Mar 17, 2023 | Article, News

Scott Morrison’s decision to build nuclear submarines in partnership with northern hemisphere former imperial powers was the most costly and risky action ever taken by any Australian government and should not have been allowed to stand.

At the very least, ratifying an undertaking of this magnitude should have been subject to thorough scrutiny and debate through all levels of the Australian Labor Party, and in the public realm.

Instead the original announcement, made in secret by three national leaders, two of whom have already left office, has now been given effect by a Labor government.

As stated previously I do not share the benign view of China advanced this week by former Prime Minister Keating. Neither do I wish to impugn my former colleagues who face difficult decisions as they deal with an increasingly unstable region.

Still this is a marked departure from at least half a century of foreign policy leadership in which the ALP has prioritized engagement with our neighbours over the outdated ‘Big Powers’ approach typically favoured by those who prefer the rear view mirror to the windscreen.
To be clear, Australia will now be the only ‘non nuclear’ nation that is in possession of nuclear submarines.

This raises a series of critical questions in relation to the nuclear non proliferation regime, and the management and disposal of nuclear waste.

AUKUS will produce increasing volumes of high level radioactive waste and this, along with the rotting radioactive submarine hulks (if they ever get built), must be safely disposed of and stored for tens of thousands of years in the Australian environment.

Our policy failure over decades with low and intermediate level waste gives no confidence in the future handling of far worse high level material.

God help future generations, especially if they happen to live in the outback or near an existing – or future – defence facility, or if they consume primary products impacted by radioactive leaks into land or water.

Has this cost been factored into the $368 billion price tag? A figure that will inevitably skyrocket in the years to come.

Where were the scientific reports, assessments, and risk analyses that should precede and inform a decision of this size?

Has Defence ever delivered a major construction or weapons delivery program on time and on budget? Not once in living memory.

Ask any Australian how they would spend this amount of public money to make Australia a fairer, safer, kinder nation and I doubt the answer would be nuclear subs.

As many experts have noted, expecting three nations to effectively co-ordinate and deliver a project of this magnitude and over such a long time period is epic wishful thinking, and flies in the face any relevant past experience.

In one stroke this decision has placed in jeopardy Australia’s previous hard won non-nuclear policies and treaty commitments, including the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty of Rarotonga.

At the least Australia should now join nearly 100 other countries and sign the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as promised by Labor in opposition.

It is fanciful to make assurances, however genuine, about any aspect of this deal in relation to existing treaty obligations given that the current administration cannot bind future governments.

The main cheerleaders of AUKUS include the Liberal/National Coalition, who’ve never contemplated anything nuclear they didn’t want to embrace without qualification, and the nuclear industry who see this as a gateway to avoid what they have never earned: social license and community trust.

The fact that the leader of the opposition Mr Dutton, would countenance cutting today’s social welfare programs to ensure nuke subs start prowling the coastlines of other countries decades hence says it all.

Magically an attendant local nuclear industry is meant to somehow appear overnight. But there are no prizes for guessing where the expertise and fees will be sourced from – the US – all subsidised by the taxpayer.

There are prudent alternatives for conventional submarines that can fulfil an appropriate defence role at a time of increasing assertive behaviour by China, without any of the attendant risks to our environment and to the treaties we depend on to help avoid a nuclear apocalypse.

If the aim is to better prepare Australia against future potential threats then significant resources for cyber security and the development of a highly mobile, land based defence force, should be considered.

Alongside belt and braces protection for energy, water and communications systems, and accelerating climate mitigation measures.
AUKUS stank when it was stealthily revealed in the dying days of the former government. It still stinks. This unprecedented commitment deserves proper consideration and debate, not just a rubber stamp.

For now we are doing the time warp again. A vassal state is set to become a nuclear vessel state.

The most expensive undertaking in our history stumbles into the future learning nothing from the experience and mistakes of the past. Astronomic costs, wide ranging risks and hostage to the interests and capacities of others.