The Menzies Ascendency: Australia in the Atomic Age

Keith Rigg (R) with Sir Robert Menzies signing a bat, circa 1950 [Rigg Family Album CC BY 3.0]

I will present my final paper for the Robert Menzies Institute's Third Annual Conference, 'The Menzies Ascendency: Implementing a Liberal Agenda and Consolidating Gains, 1954-1961' on Friday 24th November 2023. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the University of Canberra's  Faculty of Business, Government and Law Seminar Series in May 2023.

The slides and abstract from my final presentation are below, along with a podcast episode with Georgina Downer, CEO of the Robert Menzies Institute:


Menzies embraced the atomic age rather more enthusiastically than many other Australians. He envisaged Australia’s substantial uranium and thorium reserves providing Australia with a source of clean, reliable, and affordable energy that would ultimately replace fossil fuels. But he also knew that “what is best advertised tends to be more popularly understood”. Despite the opening of a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in 1958 to “test materials for their suitability in use in future power reactors”, the purpose of Australia’s first nuclear reactor was gradually reduced to producing medical radioisotopes and conducting research. Menzies faced similar concerns about the safety of nuclear reactors, the propensity for conflating nuclear industries with nuclear weapons, and storing nuclear waste to those concerns political leaders face today. But with Australia’s strategic defence capabilities enhanced by nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS agreement, and the absence of a ‘Plan B’ for a carbon-neutral future, the unrealised potential of Australia’s atomic age has manifested into the very lack of skills Menzies was concerned about in 1962. The Lucas Heights facility was more than just a case of hubris, or “what are they doing here that can't be better done elsewhere?” It provided opportunities for training Australian scientists and sharing and transferring nuclear-related research and knowledge. At the same time, recently declassified documents suggest that Menzies aimed to develop Australia’s nuclear capability amid eleven years of atomic weapons tests conducted by Britain in Australia. While much has been written about “nuclear colonialism” following the Royal Commission into the tests, very little attention has been given to the unrealised potential of Australia’s nuclear industry envisaged during the atomic age. This paper, then, traces the development and subsequent stagnation of the nuclear industry in Australia, with a focus on Menzies’ legacy and its influence on energy and defence policy today.