Australia’s Nuclear Future?

There’s nothing normal or safe about nuclearisation

Scott Morrison’s decision to make a deal with Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, drawing Australia further into the US military web via the purchase of nuclear submarines, will transform Australia into a US outpost with no independent long-term future in its own region. It will also convert the Australian way of life into one of permanent stress and uncertainty. 

There’s no doubt the present unravelling of certainty in the region, as well as globally, is producing significant pressures. One example is the contradictory responses of the political Right in Australia as they desperately try to find reliable ground. Their initial excitement at having a deal with our ‘great benefactor’, no matter what, launching Australia into the first phase of nuclearisation, which this surely is, reveals a tendency to lurch from position to position. Only a week or so after their emotional and vitriolic conclusion that the United States was no longer a reliable ally given the fiasco of the Afghanistan retreat, it is this same United States that now lies, in their view, at the centre of our prospects for the future. There is no attempt to bridge these contradictory conclusions. That the Australian Labor Party simply follows, with a few quibbles and motherhood statements, shows where Australian politics has landed. 

Whatever independent spirit was still to be found in the nation, it is now collapsing completely in the circumstances of the unwinding of the illusions that have sustained Australia for a generation: the ‘freedom’ offered by the deregulation of the dollar and exchange rates; the transformation of the economy made possible by globalisation; the conversion of our universities into corporate industries oriented towards export rather than education; the prosperity arising from our proximity to the Chinese behemoth; the security offered by our imperialist founders and other global warlords. All of these foundation points of the Australia of the last generation are now in transition. Whatever stability those illusions offered in the past, they no longer offer security. 

The tripartite arrangement that has emerged in this period of unravelling, AUKUS, places Australia at the centre of any potential international conflict. While the various US-sponsored and US-run intelligence facilities in Australia always have been targets in the event of war, a fact not well known in the general community, now there can be no doubt, and we are forewarned. New US bases and existing infrastructure in Australia will be targets. And, with the nuclear-submarine deal we have now moved even closer to the nuclear threat that the United States uses to sustain its dominance. 

Not grasping the complexities of power at this level, nor being capable of empathy with other political leaders, Morrison has found himself in significant dispute over how he has handled his government’s new commitments. He also has no feeling for the existential dangers, fears and complexities associated with nuclear technology, which will predictably cause him more trouble in the coming months and beyond. All this, it seems, is necessary pain, his sacrifice, in order to stay in power. 

In circumstances where great powers are moving into transition given the rise of China, creating uncertainty about how we might be secure in our region, Australia definitely has options. But the Morrison government is intent on avoiding all but the one that places Australia at the heart of any future nuclear conflict. He could have engaged in a process of rethinking security and defence for Australia in ways that would give it an independent future. He has ignored the one example of a regional nation with an Anglo-American heritage that has made significant attempts to come to terms with its Indigenous heritage, able to strike something of an autonomous policy in the region while refusing, at great cost to itself, to be poisoned by nuclear technologies: New Zealand. Rather, Morrison relies on the remnants of Anglo-American settler-colonial imperialism—those same forces that have suppressed and denied Indigenous self-determination. 

Coming to terms with the Indigenous peoples of the region may seem to be off to the side of the larger security issues noted above. But if Australia can’t renew itself within terms appropriate to its own region—that is, renew our relations with Indigenous Australians, as well as the peoples of the Pacific and of Indonesia and Asia generally—it will remain an outpost supported only by imperialist powers that care very little for the region, except as a means to enhance their superpower interests. 

The United Kingdom and the United States can’t stand for the future here, except as tired outsiders. While they may hang on, they are declining powers. That the United States is regarded by many on all political sides as an unreliable ally opens onto still larger social questions about the form of development embraced by the West, and which now appears to be undermining the vitality and stability of everyday life. The United States has technological power, which we ignore at our peril, but it has surely lost social power: when the social bonds that unify everyday life fray and come apart, a sustainable form of security is possible neither domestically nor in our region. US interest in Australia is one of temporary convenience. Other nations, even China, may need to bow to the technological threat in the short term, but time is on China’s side. Already an outsider in Asia, supported only by imperialist friends, where will Australia be as those friends lose further coherence and are forced to come to terms with their own domestic social realities? 

