions to both the British Embassy and the Australian government. This is important development, as has serious implications for both Britain and Australia.
For Britain it contravened the Quebec Agreement and Britain would have to go it alone. The Quebec Agreement between Britain and the United States was signed in August 1943. This was a top-secret agreement that was signed in Canada in 1943, where Canadian uranium for the bombs were being enriched at Chalk River. For Australia it helps explain why our uranium was in such high demand. It also provides insights into Oliphant’s character-was he acting in the interest of Britain or his own future interests?
Oliphant’s actions had serious consequences placing him and Australia outside the American atomic sphere. The Americans just did not trust Oliphant and given his nuclear expertise, as one of the leading nuclear physicists in the world, one would have thought that the British would use him to head their atomic program in Australia, however, the British excluded him and appointed William Penny instead.
So, it’s not just Menzies fears and mother- country loyalty, also contained some degree of self-interest. There is no doubt that Australia felt uncomfortable in terms of her inability to defend herself in an expanding Communism’s expansion in Australia’s own backyard. Hence the need for powerful friends-UK and USA. The tests indentured both powers to the Australia’s defence. This was the quid pro quo.
Early 1946 saw Australia begin protracted negotiations and deals with Britain and the United States, seeking deals to access scientific and technological information to support the development of industrial atomic energy. Discussions tended to involve talk of a trade, whereby Australian uranium was to be exchanged for American or British expertise and technology. Many, such as South Australian Premier Tom Playford, believed nuclear power was vital to future industrial development of the State. Much of his positive attitude towards uranium came from Professor Oliphant. As early as 1947, Oliphant was an enthusiast about the positive uses of uranium. In March 1947, he was advocating the potential use of atomic plants to provide electrical power for industrial and domestic consumption within the Commonwealth. Furthermore, given the fact that South Australia had uranium, he was advocating that South Australia could have the first atomic energy plant, to be erected on St. Vincent Gulf.
Oliphant went on to say that atomic power-station would produce plutonium as a by-product at the rate of about 1 pound per day. Plutonium after ‘denaturing’ is an excellent concentrated fuel for use in small isolated atomic power stations at other places in Australia. About 50,000-100,000 kilowatts of power could be generated by these small secondary atomic energy power plants.
In the above photo, Mark Oliphant was Australia’s leading nuclear scientists and directly involved in the Manhattan Project. On his return to Australia in 1950- he was appointed Director of the Research School of Physical Science and Engineering at the Australian National University [ANU] in Canberra. Throughout his time in Britain and the US, Oliphant was encouraging the Australian governments to search for uranium and bring Australia into the atomic age. South Australia’s Premier Playford zealously pursued industrialisation of his State. He saw uranium as part of the state’s development and as a supply of cheap energy. Playford was enthusiastic about uranium, for military purposes as well.
Searching for uranium towards the end of the Second World War brought South Australia into the atomic age and created ambitions about being an atomic state. The uranium mine at Mount Painter in the Northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia, was at the time, Australia’s only uranium deposit and was directly linked with atomic research.
There were four dimensions to these aspirations. Firstly, the uranium mining; secondly, nuclear power which was speculated about but which was a remote prospect given the small population and the high cost involved in producing nuclear energy and; thirdly, the atomic tests which the state government facilitated in accordance with Commonwealth government directions. Finally, the search for uranium was also predicated on the military uses for uranium. This was confirmed in at a meeting of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee 7 December 1949, Agendum No.32/1949.
All this was in the international context of Britain wishing to develop after the outbreak of World War II, atomic weapons, and atomic power for industrial and domestic needs. Soon after World War II the British, Americans and Russians raced to develop long range missiles and atomic weapons. However, Britain was faced by the reality that it was cut off from atomic development when the US introduced the 1946 Atomic Energy Act which formally ended wartime collaboration on R&D work on atomic weapons. This forced Britain’s hand and in 1947, Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided that Britain would independently pursue a British atomic bomb program. In May 1947, Lord Portal who was in charge of the atomic bomb program and William Penney, was the head scientist, and later became the chief of the British atomic weapons program. Penny was sent out to Australia to head the atomic test explosions in Australia. Penney had written an influential paper on the development of a Plutonium Weapon in 1947.
