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Sixty-five years of living under the threat of the mushroom cloud

By Sue Wareham - posted Friday, 6 August 2010

Two things pose an overwhelming threat to the planet as we know it, climate change and nuclear weapons, and neither is receiving a serious commitment to action by the two contenders for the position of Prime Minister of Australia. While effective measures of the magnitude needed to address climate change are nowhere to be seen in their policies, nuclear weapons haven’t even rated a mention in the campaigning.

Perhaps August 6 and August 9, the 65th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will serve to remind Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott of the 23,000 weapons that continue to threaten the destruction of cities around the globe, including in Australia. Whether or not the leaders of the major parties address the problem before August 21, one of them will need to face it sooner or later, as Australia is no small player when it comes to nuclear weapons policies. And as with climate change, we are currently part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Current Australian policy allows nuclear devastation, far greater than that which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to be threatened and inflicted in our “defence”. In 2009, Australia’s defence white paper stated, “… so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia”. The policy is called “extended nuclear deterrence” and it is based on the threat of terror, “deterrence” being derived from the Latin terrere, to terrify. The white paper contained no hint of embarrassment that reliance on such threats violates with breathtaking effrontery the standards we set for others.


We need cast our minds back only seven years, to the moral outrage at even the suspicion that Saddam Hussein was threatening Western nations with nuclear weapons, outrage that led us into a catastrophic war. Similarly, only a week ago Foreign Minister Smith referred again to Iran’s nuclear program as “one of the most serious security challenges facing the international community”. While the ambiguity of Iran’s program is indeed a serious concern (and reinforces the fact that any nuclear power program provides a weapons capacity), what Minister Smith failed to mention is even more pertinent - the fact that our ally the US has about 9,600 more weapons than Iran, and any one of them could be used in our name.

Rather than the imposition of new sanctions on Iran, which Minister Smith announced last week, Australia could make an infinitely stronger contribution to nuclear non-proliferation by renouncing reliance on these weapons ourselves. Practising what one preaches is always more persuasive than preaching alone.

Such a move from Australia would have profoundly positive implications globally. Nuclear weapons abolition is heading back onto the political agenda in many countries, as was clear from the growing support at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, held in New York in May, for a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban these instruments of terror. On March 26 this year, the German parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to “actively pursue a withdrawal of the remaining [US] nuclear weapons in Germany”.

In Japan, the long-standing unquestioning acceptance by the government of “protection” by US nuclear weapons is starting to unravel also, as Foreign Minister Okada begins to advocate a reduced role for nuclear weapons in the nation’s defence. Our neighbour New Zealand has long since refused to rely on weapons of mass destruction for its defence. A similar declaration of rejection of nuclear deterrence by Australia would help greatly to further stigmatise and de-legitimise the world’s worst weapons.

There is another step that Australia could take also to help rid the world of this scourge - to refuse to supply nuclear fuel to any nation that has nuclear weapons. Our uranium customers currently include the US, the UK, France and China, and will soon include Russia. All are nuclear-armed, all are members of the NPT, and all of them violate the NPT article 6 obligation to get rid of their weapons. Unlike the non-nuclear weapons states, the nuclear weapons states are subject to virtually no on-the-ground inspections to help ensure that our fissile material is not diverted to weapons programs.

In Russia, for example, inspections last occurred in 2001, and before that 1994. Despite this, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office assures us with a straight face that our uranium will not end up in the weapons of Russia, China or anywhere else. Never mind that we don’t see what happens at their facilities; we can trust these doyens of openness and transparency.


Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott can’t pretend that Australians don’t care about the issue of nuclear weapons. In a Lowy Institute poll in October 2009, 75 per cent of Australians agreed that global nuclear disarmament should be a top priority for the Australian government. In 2007, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was launched in Australia, and now has a large number of partners, nationally and globally, from many sectors of society, all advocating a Nuclear Weapons Convention. On August 6, ICAN is launching a "million pleas" campaign, with web, TV and radio elements, for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  See

After 65 years of living under the threat of the mushroom cloud, it is time for compulsory retirement of the world’s most terrifying weapons. It is an issue in which Australia is deeply implicated, and it deserves a response from those who seek our votes.

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About the Author

Dr Sue Wareham is a Canberra GP who joined the Medical Association for Prevention of War out of a "horror at the destructive capacity of a single nuclear weapon". She has many interests and fields of expertise, including the contribution of peace to global sustainability. Sue believes that her work with MAPW is fundamental to her commitment to the protection of human life and the improvement of human well-being. She is Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia); and on the Australian Management Committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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