Australian scientists are researching cheaper ways of enriching uranium - possibly a significant step on the road to making nuclear weapons.
The revelation comes as the Federal Government considers tough new "Vanunu-style" laws to gag nuclear whistleblowers.
Israel jailed former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu for 18 years in 1988 after he revealed details of Israel's secret nuclear weapons program.
Scientists working for Silex Systems Ltd, which leases space at the Commonwealth Government's Lucas Heights reactor near Sydney, are developing techniques to enrich uranium with lasers.
The company was funded by the United States Enrichment Corporation - the world's biggest enricher of uranium - until earlier this year.
Laser technology enriches uranium cheaper than standard techniques, providing fuel for nuclear reactors and, as a by-product, plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Richard Broinowski, a former ambassador to South Korea and Mexico, said he was suspicious of the secrecy surrounding the classified Silex technology.
"There is an ongoing need for technology that we can use, if necessary, in nuclear weapons-making, though they'd never say it," he said.
Mr Broinowski is the author of a new book, Fact or Fission - the truth about Australia's nuclear ambitions.
"Bob Hawke closed down Lucas Heights when it was run by the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, partly because he was suspicious of the secrecy there," Mr Broinowski said.
"Hawke was suspicious that they were developing nuclear weapons technology. In particular, there was a very large enrichment project at that time."
The laser technology could be used for civil or military purposes, he said.
"There are people in the Australian Government who would like to have the option of developing our technology to the stage where we could produce weapons if we needed to. I'm sure of that."
But Mr Broinowski said the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was still a big constraint on Australia's ambitions.
And Lucas Heights had other purposes, such as maintaining Australia's seat on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and producing radio-pharmaceuticals.
The Sunday Herald Sun reported in July that Lucas Heights was regarded by nuclear experts as an insurance policy if ever Australia needed the bomb.
But Silex has dismissed claims linking its research to a future weapons program, as did Dr George Collins, acting head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, whichmanages the reactor. Dr Collins said there was "a strong ethos here that we do not work on nuclear weapons and we actively support non-proliferation".
He added: "There is no skill base here appropriate for nuclear weaponry."
Professor George Dracoulis, head of nuclear physics at the Australian National University, was also sceptical about the claims.
"The whole idea of Lucas Heights being a precursor to a nuclear weapons program is just wrong-headed," he said.
Australia seriously considered the nuclear option after World War II, but decided against it. The Government denies any interest now.
The secrecy of the Silex research is one reason for the crackdown on whistleblowers. Another is concern that terrorists will secure the technology.
The Opposition, the Democrats, and environmental groups have jumped on planned changes to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act.
People passing information that threatens the physical security of a nuclear plant or reveal information about nuclear technology could face two years in jail.www.heraldsun.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5478,7325027%255E662,00.htmlE-mail this article