This paper played a key role in the building of the first British plutonium plant at Sellafield, later renamed Windscale, in Cumberland. Its first production reactor became operational in 1950, and was producing usable plutonium by early 1952. [ See Map 2].
The return of Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister in 1951, saw him successfully negotiate the use the Australian island of Monte Bello as a testing site. The first British atomic bomb was successfully tested on October 3, 1952, during Operation Hurricane.
The rapid search for the raw material, its development and then the expansion of a uranium industry is understandable in light of the growing demand for nuclear weapons and atomic energy during the Cold War. Exploration for uranium in Australia was spurred on when in 1952, the Menzies government introduced generous tax exemptions on profits earned by mining companies, who were milling uranium deposits.
From the standpoint of the Australian government, uranium was a bargaining chip which both the Chifley, Menzies and Playford government exploited for their political ends. It provides closer ties with the UK/US and gave Australia some international bargaining power through its supply of uranium, and thus affording it a foothold in the formation of International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].
There was a longer-term belief that Australia’s involvement in Britain’s nuclear testing program was predicated on the expectation that the mother country would make low-yield tactical nuclear weapons available to Australia.
It must be remembered that after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, that this gave huge prestige to the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. For Britain a nuclear deterrent would keep her as a major player and formidable force in world affairs. Britain did not want to be perceived as lagging behind in the atomic race. For Australia, it gave her a foot in the door to be part of the ‘atomic club’ of nations. There was a commonly held belief, that being part of the ’atomic club’, would mean that Australia would be taken more seriously as a strategic regional player.
Chifley, Menzies and Playford, saw cooperation with Britain’s nuclear testing as an opportunity to gain specific knowledge of nuclear weapons and energy development. The signing of the Joint Project was a major step for Australia becoming a nuclear player. Australia was rewarded later, when the British gave Australia a research reactor 
For Australia helping developing a nuclear weapon, would provide an insurance policy against a more populace northern Asian nations, and be taken seriously as a regional player.
Overview of Uranium mining in South Australia:
Having noted Playford’s activism in this area, it brings home the fact that South Australia had a history of uranium discovery and exploitation dating back to 1906, with a find of radium at the so-called Radium Hill, on the road to Broken Hill. Radium Hill is located 40 kilometres southwest of Cockburn in South Australia and approximately 110 kilometres from Broken Hill. Uranium-bearing minerals were discovered in the region by G.A. Greenwood, son of a local pastoralist and prospector, in 1910. This discovery, on what was later named Radium Ridge, was exploited for radium by the Radium Extraction Company of South Australia Ltd [RECSAL].
During the inter-war period, the mine only produced radium. The uses of radium were chiefly in the field of medicine and the production of colours in ceramic products. Early history confirms that the Mount Painter and Radium Hill uranium deposits were mined intermittently until the early 1930s, when mining ceased. It was not until the process of nuclear fission was discovered in 1939, that uranium then would become a valuable commodity.
From Map 1, we see the location and proximity of both Mount Painter and Radium Hill.
From 1944 onwards, Mount Painter and Radium Hill always had workable deposits of uranium needed for the development of atomic bombs and the exploitation of atomic energy. Playford, in his quest to develop South Australian powered by resources at both sites, instructed the Mines Department to investigate uranium resources at both Radium Hill and Mt Painter.
After the war, many nations, including Australia, wanted access to both nuclear weapons and the source of cheap power for industrialisation that nuclear energy could provide. South Australia was seemingly well placed to take advantage of what Uranium had to offer in the post-war period-rapid industrial growth and the expansion of the manufacturing sector, with the possibility of uranium providing a cheap form of atomic energy.
Official Visit to the Mt Painter Camp in 1947.
Mark Oliphant, is seated fourth from left, next to SA Premier, Thomas Playford.
Both Oliphant and Playford visited Mt Painter in 1947.Shortly after the war, in November 1945, Playford passed legislation which enabled the government to take control of Uranium mining in the State. Amendments to the South Australian Mining Act saw control the mining, treatment and use of radioactive minerals and vesting ownership of uranium in the Crown. The federal government supported this State development with huge subsidies.