A much more powerful China has arrived—an undoubtedly historic development—and we must give it a respected place in the region, if with the major caveat that superpowers as such can never be trusted to protect the interests of smaller powers. All the same, there has to be another way to ensure that China respects our autonomy than the policy of mutually assured destruction, the barely hidden agenda of Australia’s nuclear agreement with the United States. 

To embark on an alternative path would require abandoning overwhelming power as a strategy and embracing another form of power, which would also strengthen our internal identity: a build-up of internal resources and a cultural determination to defend ourselves. This would mean an acceptance of our place within our region as an equal player, which would in turn necessitate a negotiated treaty with Indigenous Australians, a crucial step towards Australia as a nation taking on new cultural possibilities and new relations with our island neighbours and other regional societies. 

The nuclear option

While many recent commentaries have noted the leap to nuclear power in the AUKUS submarine deal—some with concern, others with glee—what the nuclear means, other than the fearsome power of nuclear arms, and concerns about a regional arms race, has largely been left unexplored. Nuclear power tends to be treated as merely a dangerous technology—one that requires special care to be sure; that is, one that needs to be handled within technical rules that provide ‘safety’ and efficiency. In Australia the general public has long been opposed to both nuclear technology and nuclear waste largely for reasons of the ‘not in my backyard’ variety. This reflects a half-formed wish that these technologies did not exist. Nevertheless, apart from intense bewilderment and existential fear after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, we have never fully grappled with their meaning, notwithstanding the exuberant Australian anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. Those initial reactions have become muted over the years because no other atomic bomb has been used in war, while other atomic matters have been hidden behind closed doors, with enormous effort put into the normalisation of nuclear power by scientists and politicians. But nuclear technology remains a profound existential threat. 

The nuclear story is much more complicated than these few points made here, and while it is true that this initial embrace by Australia is, to quote Paul Kelly of The Australian, ‘An historic turning point for Australia’, it is so in many more ways than Kelly seems able to imagine. 

Nuclear technology is not just any technology. Its profound and distinctive relationship to the human and natural worlds sets it apart from other technologies, especially those inherited from nineteenth-century industrialisation. Nuclear technology emerged as a revolution in scientific and technological possibility from a singular set of social processes, a framing we typically do not grant to scientific theory or discovery. While we might focus on Einstein’s theories—indeed, these were essential for the technology to emerge—his ideas were not simply the product of individual genius. Rather, they were the product of an emergent set of social relations in the sciences, whereby very particular understandings of material nature arose via abstract practices in the academy rather than the more direct engagement with nature typical of inventions in the past. This led to the uncovering of ever more fundamental layers of natural process never before available to Homo sapiens. Crucially, this propelled processes whereby ‘unpractical’ academic theories (and the social relations that supported them) would intervene in economic life systematically. Einstein did not believe his theories were relevant to practical social life, but he was wrong: capitalism and the academy came to know better, as we see (and take for granted) today with the close association of the university with industry.

The revelatory impact of nuclear power was centred in the United States, as witnessed by many of the scientists engaged in the first tests. Here is the reaction of Neils Bohr, a leading scientist of quantum theory, when he visited the United States at the end of the Second World War. As Adam Becker in What is Real? reports, Edward Teller was showing Bohr around the Los Alamos laboratories to demonstrate that Bohr’s pessimism about nuclear energy was misguided. Teller recalls: ‘Before I could open my mouth, Bohr said, “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that’”.

Becker continues:

Bohr was more right than he knew. By the end of the war, the Manhattan Project had cost the nation nearly $25 billion, employing 125,000 people at thirty-one different locations across the United States and Canada… After the war ended, physics research in the United States never returned to what it was before the war. Damned by their success in building the bomb, military research dollars poured into physics… Less than a decade after the war, in 1953, physics research funding was just shy of $400 million—an increase by a factor of twenty-five in just fifteen years. And, by 1954, 98 percent of the money for basic research in the physical sciences in the United States was coming from the military or defense-oriented government agencies, like the Atomic Energy Commission, successor to the Manhattan Project.

This relationship between science, the academy and industry would become the model for high-tech society. 

