Nuclear Energy – Australia’s Proud History

Martin Thomas AM FTSE HonFIEAust HonFAIE. 

HIFAR Reactor opened in 1958, shutdown in 2007 at ANSTO, Lucas Heights, NSW.

Hosted by the Australian Society for History of Engineering and Technology.

History House, 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney.

5.30 for 6 pm Tuesday 27 February 2018.

Cost: RAHS and ASHET members $10, others $12 (includes light refreshments on arrival).

Bookings: phone RAHS on (02) 9247 8001 or email


Nuclear energy is one of the most remarkable, extraordinary and potentially valuable resources known to man. Respected and exploited intelligently by some, it is feared and rejected by others; often on grounds that lack rationality or persuasive logic. Australia today at national policy level unfortunately falls into the latter grouping as currently the only one of the top 20 OECD nations still to rule nuclear power as illegal. Its politicians, many individually supportive, nevertheless show little collective will to consider otherwise; so denying the Australian people adequate consideration of the exceptional physical, economic and environmental potential of nuclear energy in the national generation portfolio.

Yet this has not always been so. The presentation opens by focusing on what might have been and closes by speculating on what can yet be. Australia and Australians have an extraordinarily proud history of diligent investigation and world class achievement in the search for value in the humble atom. The attainments of Australia’s distinguished scientists and engineers in nuclear research and development, now spanning more than 65 years, are quite exceptional. Our young nation is recognised in the international sphere as ‘boxing far above its weight’. But the notion of extracting the uranium atom’s uniquely concentrated clean energy to generate electricity and heat, in the peaceful service of all Australians, remains an opportunity still to be grasped. Tragically for the Australian people our present generation, despite the continuing efforts of an enlightened few, has yet to illuminate the path ahead.

This presentation first reviews Australia’s nuclear history; its successes and its failures but most importantly the achievements of those remarkable people who have devoted their lives to its cause. It goes on to evaluate Australia’s present status, reviewing technologies available today or in the medium-term pipeline for tomorrow. It concludes with some modest policy recommendations, which may or may not be adopted, in the hope that our nation, the ‘lucky country’, will someday make the best possible use in social, economic and environmental terms of the remarkable opportunity with which it has been gifted.

About Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas qualified in Mechanical Sciences from Cambridge University in 1957 with Class 2 (1) Honours.  He joined Merz and McLellan in the UK, migrating with his family to Perth in 1967 to join Merz Australia, managing several power generation projects for developing mining companies.

He moved to Sydney in 1976, specialising in industrial energy conservation in Australia and overseas.  He managed the firm’s Sydney office for many years before retiring as a Principal of Sinclair Knight Merz.  He was appointed founding MD of the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Renewable Energy in 1995 and chairman of Dulhunty Poles in 2006, a role he still holds.

Former roles include chairmanships of industry association Austenergy from 1988-94; the NSW Electricity Council from 1988-95 and the 2000 Olympic Energy Panel from 1994-00.  He was deputy chair of distribution utility Australian Inland Energy from 1996-03.  In 2007 he chaired CSIRO’s Energy Technology Expert Review Committee.  He has held directorships in many listed and unlisted energy technology companies.

He was the Institution of Engineers Australia National President in 1991-92 and President of the Australian Institute of Energy (AIE) from 1999-2001.  In 1992 he was elected to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), serving first as Vice-President and then as founding chair of the ATSE Energy Forum from 2008-14.  In 2006 he served on Prime Minister Howard’s Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review (aka UMPNER or the Switkowski Report).

In 1992 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to energy and engineering and in 2003 received an Australian Centenary Medal.

In 1997 he received the AIE’s Institute Medal; in 2008 the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal, Engineers Australia’s highest award; and in 2015 the AGM Michell Medal, the highest award of Engineers Australia’s College of Mechanical Engineers and the Annual Award of the Australian Nuclear Association.