An important figure in the search for uranium in our State, was the work undertaken by Reg Spriggs, who was sent to work by the state government for the South Australian Geological Survey in 1944. His work would see him develop a close relationship with Oliphant and search for uranium at Mt Painter and Radium Hill that could be used in atomic bombs.
Interestingly, ASIO had always believed that Spriggs was a Communist sympathiser. This was because of his past associations as secretary of a union: the Australian Association of Scientific Workers), ASIO branded him a “suspected Communist” and a “scientist of counter-espionage interest”. He was kept under surveillance by ASIO for 10 years. In the end he resigned from his job, because of ASIO’S surveillance on him.
Smith Weekly, an independent weekly published in Sydney, but read all over Australia.
Sydney’s ‘common man’ newspaper, the Smith Weekly, provided a good summary of the issues from the perspective of ordinary people. Smith’s Weekly was, fiercely nationalist and anti-communist, but it also fought for the little battler against the rich and powerful. Its strength was to simplify issues. In the above article, it provides an excellent case for increasing Australia’s production of uranium and the support for developing atomic bombs in Australia.
This propelled both the Commonwealth and State governments to find Uranium within Australia and to get on the front foot in terms of safety, research, production and the other aspects of atomic energy. All governments Commonwealth /State, viewed uranium as an opportunity both political and economic, to gain access to information about atomic energy in the future for national development.
South Australian Mining Department, CSIR and the Commonwealth Resources Survey collectively undertook to find uranium and to conduct experiments in the treatment methods for uranium oxide.
The Commonwealth passed the Atomic Energy (Control of Materials) Act 1946.This was an important piece of legislation,
‘An Act to make provisions, in the interests of the Defence Department of the Commonwealth, for the Controls of Materials which are or may be used in producing Atomic Energy, and for other purposes.’
The Act was motivated by defence concerns in the wake of the creation of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. It established an Atomic Energy Advisory Committee to assist the minister to deal with nuclear issues. It also asserts Commonwealth ownership and control of the minerals from which elements such as uranium, thorium and plutonium may be derived [sections 3, 6]’.
Unsurprisingly, Marcus Oliphant was the new industry’s champion.
Sydney Morning Herald. Special Services Report. We Should Seek Uranium Here.2/8/1946
In a Special Services Report, Professor Oliphant wanted Australia to ‘systematically search for Australian uranium’. He believed that atomic energy would eventually enable Australia to carry ten million extra people and overcome the handicaps of limited coal deposits and limited hydro-electric potentialities. His comments were taken up by the Commonwealth government. Oliphant was a keen supporter of both the development of Uranium and atomic power, including weapons.
Historian Susan Roff reported that she had thoroughly research UK references to Mark Oliphant’s views in the 1940s and ‘50s, with the most startling finding being that he was
‘One of the strongest advocates for both a British nuclear arsenal and an independent Australian nuclear deterrent in the first decade after the Second World War. He energetically opposed American attempts to retain a monopoly of nuclear weapons rather than internationalising their control, even if that meant proliferation.’
There is much truth to Roff’s claim, as during the British thermonuclear testing, Oliphant on a number of occasions believed that thermonuclear explosions ‘are essential.’
Much has been written about Oliphant over the years, and the historical narrative has portrayed him as the champion of the ‘peaceful atom’, endorsing a vision of a nuclear future, whereby society would benefit from cheap nuclear power.
Menzies used Oliphant, a reputable and notable scientist, as the public face of the peaceful side of nuclear energy. On a number of occasions, the professor was engaged to publicly highlight the benefits of atomic energy, acceptance, even, of the benefit of the H-bomb.
At the start of the thermo-nuclear testing in Australia, Oliphant’s role as the government’s ‘front-man’, using the prestige of his ANU position, leant credibility in such statements as to reinforce the governments’ message.
During the inter-war period, the mine only produced radium. The uses of radium were chiefly in the field of medicine and the production of colours in ceramic products.
