Jeffrey LewisNo, Oz is not an NPT Nuclear Weapon State

When I was in Washington recently, I had a very funny conversation with Matthew Harries over dinner.  It seems there is a proposal for Australia to seek nuclear-weapons state status under the NPT on rather weak claim that the UK had conducted nuclear tests down under in the 1950s.

I was delighted when Matt and Hassan Elbahtimy offered to write up a fine riposte to this strange idea.  Also, I left you a little easter egg at the bottom.


Australia, the undercover nuclear-weapon state? Nice try.

Hassan Elbahtimy and Matthew Harries

Australia, like many other countries during and after the Cold War, considered developing nuclear weapons but never fully pursued its own programme. It did, however, host a number of British nuclear-weapons tests on its own soil. Should Australia therefore be thought of as a nuclear-weapon state under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Two Australian scholars think so. In a co-authored blog post, Christine Leah and Crispin Rovere call on Australia to revisit its nuclear options, arguing that it should not be held back by membership of the NPT. They claim that Australia has a ‘very unique legal status with regard to nuclear weapons’, thanks to its involvement in British nuclear testing.

The NPT defines a nuclear-weapon state as one which ‘manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967’ (Article IX, paragraph 3). Leah and Rovere argue that if Australia wanted to develop nuclear weapons, its historical involvement in British testing would give it the right to do so, a right which they believe the United States should publicly recognise.

To put it politely, this is a stretch. Australia’s contributions to the British nuclear programme did not amount to common ownership; what’s more, hosting another country’s nuclear tests was hardly unique to Australia. And even if Leah and Rovere’s historical argument held water, an attempt today to fit Australia into the NPT as a nuclear-weapons state would be laughed out of the room by the treaty’s members – just as it would have been during the negotiations.

Whose bomb?

The United Kingdom conducted 12 atmospheric nuclear tests in Australia between 1952 and 1957. Testing in small, crowded Britain was not an attractive proposition; in addition to Australia, officials had also considered testing in Nevada and Canada, before passing on technical and political grounds. The tests took place on Australian soil, and Australians provided significant support. But the devices tested were developed, owned and controlled by the UK. The device used for the first UK test, for example, as British historian Richard Moore recounts, had to make the long journey from the UK to the Australian island of Trimouille via Gibraltar, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Mauritius on the Royal Navy frigate HMS Plym, while the fissile material followed a separate route by air.

Though Australians took auxiliary security, safety and sometimes sampling roles, the testing process itself was planned and executed by UK personnel. For the first test, in fact, the UK was initially reluctant to have any Australian scientific representation at all, though it eventually agreed to the presence of a small number of observers. By way of context, as Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith note with surprise in their exhaustive historical account, it had been agreed well beforehand that Canadian scientists would be there; the parties only got around to discussing Australian participation some months later (p. 26). In the early tests, as the 1985 McClelland Commission recorded, the Australian contribution did not extend to any area requiring ‘knowledge of weapon design or function’ (pp. 105, 139). More information was shared in the tests that followed – driven by pressure to allow Australia to make adequate safety assessments – but the same principle of controlled participation applied. In adopting this restrictive approach, the UK was guided by the January 1948 UK–US–Canada modus vivendi on nuclear cooperation, which had an annex specifying a limited range of information the UK could supply to Commonwealth countries such as Australia (see appendix F).

To put it simply, here’s how Howard Beale, the Australian minister whose department had responsibility for the tests, described the relationship in 1955, on the eve of the preparation of the Maralinga test site (quoted in Arnold and Smith, p. 100):

England has the bomb and the know-how; we have the open spaces, much technical skill, and a great willingness to help the Motherland.

So Australia played a significant role in the birth of the British bomb. But a midwife does not get to take home the baby. A reminder of that NPT phrasing: manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967’.

And it is worth remembering that Australia was not alone in playing host to others’ tests. In some cases this meant testing on overseas territories. The Sahara desert in Algeria was used for nuclear testing by France from 1960–66. The Marshall Islands were the site of extensive testing by the US from 1946–58. At the time, these territories were controlled by the testing nation; they are now separate entities. France continued to test in Algeria, by mutual agreement, after the former colony became independent in 1962. The Australian case might be different in detail and degree, but it is not different in kind.

