Australia's debate over nuclear power has reached a high pitch after Victoria's new premier, John Cain, announced he planned to make his state ''nuclear free.''
The policy raised broader issues of Australia's political and military ties with the United States. The question is whether an Australian state can unilaterally bar nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships, such as those of the US Navy, from its waters.
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser warned that such a plan would endanger the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) alliance and threaten defense ties with the US and Britain. He has promised federal legislation to override the Victoria decision, particularly in regard to the visit of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships.
Recent decisions of Australia's high court suggest the federal government will easily override any state legislation to ban nuclear vessels. But Mr. Cain continues to seek legal advice about the extent to which the state could prevent such vessels from entering the state.
The controversy has also split the opposition Labor Party. Some members support Cain. Others, like federal Labor Party leader William Hayden, have accepted visits by nuclear-powered ships, while opposing visits of ships carrying nuclear weapons.
The party's deputy federal leader, Lionel Bowen, follows the policy of former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. This approves of visits by nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships, provided they are not ''staging'' operations from Australia.
The storm erupted after federal sources leaked Cain's proposals to declare his state nuclear free, and to ban nuclear power stations, uranium mining or enrichment, and the visit of nuclear-powered ships to his state. Soon after being elected, Cain informed Fraser of his party's intention to make the state nuclear free and asked for advice about the constitutional implications of this decision in relation to defense and foreign policy.