Mt Painter is located 110 kms north-east of Leigh Creek in the Lake Frome area of South Australia.
Uranium-bearing minerals were discovered in the region by G.A. Greenwood, son of a local pastoralist and prospector, in 1910. This discovery, on what was later named Radium Ridge, was exploited for radium by the Radium Extraction Company of South Australia Ltd (RECSAL).
Responding to wartime necessity, the CSIR, in the shape of young geologist Reg Sprigg, undertook top-secret further surveys at Radium Hill in aid of bomb development.
In the above photo, we see Tom Playford, at left and Prime Minister Chifley, at right at Mount Painter in 1947
Minister of Supply and Shipping W P Ashley, sent out a memorandum declaring financial incentives for new discoveries of uranium ore across Australia and its territories. This included a reward of £1000 for any find capable of producing 25 tons or more of uranium ore, and an additional reward of £2000 for each 25 tons of uranium oxide which the deposit would be capable of producing.
Towards the end of the decade, it was debated by the Australian military, that both US and Soviet were capable of producing atomic weapons from uranium. Australia defence research by the end of 1949, had committed to matters which affect the efficiency of delivering and countering atomic attacks.
This was confirmed in Agendum No.32/1949. At a meeting of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee 7 December 1949, it flagged the importance the production of uranium to be of the prime military importance for Australia It recognised on part of the South Australian government the civil exploration of uranium.
The Committee recommended-
[A] ‘That a thorough search for uranium in the territories under Australian control be made in the shortest possible time as a matter of military importance.
[B] That the Department of Supply and Development be requested to investigate ways and means of accelerating the search for uranium ores.’
This recommendation is revealing, as it ties uranium in Australia directly to the military needs of the Cold War. Australia positions herself for the selling of uranium for military purposes, and secures the uranium industry for the long term. This occurred via the Combined Development Agency [CDA] which was established in 1948 by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom to ensure adequate supplies of uranium for nuclear weapons development programme.
Post-war Australia had to look overseas in its pursuit of nuclear technology. During this period, Australian governments entered into a period of unparalleled co-operation in strategic defence initiatives with Great Britain through the so-called ‘Joint Project’, including the detonation of seven atomic tests at Maralinga, South Australia. For Australia, this co-operation was ultimately aimed at the possession of nuclear weapon capability.
Nationally we witness, that from 1949 until 1954, this led to new uranium deposits being discovered at Rum Jungle, Mt Painter, Radium Hill and then the South Alligator Valley and Mary Kathleen in Queensland.
At the opening of Rum Jungle, the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies was quoted as saying:
‘Whatever we may think about atomic bombs and their terrible subsequent development, let us understand quite plainly and realistically that part of our security in the present tremulous condition of world safety depends upon the superiority of the Free World in terms of these dreadful instruments. And Australia, by making a contribution of this kind ... is itself making a powerful contribution to international defence’.
The use of uranium, unleashed an economic-multiplier effect on South Australia, and created enormous scientific and engineering developments in the new nuclear energy fields. The uranium being essential for nuclear power, was seen as vital for South Australia, making up for the state’s deficiencies in coal, oil and hydro-electric potential, as compared with its eastern neighbours. However, things in the mining sector are very changeable. After investigations by the Mines Department, it concluded that the Mt Painter ore was not economical, and the Radium Hill uranium deposits had better quality ores.
Undeterred by the setbacks, Playford approached both the British and Commonwealth governments to further develop Radium Hill uranium deposits, but they were not interested in his proposal. However, Playford was persistent and, following further unsuccessful lobbying of Menzies, he turned to the US and its Atomic Energy Commission. A joint agreement followed, between Australia, South Australia, the US and Britain requiring supplies of Radium Hill’s uranium- the Combined Development Agreement [CDA]. This resulted in Radium Hill would sell its uranium to those countries. Much of the uranium ore sold to the Combined Development Agency would be used for defence purposes. Namely the consumption of uranium in atomic weapons development.
For South Australia the CDA went much further.
