AUKUS: Implications for WA


Some things belong in our ocean. Nuclear Submarines Do Not!

By K-A Garlick, Nuclear Free Community Campaigner, Conservation Council of WA

The recent announcement of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, UK and the US has alarmed and disappointed thousands of people nationally and globally who are deeply concerned about this significant move that will have serious implications for Australia. In this article, I have attempted to summarise what this means more specifically for Western Australia.

The ink on the AUKUS proposal is not yet dry and we've got a UK nuclear-powered Astute class submarine stationed at Stirling Naval Base, just outside of Fremantle, WA. Is this a sign of more to come and what does this mean for WA?Anti nuclear subs

There is a great deal of opposition to this proposed AUKUS agreement, which sounds not only awkward, but which is downright dangerous move that could have serious regional repercussions and poses serious environmental and security concerns to West Australian ports and cities, shipyards and oceans.

Important questions still remain, whether the plan is to manufacture nuclear-powered submarines in Australia or to assemble submarines that have been purchased from the UK and US. Regardless, it raises concerns about WA’s risk factor as a terrorist target, could be a slippery slope towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons, viewed with hostility by other countries in the region and the potential human and environmental impacts.  

Nuclear does not make anyone safer, anywhere.

There are many reasons Australia has long avoided nuclear power. It is important to remember that we have two key pieces of federal legislation from the Howard Government that prohibit it. From mining uranium to radioactive waste storage, the beginning of nuclear power is a top-to-toe headache that unnecessarily risks communities, wildlife and the places we love. 

The global nuclear trade begins in Australia with uranium mining. 

In Western Australia, for over four decades now, successive governments have tried to impose uranium mines on unwilling remote communities. Right now, we have four uranium mine proposals, Kintyre, Wiluna, Yeelirree and Mulga Rock and each of their environmental approvals have either expired or about to expire. Each proposal has been met with strong community opposition, mostly from Traditional Owners and today we can successfully say, that there is no operating uranium mine in WA. One of the primary risks of Australian uranium exports is the contribution to global nuclear proliferation pressures and one of the biggest dangers facing the world is that posed by nuclear weapons.

We don’t want Australian uranium being used for nuclear reactors. We don’t want Australian uranium being used for reactors at sea. We don’t want Australian uranium being used to make weapons. Nothing about nuclear is safe. The radioactive contamination when something goes wrong is a huge blight on humanity and a terrible legacy to be leaving for future generations. We cannot afford to risk the nuclear option. It is too dangerous. Too risky.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) notes, ‘Military nuclear reactors in Australia would present a clear nuclear weapons proliferation risk and become potential sites for nuclear accidents and radiological contamination long into the future’.

What happens if something goes wrong with this nuclear submarine from the UK that is positioned at Garden Island?

The only port safety plan that there is, that we know of is that they tow it out beyond Rottnest, beyond Gage Roads and sink it in a deep ocean trough. WA lacks the nuclear scientific, engineering management and regulatory capacity and experience if something does go wrong, the likelihood of it being quickly and effectively managed is reduced and the risks of radioactive releases at Garden Island or any other WA port is increased.  

Humanity is in the midst of a major pandemic and facing twin existential threats of ominous urgency – global heating and the growing danger of nuclear war.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow has begun, shifting our national energy debate into first gear, this new push for nuclear power in Australia is quickly becoming a serious roadblock to real climate solutions. Apart from the clear links to nuclear disasters, multi-generational radioactive waste, nuclear weapons proliferation and unresolved security concerns – existing nuclear technology is slow, expensive and uncompetitive.

Leaders have the choice to sentence humanity to surging climate catastrophe or step up and take the decisive and ambitious actions needed – the Prime Minister must act now on his assurance that the submarine deal will not lead to nuclear power or implicate us with nuclear weapons.

If ever there was a time to build goodwill and focus on cooperation to complex global problems rather than escalate military confrontation, that time is now. Our leaders should be focussing their energies not on increasing tensions and militarisations across Asia and the Pacific region or escalating a new cold war arms race with China, but on building peaceful cooperation to address urgent shared threats with the government of the world’s most populous and largest greenhouse gas emitting nation.

Protest UK nuclear subOn Sunday 31 October, Jo Vallentine called a snap action to unwelcome the UK nuclear-powered submarine in port and highlighting that there is not going to be long wait times for Australia to nuclearize our military engagement through AUKUS. It is a dangerous precedent, nuclearizing our military and putting us well within nuclear warfighting plans of two of the nuclear armed states, US and UK who have already used our region as a testing ground for nuclear weapons.

Peter Dutton said on 29th October, ‘I know there has been speculation about dates out into late 2040s, but that is not going to be the case...There is just no hesitation from our partners about making sure we can get this capability as quickly as possible’.

Nuclear powered submarines are totally unnecessary and will probably be obsolete before they are even finished or hit the water, at an immense cost to the taxpayer – money that could be spent on things that really make Australians more secure, making our nation more resilient to climate change, more public housing, better public education, legal aid and clean energy.

They will literally cost the earth, both in terms of budgets and in terms of the long term implications of tying Australia to an industry with an unclean, unsafe and unwanted technology that has no sound long term disposal protocol for its radioactive waste.

This proposal shows again increasing ties with nuclear armed allies towards nuclear weapons at a time when world has moved to make these weapons illegal. Although the government has said the submarines would be powered by nuclear reactors, they would not be armed with nuclear weapons. The best way Australia could clearly and unambiguously signal that it would not go down this path would be to become a signatory to the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The decision has upset a lot of our neighbours. The idea of Australia building nuclear submarines has infuriated, not only the French but has upset many neighbours in our region including Aotearoa / New Zealand. And could lead to a very dangerous escalating arms race in the region.  

In 2019, a federal government-dominated parliamentary committee release a report on nuclear power titled, ‘Not without your approval’. The report emphasised that nuclear power would not be pursued without community support. The AUKUS proposal needs to be studied closely, with a transparent, open, evidenced based process. To date, no decision making was involved, no community consultation, the Parliament wasn’t consulted, the French weren’t told that we were dropping the submarine contract with them. It is a very very poor process on the part of the Australian government.

The Australian government and all political parties are urged to join the international community who have outlawed nuclear weapons and make every effort to avoid further unacceptable nuclear risks in our region, for Australia and the world.

Nuclear submarines are unsafe, unnecessary and unwanted in our region.

Peace is the foundation to climate, economic, gender, social and environmental justice. If this newly coined triad of colonial powers, AUKUS wants to ensure a peaceful and prosperous Asia Pacific, tackling climate change, providing healthcare, increase public housing, better public education, legal aid and clean energy would achieve more than escalating nuclear militarisation of the region.

For decades now, we have united communities for a nuclear-free future. Many WA activists were formed in nuclear resistance, and today reject radioactive racism for the entire nuclear fuel cycle. We are tirelessly opposing uranium mining and radioactive waste dumps, and highlighting their threats to land, water, First Nations cultures and local communities. And we will continue! WA sends a clear message to Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Marise Payne, WA says NO to nuclear submarines.

Background information:

Header photo: Snap action on 31st October at the gates of Stirling Naval Base to unwelcome the visiting UK nuclear-powered submarine. Brett Leigh Dicks

Banners in text: Dimity Hawkins

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]