After the world's first atomic bombs exploded in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity recoiled and a powerful movement grew to demand such weapons never be used again. On the 61st anniversary of these disasters the world needs a vision for peace more than at any time since the end of World War II, yet the Howard Government looks set to exacerbate, not stem, this trend of deteriorating global security.
In 1945, Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett defied US General Douglas MacArthur’s press ban on travel to the Japanese atomic bomb disaster zones. He found people's shadows seared into walls and sidewalks, met people with their skin melting off. His dispatch: “In Hiroshima thirty days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly … I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world."
Like it or not, this was to be the Nuclear Age, and an image makeover of nuclear technology followed, with promises of a “peaceful atom” and “power too cheap to meter”. Both propositions failed spectacularly: today there are more than 30,000 nuclear weapons and nuclear power is a costly, dangerous, cancer-causing industry. These events explain strong anti-nuclear sentiments among older generations.
Today the continued spread of nuclear weapons technology is a disease eating away at global security and uranium, the raw material for nuclear bombs, is the virus. In the Asian region alone we have India, Pakistan, China, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan - all countries either nuclear armed or capable of becoming nuclear powers virtually overnight.
It would be mistaken to think Australia completely divorced from these developments. Behind Prime Minister’s Howard’s stated desire to expand uranium exports, engage in uranium enrichment and debate nuclear power lie some dangerous options and secretive nuclear history.
A desire to bring Australia closer to a weapons capability by producing plutonium partly motivated the Liberal Gorton Government’s approval of a plan for a nuclear power reactor at Jervis Bay, NSW in 1969. And in 2004, Greenpeace revealed that the Howard Government had allowed uranium enrichment technology to proceed at Lucas Heights under the company Silex Systems Ltd.
Now Prime Minister Howard is openly asking Australians to consider uranium enrichment. Though it’s a comparison Mr Howard likes to make, enriching uranium is nothing like adding value to Australian wool before exporting it. It’s not just that uranium’s by-products, unlike lanolin, remain toxic for tens of thousands of years.
Uranium enrichment is a highly classified activity, as amply illustrated by the United Nations Security Council resolution demanding Iran halt its uranium enrichment program. If you can enrich uranium by 10 per cent for nuclear reactors, you can enrich it to higher percentages to make it weapons usable.
The Howard Government’s - and now Labor leader Kim Beazley’s - calls to expand uranium mining and exports also carry a nuclear proliferation risk. The pro-export camp imply it’s somehow possible to erect a Chinese wall between Australian uranium exports and nuclear weapons. In fact, it’s a flimsy and all too porous screen.
Just how would the Howard Government or the Australian Labor Party expect to succeed with safeguards where the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency have failed? More than 20 of the 60 countries with nuclear power or research reactors used their peaceful nuclear facilities for covert weapons research and or production.
More uranium exports will not just translate into increased weapons proliferation risk, it will also mount international pressure on Australia to accept tonnes of enormously dangerous foreign radioactive waste, increasing our odds of becoming the world’s atomic dustbin - a prospect with huge inherent risk for present and future generations.
As we remember the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, with their death toll of more than 300,000, we are reminded why nuclear weapons are both immoral and illegal under international law. If Mr Howard is sincere about stopping WMD and addressing climate change, why is he taking the weaker stance - essentially giving up - by pursuing the agenda of expanded uranium exports and uranium enrichment? Instead, Mr Howard must focus on making Australia a renewable energy superpower by building Australia’s considerable brain trust in this sector and exploiting our vast solar and wind resources.