‘For Playford the benefit of the Radium Hill venture was the know-how passed on by the Americans and the provision of sophisticated equipment……. As a result, the Department of Mines developed the process for exploiting the Rum Jungle and the Mary Kathleen mines, and Santos benefited greatly from the Department’s seismic exploration.’
The CDA, also played a role in re-opening Radium Hill, which would supply uranium ore to be treated at Port Pirie Uranium Processing Plant.
Furthermore, the Menzies government secured a significant contract with the British Atomic Energy Authority to supply uranium for British weapon development using ore mined at Mary Kathleen in Queensland.
Diagram1: The South Australian Nuclear Fuel and Weapons Cycle: 1947-1969.
The diagram 1 shows the interrelationships between Woomera, uranium and the nuclear fuel cycle.
If one adds in the final ingredients-the capability for SA’s uranium to be dealt with at a plant in Port Pirie, one can see that all the elements for a successful nuclear weapons programme had come together in SA: research and development at both Adelaide University and WRE, a launch site for missiles at Woomera, ore from particularly Radium Hill, and an enthusiastic Premier with his Mines Department. Scientific expertise. South Australia scientific research and development came from LRWE at Salisbury.
The Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Plant cost £1,500,000 to be built. Uranium from Radium Hill were railed to Port Pirie.
Uranium Processing Plant: Port Pirie 1958
Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Plant.
When the Radium Hill uranium deposits were re-opened in 1954, much of this ore was sent to Port Pirie and then exported to the UK, for their nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. Both these sites [Rum Jungle and Radium Hill] were contracted to supply uranium oxide concentrate to the US-UK Combined Development Agency, for use in both countries’ nuclear weapons programs.
The treatment plant was operated by the State Government from 1954 to 1962 for the recovery of uranium and some rare earths. It was known as the Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex [PPUTC], which was operated by the South Australian government’s mines department under contract to the CDA.
Some of the Port Pirie uranium may have been enriched to weapons grade at Capenhurst (1957- ) and some may have been used in reactors, with the spent fuel being reprocessed for weapons-grade plutonium at Windscale (1955- ). This plutonium was probably used in the Buffalo, Antler and Vixen series of tests at Maralinga from September 1956 to May 1961.
Below we see the export drum of Port Pirie uranium ore.
Ore concentration by heavy media separation was carried out at Radium Hill. Then the concentrate was railed 300 kilometres to the Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex to produce 160 tonnes of uranium oxide per annum. The mine operated from 1954 to 1961, the treatment plant from 1956 to February 1962 and a total of 850 tonnes of uranium oxide.
Map 2: Locations of Nuclear Power Stations in the UK. Circa 2002
Map 2 provides the locations of the nuclear power stations found in the UK. It does not show Britain’s Calder Hall, the first land-based nuclear power plant in the world. Calder Hall UK’s first nuclear power reactors at Calder Hall on the Windscale site, in the far north-west of England. Calder Hall used a fuel of natural uranium sheathed in magnesium-alloy cladding. There is some evidence that the uranium was supplied by Australia. The United Kingdom has been an important destination for Australian uranium for nearly four decades. Australian uranium is both enriched on behalf of customers in other countries, and used to generate nuclear power, in the United Kingdom. Calder Hall was not a civil power station. Its prime function was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The electricity it produced was an adjunct to power the rest of the site.
Windscale, was the home of Britain’s worst-ever nuclear accident, when in October 1957, a serious fire broke out at Windscale. This event would result in 420,000 curies of radioactive iodine escaping into the atmosphere. There was other toxic material which went into the atmosphere, including plutonium, caesium and polonium.
Interestingly, it was left to Sir William Penny, who was heavily involved in the atomic testing in Australia to write the report on the accident. Penny’s report was a white-wash, and places serious blame on the staff, rather than report on the expediency of building the plant structures. Penny, you may recall, was the spokesperson in Australia, to speak on radio, and the newspapers to indoctrinate the public, that all was well with the atomic testing in Australia. When in fact radioactive fallout was much more severe.
South Australian uranium processed at Port Pirie made its way to the UK. It was further enriched until, at Windscale, it reached weapons-grade Plutonium, where spent fuel from Calder Hall and Chapelcross was also being enriched to the same level.
