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Nuclear sub plan sees Australia’s reputation take a dive

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Australia's nuclear submarine deal will be of no benefit to the country in terms of environment or foreign policy, writes Dave Sweeney.

LAST WEEK in a highly managed, early morning theatre piece, Prime Minister Scott Morrison dramatically raised the stakes by moving to join the nuclear military club and unequivocally twinning our national security with the agendas of Washington and Whitehall.

Aptly enough, given that the plan involves nuclear-powered submarines, the move surfaced abruptly and without any pre-warning or discussion.

A result of months of secretive backroom talk, the deal has seen the shredding of the existing $90 billion contract with the French provider in favour of a blank cheque arrangement to access flat-pack nuclear technology from the U.S.

The deal has profound implications including a loss of national sovereignty and independent foreign policy positioning coupled with an elevated sense of regional tension.

Already we have seen outrage and nuclear target warnings from China, allegations of betrayal from France, concern from Indonesia, a reminder from New Zealand that nuclear vessels are not welcome in their waters and a powerful combination of anger and deep sorrow from our Pacific neighbours.

What we haven’t seen are details, evidence or transparency and there are growing calls for a better assessment of the environmental, economic, security and diplomatic implications.

Nuclear subs mean floating and poorly shielded reactors, radiation risks and waste. The plan raises concerns about safety, security, accident and incident issues in those ports that build, service, house or host any future subs. It raises a new set of threats to our ports and port communities and our seas and oceans. And it is directly linked to the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technology and the creation of long-lived and highly radioactive wastes.

Morrison has made two important concessions to the community concern over nuclear matters by seeking to reassure that this move is not a precursor to a domestic nuclear industry and that Australia has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.

These assurances are both politically astute and welcome but neither carries much weight. Unlike nuclear submarines, words are cheap.

If PM Morrison wanted to clearly signal that this is not a backdoor move to gain a nuclear weapons capability, then his Government should sign the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in order to help assuage regional concerns. In relation to domestic nuclear power, he needs to draw a line under the conga line of nuke-spruikers in the government party room.

Environmentalists and other civil society voices have been quick to condemn the “nuclear by stealth” dimension of the plan where the submarines serve as ice-breakers to try and crack through the widespread scepticism of many in the wider community to any nuclear projects or promotion. Right-wing politicians of the ilk of MP Craig Kelly and Senator Matt Canavan have wasted no time in calling for domestic nuclear power, while the highly ideological Minerals Council of Australia is aglow at the prospect of a new chance to dust off the old atomic myths.

The global nuclear industry has been lobbying hard and spending freely in the lead up to the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow in November. They are trying to reposition nuclear power as a credible climate response and an eclectic caravan of local climate sceptics, energy business-as-usuals and defence, military and strategic hawks are coalescing around the subs move and opportunistically using this momentum to try to embed a nuclear power industry in Australia.

While much about the planned nuclear submarine deal lacks detail and certainty the move has highlighted the preparedness of the Government to make nation-defining choices in a secretive and highly partisan way. And before any submarine, which is likely to be decades away, the move also involves hosting increasing numbers of U.S. military hardware and personnel in Australia.

Recently, Australia ended its longest war after two decades of policy failure and human tragedy in Afghanistan. Now, before there has been time or opportunity for reflection or review, this nuclear submarine move seeks to cement a “forever alliance” and a subservient national role in an increasingly chilly Cold War with Beijing, without consultation or consent.

The sub deal was rolled out with fanfare and presented as a done deal. It is not. While there is little doubt that it is a bad deal, it is a long way from an assured one.

The Greens oppose the plan while Federal Labor’s support is conditional on no linkages with a domestic nuclear industry or nuclear weapons and compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and it is hard to see how PM Morrison’s plan will clear this bar.

Add the growing concerns from faith, public health, trade union and other civil society groups and the sub plan faces some stormy waters.

And it needs to as it is a plan that risks much, gains little and is likely to lead Australia well out of our depth.

Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation's nuclear-free campaigner and was a founding member of ICAN. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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