Dodgy dossier

One of the most interesting parts of archival research is discovering roads not taken. Civil servants’ briefing notes often include lists of options which, for various reasons, never saw the light of day. Leah and Rovere make the following claim:

As Australia’s Dr Rod Lyon sharply has observed from recently declassified documents, Australian negotiators were very much cognizant of this legal basis prior to Australia joining the Treaty. In sum, if Australia determined it was a national security imperative to develop an independent nuclear deterrent, it would be legally entitled to do so.

The authors don’t provide a link, but they appear to be referring to Rod Lyon’s commentary on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s release of documents on the NPT.

Looking at the memorandum Lyon refers to – which notes Australia’s hosting of British tests and its dabbling in nuclear-weapons-related activities – it becomes quickly apparent that this was not seen as a winning argument. The case that Australia should sign the NPT as a nuclear-weapon state could just about be made, but it would be stretching the treaty’s text to breaking point. Or, to put it another way, here is what Lyon actually wrote:

We learn [from the memo] that some officials were giving consideration to Australia’s seeking recognition as a nuclear weapon state (NWS) under the NPT … [T]he bare bones of an argument existed that [Australia] had a case to be treated as a NWS.

Unless Leah and Rovere have further evidence, Lyon’s is the only fair characterisation. The bare bones of the argument were there, but not the meat; this was one option being considered, not a ‘legal basis’ of nuclear-weapon-state status of which officials were ‘very much cognizant’, and which entitled Australia to the legitimate pursuit of nuclear weapons in the future. The nuclear-weapons state idea made it onto a list of options. In the absence of any other documentation, that doesn’t prove much.

No going back

In any case the point is moot, because we know the path that actually was taken. Australia, albeit not without some reluctance, signed and ratified the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. And as Australian officials likely knew at the time, had Australia tried to claim it was a nuclear-weapon state, it would have been met – at best – with raised eyebrows, and a chorus of ‘Nice try’.

The NPT’s drafters had no doubt that the treaty’s definition of a nuclear-weapon state exclusively meant the US, UK, China, France and the Soviet Union, the states acknowledged to have manufactured and detonated a nuclear device by the time the talks got serious. Article IX was drafted so as to allow no wiggle room; for chapter and verse, see Mohamed Shaker’s definitive study of the NPT negotiations (and specifically volume 1, pp. 194–200). Earlier drafts of the treaty had linked nuclear-weapon status to ‘possessing’ nuclear weapons, or simply referred to ‘nuclear’ and ‘non-nuclear’ states. Both approaches were problematic: ‘nuclear’ was vague, and status gained through possession, as British diplomats pointed out, would allow a non-nuclear-weapon state – Australia, say – to claim nuclear-weapon status merely through temporary custody of atomic weapons.

When the article was redrafted to read as it does today, the clarity it brought was welcomed by a number of negotiating parties, including the as-yet-non-nuclear India. Egypt, concerned that a state might secretly manufacture and test a nuclear weapon during the negotiating window so as to keep covert nuclear-weapon status up its sleeve, even went so far as to make explicit – twice, without challenge – its understanding that the nuclear club had a membership of five. In the words of Morton Halperin, who was a National Security Council staffer at the time of the talks: ‘We were absolutely certain that this is just a cute way of naming the five countries and politically more viable. Nobody had the slightest doubt that we knew which the five countries that tested were. We did not worry because we thought it was very clear.’ States parties to the treaty also agreed in 2000 to limit the possibility of any further expansion of the nuclear weapon status by stating that new parties ‘may accede to the Treaty only as non-nuclear-weapon States’ (p.19).

If Australia were ever to decide to go down the nuclear-weapons route, there would be only one way it could legally reconcile its status with the NPT. It would have to withdraw from the treaty in accordance with the procedures in Article X, before breaking its non-proliferation obligations.

This brings us, finally, to what seems to be Leah and Rovere’s ultimate goal: to tout the ‘strategic advantages’ of a nuclear-armed Australia, and to rip up the bargain at the heart of the NPT. ‘The most effective means for Australia to insulate itself from long-range nuclear attack’, they write, referring to the threat posed by China, ‘is to develop or acquire its own reliable long-range nuclear deterrent.’ They don’t propose the immediate development of Australian nuclear weapons, but the recognition of NPT nuclear-weapon-state status would presumably be a first enabling step along that road.