The research undertaken by Durie and Edwards suggests that there is a high probability that some of the British nuclear testing at Maralinga and Emu Fields contained uranium sourced from Radium Hill. The explosive in nuclear weapons such as those tested at Emu Plains and Maralinga was uranium highly enriched in the isotope U-235.
In 1954 the South Australian government recommissioned Radium Hill as part of the UK-USA Combined Development Agency [CDA], to supply uranium oxide [U308] for the next seven years. The re-production of uranium at Radium Hill in 1954 linked South Australia directly to the development of nuclear weapons development and nuclear industry per se.
Importantly, by the mid 1950’s, the Australian government had developed a significant investment and infrastructure in atomic energy. This included the development of a local uranium mining industry, defence science, the construction of the Maralinga trials site, WRE and the involvement of eight Australian universities in nuclear-related research.
This flung Australia and in particular Radium Hill as a major producer of uranium on a large scale. It also played a crucial role in the development of a uranium mine at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory. This constituted the first phase of uranium mining and export in Australia, supply uranium for both nuclear weapons production and electricity generation for nuclear reactors.
When the Rum Jungle uranium mine opened, the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies was quoted as saying:
‘Whatever we may think about atomic bombs and their terrible subsequent development, let us understand quite plainly and realistically that part of our security in the present tremulous condition of world safety depends upon the superiority of the Free World in terms of these dreadful instruments. And Australia, by making a contribution of this kind ... is itself making a powerful contribution to international defence.’
We see from The Mail, article, that the US would provide atomic energy information, in return of securing Australian uranium.
The CDA agreement was the platform upon which, for much of the fifty’s decade, the US expanded its investment within Australia, including mammoth projects like the Snowy Mountain hydro-electric scheme, plus other mining and heavy industry projects.
Under this agreement the Commonwealth would not exercise any of its powers under the atomic Energy [Controls of Materials] Act 1946, so as to impair the fulfilment of this agreement by the State, and would not in the exercise of its powers discriminate against the carrying out by the State of the programme abovementioned.
What the CDA shows is another example of Australia’s subservience to the U.S. interests, this time providing undervalued and cheap uranium.
Furthermore, the CDA, saw the ore from Radium Hill railed to the Port Pirie uranium processing plant, which processed the ore into uranium oxide, for export. The Pirie plant produced over 160 tonnes of uranium oxide over a seven-year period.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies opened Rio Tinto’s Mary Kathleen uranium mine in 1958, backed by sales contracts to the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
Collectively, the three mines at Radium Hill [SA], Rum Jungle [NT] and Mary Kathleen Mines [Qld], produced more than 7700 tonnes of uranium and supplied both to the CDA and the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
By the end of the 1950s witnessed Australia firmly establishing a nuclear industry.
Radium Hill, Rum Jungle and Mary Kathleen mines, spurred the setting up of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission [AAEC] The AAEC was established as a statutory body by an Act of Parliament on 17 April 1953.
Its prime functions were to:
‘To promote the search for, and mining and treatment of, uranium in Australia with power to buy and sell on behalf of the Australian Government; to develop practical uses of atomic energy by carrying out and assisting research, constructing plant and equipment and employing and training staff; and to collect and distribute information on uranium and atomic energy’.
Importantly, the AAEC, provided the Menzies government with a legitimate organisation that on the surface could be trusted with all things atomic.
This body advised the advised the government on the exploration for uranium ores, the development of ore resources and research, and development into atomic energy.
AAEC was commissioned to coordinate uranium for defence purposes. AAEC develop atomic energy research programme, with the help of Australian Universities. The AAEC was involved with research into many aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and reactor technology including uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication and pebble-bed reactor design, all in preparation for the development of Australia’s first nuclear power reactor-Lucas Heights.
In 1956, the Menzies government had signed a major contract with Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority to supply uranium for British nuclear weapon development using uranium mined at Mary Kathleen in Queensland.
