Nuclear push isn’t just about energy

24 June 2024
Britain's first atomic weapon detonation in the Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia, 1952 PHOTO: Australian government

A man comes into your house, takes a shit on the couch and looks you in the eyes. “I’ll come back for that in forty years”, he says. “Then I’ll put it in your garage—for 100,000 years. It will be maybe a million years before the stench goes away, though”.

“By the way”, he continues, walking out the front door, “the council is putting up your rates by $100 billion”.

The man is Peter Dutton, and the couch is all of Australia.

The Labor Party is rightly ridiculing the federal Liberal-National opposition for its “plan” to build seven nuclear reactors around the country. It would take well over a decade, consume probably more than $100 billion in government funds, provide power at much higher prices than alternatives and generate tonnes of lasting radioactive waste.

The Australian Energy Market Operator published an Integrated System Plan in 2020, which estimated that nearly 90 percent of electricity demand could be met by renewable generation by 2035. So Dutton’s proposal is obsolete before it has even been fully outlined or even thought through.

Well, it would be if it were only about domestic energy policy. But it is about much more than that.

The ALP, for all its MPs uploading to social media hilarious three-eyed fish memes, laid the welcome mat and opened the door to this proposal. The party’s commitment to the Aukus military partnership, through which Australia is paying more than $350 billion for a few nuclear submarines, already allows for—indeed, requires—the construction of facilities for “managing, storing or disposing” of the radioactive waste produced by the war machines.

It’s in the ALP’s own legislation.

Dutton at least had the honesty to tell everyone, in advance of an election, where he plans to build the nuclear plants. Labor, by contrast, tied the country to the nuclear cycle and left it to a future government to announce where the waste will go.

Most likely the radioactive materials will end up on, or under, the lands of traditional Indigenous custodians. Labor won’t say it, but its leaders know that’s probably the case.

The federal parliament recently held an inquiry into the government’s plans. In March and April, a Senate committee heard from expert witnesses. One, Robin Townsend, a fellow at the UK-based Royal Institution of Naval Architects, observed:

“All countries are struggling to not just decommission [nuclear] submarines, but ... to deal with the waste. Planning is critical. People who say that you need to plan to store the waste for 100,000 years aren’t wide of the mark.”

One hundred thousand years is about the amount of time elapsed since the Palaeolithic period. That’s the Stone Age, to which our purported “leaders” might have us all sent if we can survive the nuclear age.

With the Aukus manoeuvre already carried out—dumped on the metaphorical couch—it was only a matter of time before the logic of nuclear expansion took hold in the minds of the people running the country.

Start with a couple of nuclear-powered submarines.

Then initiate or expand university programs to train nuclear scientists—who will be needed in the navy and the Department of Defence.

Then, out of necessity, establish a waste dump.

What comes next?

When the nuclear dump is established, and the rest of the world still doesn’t know what to do with its accumulated waste, probably there’ll be a push to make money and “help humanity” by importing radioactive gunk from elsewhere and chucking it in central Australia. (In fact, the late Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke already suggested this as far back as 2005.)

When there’s a critical mass of expert nuclear scientists and technicians, then we’ll probably be told that it makes no sense to waste them when Australia has some of the largest reserves of nuclear fuel (uranium, for example) in the world.

Since there are already nuclear-powered submarines and waste dumps and scientists and uranium reserves, and because the world is a dangerous place (run as it is by the sort of people who run Australia), there will probably be a case made for obtaining or even producing nuclear weapons.

The case for that will be much stronger if some form of uranium enrichment program is already established, such as for domestic energy.

Dutton might be put down as Mr Potato Head, but he understands this logic better than most journalists seem to: Australian imperialism is in the business of projecting power, but no country can claim to be a genuine power unless it has nuclear weapons.

If nuclear path dependency takes hold, it won’t have started with Peter Dutton, even though he is clearly the most public about wanting to follow through with it.

It will be down to the ALP. With Aukus, the party has entrenched Australia as a beachhead for US imperialism in Asia and made a target of the continent’s north if war breaks out between Washington and Beijing.

But if Australia is by then a bona fide nuclear state, that won’t be the end of it—the potential fallout is almost unimaginable.

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