Nuclear technologies came to have tremendous consequences for the United States. Provoking a security crisis over the availability of knowledge about these singular technologies, they were a major source of what came to be known as the Cold War, with attempts to keep nuclear knowledge secure leading to paranoia about who knew what, and then the traumas associated with McCarthyism in US legal and political institutions in the 1950s. Many lives were ruined. This was also the period in which the CIA was born, and the National Security Agency, which has come to dominate more and more of US politics and everyday life, as Edward Snowden revealed, to his cost. It is true to say that the United States has never returned to anything like an earlier normality. The new ‘nuclear normal’ has undergirded the United States, its international power, industrial might, and even psychology, over the last seventy-five years. That same extreme security-oriented response is now a pattern, repeated clearly after 9/11, where on a global level, imprisonment without trial, rendition without legal approval, and torture and killings by intelligence agencies became widespread, if largely hidden.

Of course the Cold War cannot be reduced to the consequences of nuclear technology, but the reasons for a security crisis were strongly related to the nature of this technology. It had unprecedented powers, powers that were literally unknown, and the more that has been learnt of them has only confirmed them to be largely uncontrollable by human society. Even extreme security measures only partly work because the new levels of nature revealed and technologised by science pose problems of control never before encountered by humanity. Nuclear technology takes society into forms that deny human scale, turning social life into a permanent security crisis (with a general unfolding of militarisation) and threatening the existence of all species. As I fill out below, the management of nuclear processes and their wastes is, simply, unmanageable, despite what politicians and many scientists wish to believe. 

Nuclear waste has been piling up around the world, with no safe place of storage, for decades. The biggest users—the United States and France—store their nuclear waste in sealed bins on the sites of nuclear facilities. There are no long-term facilities yet established, after seventy-five years of nuclear energy. Yucca Mountain, the latest prospect in the United States, has just been rejected as unsafe after many years of testing. Whether from civil energy sources or military weapons, including submarines, these wastes are damaging our world by the accumulation of no-go zones hidden from view and under tight security, with radiation dangers inaccessible to the senses. Arguably, they also draw us along a path of slow degeneration of everyday life.

Low-level nuclear waste

Low-level radiation is the ‘quiet’ story of nuclear technology. It has sat at the centre of a scientific debate and dispute since the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with studies of radiation and its effects being used to shut down public resistance to the expansion of the nuclear industry. As Kate Brown argues in her Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, the powerful forces behind the nuclear industry have throughout the decades used their powers to shape debate. The study that became the baseline for judging the impact of nuclear wastes, the so-called Life Span Study, focused on Hiroshima. Writing about its consequences for Chernobyl, Brown observes:

Denying that ‘residual radiation’ was a factor, scientists in Japan calculated that the atomic bombs delivered one large dose of gamma radioactivity to Japanese survivors… They failed to take into account the buildup of radioactive fall-out in the food chain and environment of the bombed cities. [This has meant turning a blind-eye to] Chernobyl’s slow drip of beta and alpha particles ingested in contaminated food and dust to accumulate in human organs and flesh over many years.

Significant amounts of this food, in the form of milk, mushrooms and berries, were exported across the region and into Western Europe. Even in the United States shipments of nucleated berries were initially thought by authorities to be ‘dirty bombs’ before they were accepted for consumption!

Brown makes clear that the key difference between Western scientists and those from Belarus and Ukraine is that scientists from the West generally flew in for brief stays, drew swift conclusions—largely based on previous studies like the Japanese Life Span Study—and did not gauge what people, and particularly children, on the ground were experiencing over time in the form of a variety of slowly emerging paediatric cancers. Belarusian and Ukrainian scientists did not engage in cover-ups, unlike their Soviet masters: ‘At first, they said, they encountered mostly lymphomas, but then increasingly they found children had cancers of the kidneys, urinary tract, and bladder. Placing their patients in whole body counters, technicians detected radiation from children’s livers and intestines. They reasoned the cancers came about as children’s digestive tracts processed radioactive nuclides’. After many years spent dismissing the reports of Ukrainian and Belarusian scientists about the effects on the food chain of the Chernobyl disaster, this reversed in 1996 when the World Health Organization, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and the International Atomic Energy Agency—the bodies that conducted tests around Chernobyl—‘conceded that, seven years after…the still skyrocketing increases in thyroid cancer in children were due to Chernobyl exposures [and] conceded that their models had failed them’. Not only did they fail the children, mothers and adults of the region, they also failed the many communities in the Ukraine and Belarus that either collapsed or became barely functioning shells.

