Australia’s dark, twisted nuclear fantasy

9 July 2024
James Plested

Australia’s political class is busy transforming the country into a base of operations for a possible US war with China. That, you might think, is bad enough. Now Peter Dutton wants—with his nuclear power plan—to throw a significant new bit of (radioactive) “spice” into the mix.

Just imagine. It’s 2040, and China has just launched an invasion of Taiwan. The US declares war, and begins the mobilisation of its own and its allies' forces across the Indo-Pacific region. Tens of thousands of US and Australian military personnel are massed, ready for action, on bases around Australia. British and US nuclear-powered submarines are dispatched from ports in Western Australia and Queensland (parking their submarines in Australian ports being the only part of the AUKUS deal that was actually delivered).

The Chinese military has meticulously prepared for this scenario over many years. It knows its only hope for a quick and relatively casualty-free victory lies in crippling, as much as possible, the other side’s ability to counterattack before it gets started. So at this point the first barrage of Chinese hypersonic missiles rains down. The targets aren’t just military facilities but also critical infrastructure—ports, major highways and bridges, data centres and (of course) power stations.

How would you feel about living next to one of Dutton’s seven planned major nuclear power stations in this situation? You might think an attack like this is unlikely. Surely, even in the event of a major war, the contending powers would stop short of targeting civilian infrastructure in such a destructive way. This belief is, unfortunately, a fantasy. You need only look at what the Israelis have done to Gaza—with the full support of their allies in countries like the US and Australia—to know that in a situation of all-out war, anything and everything would be deemed “fair game”.

Some of Australia’s foreign policy establishment believe that a scenario like this might be avoided if only we take the next step after establishing a nuclear power industry and create our very own nuclear weapons “deterrent”. It’s possible Dutton himself has an eye to taking this path. He’s no doubt aware that the kinds of resources, skills and technology that would be needed to establish a “peaceful” nuclear power industry are exactly the same resources, skills and technology needed to produce nuclear weapons (hence Western hysteria about Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program).

It’s testament to the level of historical amnesia about the realities of so-called nuclear “deterrence” during the Cold War between the US and Russia that anyone but the most Strangelovian psychopath would think a nuclear-armed Australia is a good idea. A world in which countries like Australia go nuclear, thus further accelerating what is already a new global arms race, wouldn’t be one in which the populations of the contending powers were somehow rendered safe and secure. It would, rather, be a nightmare of the ever present threat of mutual annihilation in which the best you could hope for, either as a member of the armed forces or as a civilian, was that death would be quick.

I know this, because I’ve lived through it before. I was born on a British military base in West Germany and lived there and on bases in England during the early 1980s peak of Cold War tensions. My dad was in the British air force and was a navigator on nuclear-armed Vulcan bombers.

In 1980, the British government published a pamphlet titled Protect and Survive, which contained instructions on “how to make your home and your family as safe as possible under nuclear attack”. This included things like building an “inner refuge” inside your house which “should be thick-lined with dense materials to resist the radiation, and should be built away from the outside walls”. The pamphlet and an associated media campaign were designed to allay public anxiety about the threat of war. Everyone knew, though, that it was just for show. The reality of what would happen in the event of war was more honestly portrayed in the bleak (to say the least) joint Australian and British television drama Threads.

My dad regularly had to participate in military exercises that simulated what to do when war broke out. This involved getting British bombers in the air fast enough to ensure that any Russian attack could be countered by a large-scale counterattack. There was no real expectation that bomber crews would come back from these missions, nor that there’d be anything much to come back to.

If ever present feelings of impending violent doom happen to be your thing, then nuclear “deterrence” and the “logic” of mutually assured destruction could really help you flourish. For everyone else, it’s probably better to try to build a world where our collective “safety” isn’t maintained by the threatened use of weapons that could wipe out entire cities in an instant.

Can we assess the merits of nuclear energy in isolation from its possible contribution to a new nuclear arms race that could once again place humanity under imminent threat of civilisation-ending catastrophe? We could, but it would be delusional.

You can, and nuclear power advocates like Dutton do, envisage all kinds of new technologies and designs that will supposedly make nuclear entirely risk free. Nuclear power stations could in theory be fuelled by thorium instead of uranium, thus ameliorating some of the problems of toxic pollution and waste that beset today’s nuclear power industry. But none of the new, supposedly clean and safe technologies nuclear advocates talk up actually exist today in any form close to implementation. The only path available to a nuclear power enthusiast is the same, dirty, toxic, uranium-fuelled path that’s existed since the dawn of the nuclear era.

And going down that path will be extremely slow and mind-bogglingly expensive. The new Hinkley C nuclear power station currently being built in Britain has been delayed by more than a decade and is set to cost, by the time it opens in the early 2030s, around $90 billion. For nuclear power actually to make a significant contribution to solving the climate crisis, you’d need to build thousands of new power stations at a cost of many trillions of dollars.

There are better options.

Renewable energy is much cheaper to build and operate than nuclear, and it has the added benefit of not putting the world on a path to the apocalypse. There are challenges that have to be addressed, such as the need to build large-scale stores of energy (batteries, pumped hydro, green hydrogen and so on) to make up for the intermittency of renewables like wind and solar. If we’re talking about spending trillions of dollars on new energy infrastructure though, this seems eminently doable.

Can we head off Australia’s nightmare nuclear future before it really begins? Doing so will take a serious fight. It’s not only Dutton we have to worry about, but the Labor Party that, by signing us up to the AUKUS deal, took the first steps down the nuclear path.

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