Towards the end of the 1950s, there were serious ‘Top Secret’ discussions underway for the expansion of nuclear weapons for the Australian Defence Forces and the building of a plutonium production plant in Australia. The Defence Committee considered a memorandum pf 22 January ,1958, regarding the above subject.
The Defence Committee conclude that:
[a] Australia has no requirement for high yield [megaton] nuclear weapons.
[b] The acquisition of a low yield nuclear capability by the Australian forces would vastly increase our defensive and offensive strength for national defence, and also enhance the value of our contribution in operating under collective security arrangements.
This marked a turning point, as Menzies never ruled out the possibility of Australia gaining nuclear arms in the future. Cabinet documents seemed to suggest that Australia’s military services might have nuclear weapons to counter any regional threat from Indonesia and China.
The Defence Committee, flagged the possibility of constructing of an atomic power re-actor being built at Mt Isa. Such a re-actor be constructed as to produce military plutonium as a by-product. The capital costs of constructing plant with a military plutonium potential might be £10m., and the additional maintenance costs about £8-£10m, per annum.
The Minutes also show that the Defence Committee thought that the Mt Isa proposal should solely focus on producing atomic power, not plutonium for military purposes. The Defence committee, believed that it would be cheaper to purchase atomic weapons directly from the UK or US, than to exchange plutonium produced in Australia for them, or to manufacture them ourselves. Throughout the 1950s, there were several efforts to obtain nuclear weapons from the US or the UK. The key institutions pushing for nuclear weapons were the three arms of the defence forces, the federal Cabinet’s Defence Committee, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Supply, and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission [AAEC]. Furthermore, both of the latter two courses presuppose those atomic weapons, or the technique for their manufacture, would be made available by the UK or US.
These propositions were to be discussed with the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during his visit to Australia, later in the year. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan met Menzies twice in 1958 and discussed the proposed purchase, but Macmillan warned that the U.S.- UK agreement and the revised McMahon Act likely prohibited such transfers. Australia had to look overseas in its pursuit of nuclear technology.
Another important development, established by AAEC, was the creation of Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering [AINSE]. AINSE played an important role in developing research partnerships across AAEC, all Australian universities and the private sector. Importantly AINSE provide universities and other tertiary institutions with a mechanism to access the unique research facilities at Lucas Heights, and to provide a focus for cooperation in nuclear science and engineering.
By the start of the sixties, AAEC was the prime mover on all things nuclear. For example, the AAEC established the Plowshare Committee to investigate the uses of peaceful nuclear explosions [PNEs] for nation-building civil engineering projects. AAEC had a plan to use five 200-kiloton explosions to create a man-made harbour at Cape Keraudren, on the coast of Western Australia. The US Atomic Energy Commission was the principal agent supporting the project. The project was terminated on funding arrangements and because the Australian government’s refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. [NPT]. NPT, is an international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.
At first, NPT opened for signature on 1 July 1968, and on that date was signed by the US, UK, Soviet Union and 59 other countries. Australia was not a signatory, as it believed it would hamper her newly established uranium/nuclear industry. Australia signed the NPT on 27 February 1970, but refused to ratify it. The Whitlam government ratified the NPT on 23 January 1973.
Radium Hill ceased production in 1961, resulting in no further uranium production in South Australia until the mid-1970s.
By the beginning of 1970, the demand for uranium for military purposes had halted, due to a world-wide slump.
The CDA provided a regime under which a second phase of uranium mining development could take place. This saw the discovery of uranium at Bever, east of Mt. Painter , at Honeymoon, about 75 km north-west of Broken Hill , and at Olympic Dam on the Roxby Downs station . The Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs has been exporting to nuclear weapons states since it began.
Map 3: Australia’s Uranium industry.
Map 3: Shows the major uranium mines of Ranger, Olympic Dam, Beverley & North and Four Mile Honeymoon.
Today, Australia’s known uranium resources are the world’s largest, comprising almost one-third of the world total. Australia is the world’s third ranking producer, behind Kazakhstan and Canada. All of Australia’s uranium is currently exported globally. Australian uranium mining companies supply uranium to electricity companies in the USA, Japan, China, South Korea, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Belgium and Finland. In addition, Australia has agreements with Russia, India and the United Arab Emirates to supply Australian uranium for use in their civilian nuclear power programmes.