There were actually better guides to the implications of the Chernobyl disaster than the Hiroshima studies that ignored food-chain effects: the bomb tests over the Marshall and Bikini Islands in the Pacific and tests in Nevada in the 1950s. ‘In top secret studies…American scientists recorded thyroid cancers and thyroid disease among 79 percent of exposed Marshall Islands children under age ten. Anemia in the group was rampant. They also learned that Rongelap women exposed in the Bravo test had twice the number of stillbirths and miscarriages as unexposed women.’ For decades, US officials had stated that medical examination of the Marshall Islanders had shown ‘no aftermaths of fallout’ and that the Islanders’ general health was satisfactory. Brown continues: ‘Scientific administrators at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the US Public Health Service were in the same years sitting on studies indicating that children directly downwind from the Nevada test site had three to seven times more cases of leukaemia and thyroid cancers. These were the…known facts that Chernobyl threatened to bring to the surface. …NCI statisticians later estimated that the Nevada fallout caused an extra 11,000 to 200,000 thyroid cancers among Americans’. 

Brown argues that there is a bias in the West against a proper and sustained investigation into long-term low-dose radiation, which in her view is the main source of effects on our way of life, short of the obvious cataclysm of a nuclear war.  She concludes that attitudes are nevertheless changing, with Western researchers now discovering, like Soviet scientists before them, ‘that radioactive decay at low doses changes the way cells behave in subtle and life-changing ways’. She also documents Australia’s levels of cancer in young children—the highest in the world—and she argues that they are almost certainly related to our early experiment with nuclear testing in the 1950s.

For various reasons then, nuclear energy is a technological force that cannot survive without big government and centralised power. Nuclear power and its wastes require protection because they carry dangers that lie far beyond the range of knowledge we carry in our common-sense understanding of a familiar natural world. Well-intentioned and thorough scientists struggle to understand their long-term effects. But it is a core example of what constitutes and justifies the sciences today and the role they play in high-tech society. Nuclear power is a darling of the high-tech society, and many scientists defend it intuitively.

A nuclear future for Australia?

Given the difficulties of the present situation—a powerful China insisting on its rights, as well as being completely disaffected with Canberra and restricting trade—Morrison has found a way out: an apparently bold, future-focused move designed to get him re-elected. He hopes to leave behind all the negative assessments that threaten to engulf him and the Liberal Party, learning from John Howard, who in the lead-up to the 2001 elections staged the ‘children overboard’ affair, throwing all seaborne refugees overboard in the name of re-election, and also from the not-so-successful 2007 Intervention into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, another attempt to shock the electorate into support for a ‘crisis’ response. While in the latter case Howard failed electorally, the model is still informative about a certain kind of democratic politics. Rather than taking refugees or Indigenous Australians as his target, this time—in a move that announces Australia as a player in a high-tech nuclear future—Morrison is prepared to put the whole nation at risk via the AUKUS alliance. 

Australia won’t adopt all of the institutional strategies that remade the United States after the Second World War. Some of these are rooted in history and the particularities of US society. Nevertheless, the Morrison proposal draws us into processes taken for granted by our highly militarised, security-obsessed ally. These processes will make a full nuclearisation of the country—civil and military—seemingly unavoidable as the United States escalates the challenge to China. The Coalition’s ‘breakthrough’ on the nuclear question also opens up other political possibilities: not only breaking with the past by envisaging Australia as up there with the world powers and a strongman of the region but also, just as ominously, providing the entrée to a distorted and damaging ‘solution’ to climate change.

Australia has taken the first step towards a complex transformation that is poorly grasped in any sense. Whole sectors of the supportive economy, with a security-conscious, highly skilled workforce, will need to be developed, becoming a source of demand and pressure in their own right. A big-government, security-obsessed Australia would be one consequence. If we do not halt this trajectory, we will have entered a process with a largely inexorable momentum. That Australia would be hard to recognise: highly militarised, with a way of life shaped constantly by security concerns, and contributing to deterioration in the health of all persons, everywhere, from the impacts of low-level radiation. And that is not even to mention the complete catastrophe to which AUKUS opens us in Australia as essential targets in our operational contributions to US warmaking.

About the author

John Hinkson

John Hinkson lectured in the Education Faculty at La Trobe University for many years. He is a longstanding Arena Publications Editor.

More articles by John Hinkson

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