The Guardian • Issue #2055

Softening Us Up

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2055
No USA bases rally.

AUSTRALIA: Without much fanfare, Australians are being softened up to accept nuclear waste, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons. Not in one step of course, these things take time, but the process has started.

Nuclear waste is with us now, in a small way, because we have a reactor that produces nuclear material for use in medicine. The material and the waste are on a relatively small scale. Australia has a moratorium on nuclear power, but not on nuclear weapons. Our ally who we treat as a master, the USA, refuses to say if there are nuclear weapons on its planes, ships, and submarines. Unlike New Zealand, which told the US that their ships weren’t welcome if they couldn’t guarantee that there were no nuclear weapons on board, the Australians don’t push the issue. So for all we know, we have already hosted countless nuclear weapons. 

More nuclear waste is inevitable, because we have been committed to spending $368 billion – a floor, not a ceiling, as the ALP like to say – on nuclear powered submarines. When those submarines turn up, Australia will have working nuclear reactors, and be responsible for much more nuclear waste. As a first step, the government has to change legislation connected to our moratorium on civil nuclear power. 

So it is that Richard Marles, our Defence Minister, has introduced a Bill amending the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. In introducing this Bill, Marles promised parliament that he wasn’t touching the nuclear moratorium, but was just taking “the first legislative step in support of Australia’s acquisition of conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines.” Marles added that the bill makes it clear that the moratorium on civil nuclear power does not limit “regulatory functions” to do with nuclear-powered submarines. The Bill amends the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Act and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act. It’s fair to say that Marles isn’t abolishing the moratorium on civil nuclear power, but is limiting its’ scope. It’s like telling someone that their house is still their own, but they’re now not allowed to use one of the bedrooms.

Marles also said that he’s going to set up a new regulator, “the Australian Nuclear-Powered Submarine Safety Regulator.” This new regulator will handle “the unique circumstances associated with nuclear safety and radiological protection” while we have our nuclear-powered submarines.

Until now, the moratorium has meant that Australian government ministers aren’t allowed to do anything towards constructing or running a nuclear power plant. Marles has put in an amendment which makes it clear that he is allowed to “issue declarations” involving nuclear “propulsion” plants in a nuclear-powered submarine.

While Marles has been careful to reassure parliament that he’s not abolishing the moratorium, and that the submarines will be conventionally armed, others aren’t so sure. Nine newspapers recent nine-page warmongering exercise “Red Alert” only complained that the submarines didn’t go far enough, and seriously suggested that Australia should host nuclear missiles – providing this would be acceptable to the US.

Sentaor Matt Canavan has proposed a bill to remove our ban on nuclear energy, arguing that if Australia will have nuclear submarines it makes “no sense at all” to ban nuclear power. The Minerals Council of Australia, which like Canavan loves talking about nuclear power as an alternative to actually doing anything about renewable energy, agrees. Tania Constable, chief exectuve of the MCA argues that if Marles is going to lift the prohibition on nuclear power for submarines, he should go all the way and just ditch the moratorium.  Constable added that having a nuclear industry would mean that nuclear submariners could leave their subs and work in Australian nuclear power plants.

The high-skilled jobs the nuclear submarine deal is supposed to be creating have been estimated to cost more than $18 million per job. The final cost will be higher than that. As economist John Quiggin has said “just as the massive financial cost of the submarines will come at the expense of spending on social needs, and the workers required to build them will divert skills from addressing needs such as decarbonising the economy.”

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More