We have just entered the 65th year of humanity’s troubled relationship with nuclear arms, the world’s worst weapons of terror. So it’s a good time to be promoting their retirement and for Australia to be using every tool in its diplomatic kitbag to encourage the nine Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) to negotiate and implement a global treaty that eliminates their nukes once and for all.
On July 16, 1945 the Americans detonated their first nuclear weapon - the “Trinity” test - in the New Mexico desert, prompting its mastermind Robert Oppenheimer to recall the words of Vishnu in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
This fantastic power was unleashed upon the residents of the Japanese city of Hiroshima just three weeks later, at 8.15 on the morning of August 6, when the uranium-bomb - “Little Boy” - exploded above the city: by nightfall about 70,000 people were dead and since then an estimated further 180,000 have died. The cancer rates among the ageing survivors continue to rise even today.
But we all still live in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. There remain 23,000 nukes in the arsenals of the nine Nuclear Weapons States (NWS): Russia, USA, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and now North Korea. Two thousand five hundred of these weapons are retained on high-alert status, capable of launch within 15 minutes - and there’s no bringing them back. Meanwhile the risk of other nations joining the “club” is on the increase, with the current focus being on Iran. Bear in mind, however, that at least 44 nations have nuclear bomb-making capabilities, including all those states with civil nuclear power plants, which are producing plutonium as a fission byproduct in those reactors.
In the USA, Barak Obama was elected with the clearly articulated goal of reducing nuclear arsenals, even referring to the goal of total elimination. His pledges attest to the deep and powerful yearning for nuclear abolition within American society and the whole world over. Even old Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger and Malcolm Fraser have evidently seen the light of abolition.
Like Obama, the Australian Labor Party also came to power expressing good atomic intentions, “committed to driving the international agenda for a nuclear weapons convention (NWC)”. A convention - a kind of global abolition treaty - would establish the comprehensive, verifiable and binding program required to fulfill the abolitionist agenda. The NWC has the support of the majority of member states of the UN and the world’s disarmament organisations. Unfortunately, so far, the Australian government is way short of “driving” the NWC agenda - just coasting along in the well-worn diplomatic wheel-ruts, fearful of spooking the horses.
Meanwhile, the recent publication of Australia’s Defence White Paper has sent shivers down the spines of abolitionists, suggesting that we remain dependent on the extended deterrence provided by US nuclear forces to 2030 and beyond. Rather than encouraging our ally to rid themselves urgently of these illegal and immoral weapons, we will continue to support policies which risk incinerating millions, devastating and radioactively contaminating vast areas, placing all in jeopardy. Making noble noises about nuclear dangers while tucking ourselves under the US nuclear umbrella for another quarter of a century surely strains our credibility as committed disarmers.
The same document also highlights the moral and political quagmire created by our ongoing export of the raw ingredient for nuclear weapons fuel, uranium. The not-so-subtle identification of China as our most likely aggressor in the White Paper’s purview ought to raise questions about the role our uranium will play in that nation’s anticipated rearmament. Even if China abides by the bilateral safeguards agreements, our uranium will conveniently free-up domestic supplies for weapons production. And in the event that China did divert our product from the civil to the military, recent developments surrounding Mr Stern Hu of RioTinto might make us re-evaluate our capacity to detect impropriety, let alone do anything serious about it. Pity the fate of the poor operative from the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) who goes trawling through the Chinese ledgers where she’s not welcome!
The capacity to produce nuclear power intrinsically involves the capacity to produce fissile material usable for nuclear weapons. A world free of nuclear weapons will be more readily achieved and sustained in a world in which nuclear power generation is phased out. Bomb-making ingredients will be harder to acquire and more conspicuous to seek. This will substantially deter proliferation, while facilitating timely detection and intervention, focusing scarce intelligence resources on needles, not haystacks.
With the weapons’ retirement age fast-approaching, Australia can contribute to real progress in abolishing these apocalyptic anachronisms, by putting some real spirit into driving the NWC agenda, by politely withdrawing from the US nuclear umbrella and by reducing the flow of raw material into the nuclear fuel chain.
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