Perhaps this is an idea which deserves serious consideration. We disagree – strongly! – but that’s an argument for another day, and, ultimately, a question for Australians themselves. Regardless, the case for Australian nuclear weapons should not be allowed to stand on faulty historical revisionism. Australia is, and always was, a non-nuclear-weapons state.

Hassan Elbahtimy (@Elbahtimy_H) and is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

Matthew Harries (@harries_matthew) is Managing Editor of Survival, and a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).


  1. Mark Fitzpatrick (History)

    Brilliant riposte to a shallow suggestion. And nice Easter egg. Now I finally understand why Kinder Surprises are banned in the United States.

  2. AEL (History)

    Would not Canada have a better claim? They were a part of the Manhattan project, produced hundreds of kilograms of plutonium which were made into nuclear weapons and were heavily involved in many aspects of nuclear weapons work with both the UK and the USA.

  3. Tim Wright (History)

    Thanks for this useful response. An opinion poll last year showed that 84 per cent of Australians want the government to join current efforts to negotiate a global treaty banning nuclear weapons. The extremist views expressed by Christine and Crispin in their recent article have almost no support here. I was particularly surprised by their claim that “the nations in Southeast Asia will see [a nuclear-armed] Australia as a more capable strategic partner and deepen cooperation”. They cannot be serious.

    Another problem with their “legal” argument is that the NPT is not, as they imply, a licence for those defined as “nuclear-weapon states” to continue developing and possessing nuclear weapons indefinitely (even if the P5 may have interpreted it this way). All states parties are obliged to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament. Even if Australia were recognised as a nuclear-weapon state (which is laughable), it would surely breach Article VI of the treaty by developing an arsenal.

    I disagree with your final point (if I understood it correctly) that the case for Australia’s withdrawal from the NPT and pursuit of nuclear weapons is “a question for Australians themselves”. Australia is part of a global community of nations, and our decision to acquire nuclear weapons would be of great concern to many beyond our borders. All members of the international community should have a say in such a matter. And they will, like the Australian people, say no.

  4. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    Ha, yeah, it’d never happen. We’ve been freaking out about siting a mid-level waste storage facility, fer crissake.

    The closest we have is the current push for a spent-fuel / waste dump in South Australia. The proliferation concern there is that Australia reportedly got the data from the Totem tests at Emu, so it’s possible we’ve got the specs squirreled away to go for a reactor grade weapon. Although what *level* of reactor grade was tested is unknown (frankly, it probably wasn’t very “reactor”), we’re also talking about getting some fast neutron reactors to eat up the stored waste, which of course can be modified fairly easily to breed.

    If it took more than one term with what would have to be obvious infrastructure build, there’s absolutely no way it’d happen. But if one government thought they could do it quietly in a single term, well, our politics have been nutty enough lately to make that a (distant) possibility. The last idiot probably would have loved the idea. Still, though, they’d probably be lynched after the fact.

    In other words, the closest we’d come is still not very close.

    And to agree with Tim, we’d be mad to do it. Who the hell is going to invade Australia? We’ve got the biggest friends in the world with a massive interest to keep us around. If we went and got a local arms race going, suddenly we’ve leveled the playing field. We don’t *want* to level the playing field! The playing field is actually pretty damn nicely tilted in our favour!

    For any plan, always ask: to what end?

  5. _Nucleah (History)

    Very nice piece indeed. I readily accept the criticisms. Although it’s not a shallow idea if you know the history.

  6. Arend J.Meerburg (History)

    Is it a good idea to give Algeria arguments to go nuclear?

  7. Marianne Hanson (History)

    Excellent response thanks Hassan Elbahtimy and Matthew Harries. The point is that many states may have considered the nuclear option at some point; that does not translate into it being seen as a desired outcome or something that was likely to occur. I also agree with Tim wright: such decisions are taken not by an individual state alone, but against a complex backdrop of international legal and ethical obligations and constraints.