The British were forced to clean up their mess after the atomic/nuclear testing at Maralinga concluded in 1963. The site was closed in 1967. British Government conducted a clean-up of the site known as ‘Operation Brumby’, which was overseen by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence. They chose the cheapest option which consisted of debris removal and soil ploughing. Basically, just diluting and burying the contamination. Hence much of the hazard material remained. The contamination at Maralinga was far worse than Britain had admitted. It was the Hawke government [1980-] that set up the 1985, McClelland Royal Commission , which found that significant radiation hazards existed at Maralinga.
One of the key recommendations recommended rehabilitating the test sites to a state where present activities or future land use did not present radiation hazards to people and the environment. In 1993, the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee [MARTAC] was established to oversee the rehabilitation of the Maralinga test site, and rid Maralinga contaminated territory.
As a postscript, it needs to be stated that the quid pro quo for allowing Britain to conduct its nuclear testing, Australia supplied Australian uranium for British nuclear weapons, and nuclear power. The UK has been an important destination for Australian uranium for nearly four decades. Australian uranium is both enriched on behalf of customers in other countries.
This chapter, has sought to clarify the role played by uranium, during the lifespan of the Joint Project. There are very blurred lines between what was going on at the Woomera Rocket Range testing of ballistic missiles and the developmental work for the British H-bomb that was done at Emu Field and Maralinga in the 1950s.
All governments [Commonwealth /State] played a role in the development of uranium. Their interests were for defence purposes, fostering industrialisation of Australia and in particular South Australia and the exporting of uranium to both the UK and US These three objectives drove uranium exploration. If it was not for Australia’s supply of uranium, the British atomic/nuclear testing that was conducted between 1953 and 1963 at Maralinga and Emu in South Australia might not have happened. Australia's involvement in atomic testing expanded again in 1954, when it began supplying South Australian-mined uranium to the US and UK's joint defence purchasing authority, the Combined Development Agency.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear advocates argued for the introduction of nuclear power.
Both Chifley, Menzies and Playford were all favourably inclined for nuclear power, they continually deferred making a decision, largely because of the abundance of fossil fuels within Australia.
Like the weapons testing at Woomera, the nuclear testing explosions fostered a culture of secrecy, and were dripped fed in the print media, and the general Australian public had little specific knowledge about the British nuclear testing program. Journalists covering the nuclear testing were controlled by the use of D-notices. In addition, the British government controlled, filtered and redacted all information which the Australian government would be allowed to place in the public domain. This created a culture of secrecy that was a feature of the Joint Project.
There was undoubtedly initial support, at least, for to develop uranium in order to supply Australian allies for their atomic weapons programme, but it appears that the civil nuclear programme was always a cover for running military nuclear activities. That is supplying uranium.
I believe that Australia’s involvement in Britain’s nuclear testing program [1952-1963] was predicated on the expectation that the UK would make low-yield tactical weapon available to Australia.
Furthermore, the remoteness of the testing from the ‘major capital cities’ also meant that there was little public awareness of the risks of nuclear testing in the minds of the public-out of sight, out of mind.
Uranium was a key component in the Woomera and Joint Project historiography.
Australia paid a huge price, being part of the ‘atomic club’. Australian and British servicemen and women were recklessly exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity and other toxins. Our traditional owners of the land- the Anangu aboriginal people were treated with contempt -ignored, irradiated and relocated away from their traditional lands.
The price of progress, going down the atomic and nuclear road, has left us on a one-way street.
Future task for historians.
After extensive research, I was not able to find evidence or proof that Australian uranium supplied British nuclear testing program. However, I do believe this to be the case. Just like the British had refused to give details about the precise amount of plutonium used in the major and minor trials at Maralinga, we still do not know precisely what amounts of beryllium, uranium and natural uranium came from Australian mines.
This is an important question in the historiography of Woomera and the Joint-Project, namely the evidence of the quantity of uranium sold to the UK/UK, would provide perspective on the scale of nuclear testing.