The Guardian • Issue #2100

AUKUS: return to form for the World’s dumping ground

The demo near Anthony Albanese’s office in Marrickville on 24th February. Photo: Denis Doherty

A Labor-chaired inquiry has urged the Albanese government to rewrite its proposed AUKUS laws, based on fears that Australia risks becoming the dumping ground for the US and UK’s nuclear waste. The legislation fails to distinguish between low-level waste, such as personal protective equipment, and high-level waste, the by-products of nuclear reactors.

Members of a Senate committee which reviewed the draft laws worry the wording does not reflect the government’s promise to reject high-level waste. A report from Greens senator David Shoebridge has also criticised the proposed regulator which would be established to oversee the safety of nuclear submarines. Among issues such as indifference to voices from Australian communities and First Nations peoples, a lack of transparency emerged as a major concern. The new regulator would report to the Defence minister, which Shoebridge argues shows a lack of “genuine independence.”

These are just the latest AUKUS problems. The submarines acquired from AUKUS will not only be of limited use, but also obsolete upon arrival, Australia may be getting dumped not just with nuclear waste, but dodgy technology.

This is hardly the first time Australia has jumped at the opportunity to be a nuclear dump. The Australian government happily sacrificed the health of ordinary Aussies when it volunteered to be a nuclear testing ground for the UK. From 1952 to 1963, British nuclear weapons tests occurred across South Australia and Western Australia. The two governments had little issue with dropping nuclear weapons on the Tjarutja people at Maralinga. Nor did they make much fuss about the Australian towns put at risk by radioactive particles carried on the winds across the continent. Even the Australian military personnel present at the tests were lied to for decades by successive governments about the health damage.

Given this history, AUKUS should not come as a surprise. It appears to be a long-running trend in government policy to set up Australia as the world’s scrap heap. However, this eagerness goes beyond nuclear waste. State capture by automotive giants has led to Australia becoming a refuge for outdated cars.

Australia is one of the few countries in the OECD without fuel efficiency standards, an issue the government has only just decided to address with new legislation, watered down of course for the big car companies.

For decades Australians have been paying more for worse cars, putting health and climate in jeopardy. The Climate Council found that poor-quality cars were adding hundreds of dollars of fuel prices onto Australian travel, as Australians needed more petrol to travel than citizens of most other OECD countries. Labor’s new weak standards are set to come into effect in 2025.

The Australian habit of paying more for less applies to another climate risk, that being carbon capture. The government’s support for gas projects such as fracking the Beetaloo Basin has long relied on carbon capture as an excuse. Too bad carbon capture doesn’t work.

The Australia Institute reports that $1.3 billion was spent on carbon capture from 2003 to 2017, with zero successful projects to show for it. Chevron’s multi-billion-dollar Gorgon LNG project ran into some issues of its own, as Australia’s only running carbon capture facility was clogged with sand in 2021. The Chevron facility failed to meet every single target. Even if it had succeeded, it would not come close to counteracting the mass of greenhouse gas emissions produced by Chevron’s Gorgon project. The only time carbon capture is commercially successful is when it is used for oil recovery. In other words, the only thing carbon capture is good for is extracting more fossil fuels.

Labor may have ditched Scott Morrison’s carbon capture fund, but if their continued support for gas is any indication, carbon capture will be dragging on for years to come.

Successive governments’ support for carbon capture and their long history of inaction on fuel-efficiency says a lot about what can be expected from AUKUS. Australia is a world leader in spending money on dodgy technologies, lining the wallets of corporate lobbies while working-class Australians foot the bill. Australia is also no stranger to sacrificing the health of its own people and environments to help out the nuclear projects of its friends. In that sense, AUKUS combines the Australian government’s two favourite pastimes. Australians have no reason to expect integrity from the government and, to the contrary, ought to expect a return to form from the managers of the world’s dumping ground.

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