  8. JO (History)

    The Kazakh SSR became Kazakhstan. Did they explicitly give it up? Can such a thing be given up?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Yes, Kazakhstan gave up its nuclear weapons and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state. See and other sources. Belarus and Ukraine also gave up their nuclear weapons. Of the four Soviet Republics that possessed nuclear weapons at the time of the Soviet break-up, only Russia still retains nuclear weapons.

  9. Matthew Harries (History)

    Thanks all for kind and thoughtful comments, and to Jeffrey for hosting the piece.

    Tim, you are right that there’s an international stake in Australia’s nuclear choices. I would just say that the idea behind separating the NPT-NWS argument from the Australia-needs-nukes argument was to limit the grounds for objection. (At least that was my logic; I can’t speak for Hassan, though I don’t think he’d disagree.) I think it’s important to demonstrate, even to people who would support Australian nuclear weapons, that the NPT basis is simply not there. By way of further explanation, I’m personally not keen on a ban treaty, or even on your interpretation of Article VI – but I don’t want that to factor into whether we agree on Australia’s NPT status. For the record, though, I think Australia developing nuclear weapons is a bad idea, and one that would be resisted by the US and other friendly countries, let alone less friendly ones.

  10. Trevor Findlay (History)

    I agree with those who have applauded Hassan Elbahtimy and Matthew Harries’ excellent rebuttal of the Leah and Rovere idea that somehow Australia can post facto claim nuclear weapon status. It is a pity that this issue is now doing the rounds as a ‘proposal’, which to the uninitiated could sound like it had come from the Australian government. As others have pointed out, but worth reiterating to reassure non-Australians, there is no public or mainstream political support in Australia for renouncing the NPT and/or acquiring nuclear weapons.

  11. kme (History)

    This didn’t even make the funny pages in Australia.

    I’ll make the observation that if a conservative government in the pre-NPT 1960s height of the Cold War couldn’t muster even tepid enthusiasm for a nuclear program, the chance of it happening in the 21st century is zero.

    One might also look at the fact that successive Australian governments have always been quick to rule out a nuclear propulsion option for their submarine force to see that policy heads, at least in this area, remain sensibly attached in Canberra.

    I guess the silly season started early this year!

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      Gorton got us a fair way to getting nukes. For the non-Australian audience, John Gorton became Prime Minister when the last one got eaten by a sea monster, in an attempt to one-up the Americans’ magic JFK bullet.

      Gorton was kicked out by his own party after his terrible public speaking nearly saw them lose an election. If Gorton hadn’t gotten the boot, Australia might have ended up with nuclear weapons, I reckon. He was conspicuous in non-ratification of the NPT (if you signed *before* the treaty went into force, it wasn’t binding until ratification), got a reactor started at Jervis Bay (which is federal land by a technicality), and seemed to be looking at “peaceful” nukes to blast out a bay at Cape Keraudren, to sort of sneak a weapons program in. (Yeah, different time, huh?)

      Previous governments also did a lot of leg work to get delivery systems, culminating in the startlingly useful Canberra bombers – which were (sneakily) promoted by the airforce in part because their fairly small bomb load argued for tactical nuclear weapons. There was similar view when we got F-111’s later on.

  12. JO (History)

    “For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.”

    Having joined explicitly as a non-nuclear State is it possible they now have both status? KSSR/KZH could put a convincing case for explosive device manufacture, if not nuclear materials manufacture.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Sounds like a question for the lawyers and the law students. I’m guessing the matter will be treated like marriage and divorce. Either you are married to the bomb or you are not. The definition of a nuclear-weapons state tells us whether you have a right to possess nuclear weapons. If you give up that right – if you divorce yourself from the bomb – then you are no longer married to the bomb, even if you still have a marriage certificate that “proves” you are married. The certificate is a dead letter. If you want to marry the bomb again, you must either exit the NPT with 90 days notice, or cheat.

  13. Michael Clarke (History)

    Thanks to Matthew and Hassan (and Jeffrey for posting) for their response to the Leah/Rovere article. Andrew ONeil, Stephan Fruhling and I have just published a rebuttal of their piece on The National Interest based on our recently published book on Australia’s engagement in nuclear affairs

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