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A disarming day



Unlike December 25, September 26 is a World Day that passes by in silence. It calls for the Elimination of all Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear power is too mysterious to understand, too horrific to dwell on, and too far away to take responsibility for. It and its destructive power are unthinkable. And yet it continues to press on us, most recently in the announcement that Australia will build nuclear powered submarines.

In Long Half-Life, Ian Lowe shows the development of nuclear power and of nuclear weapons has frequently called on politicians of many nations, including Australia, to make strategic, economic and ethical decisions about its different levels. In that respect the story of Australian involvement in nuclear power and the political decisions that have been part of it are a warning sign for our national future. It has all too often been an ethics-free zone.

At one level nuclear development was an unexceptionable product of a scientific discovery opening possibilities that were unlocked by appropriate technology. This process led to a demand for the raw materials and for processing that could feed the technology, and so profit miners and processors and bestow power on the nations that sponsored it. For politicians, involvement in the nuclear industry promised a grand technological vision that would create jobs, an export industry and economic growth, provide a potential source of cheap power, and contribute to national security.

For those with eyes to see, it also posed ethical challenges. The destructive power of early thermonuclear weapons was sixty times higher than the Hiroshima bomb, and sufficient to wipe out large modern cities. To use such a bomb would inevitably cause massive civilian casualties and environmental damage that would be difficult to justify ethically. To rely on it for deterrence would signal a readiness to use it and would encourage others to develop their own bombs, also for deterrence. It would also multiply the chance that the actions of a psychopath or a failure in communication would result in nuclear weapons being used and responded to like for like. The recent reports of US General Mark Milley’s concerns about President Trump’s state of mind make these risks clear enough.

The development of nuclear power presented similar ethical difficulties. Uranium exported, even with formal but unpoliceable safeguards, might be a source for making nuclear weapons. The initially attractive option of developing nuclear power stations for cheap and relatively clean power presented two challenges, one ethical and the other financial. The waste material produced from reactors is radioactive and must be contained and stored safely for over 100,000 years. Though this is possible, it is expensive and difficult to win public support from prospective sites. To date most is stored temporarily near the power stations waiting for suitable technology and engineering to find a durable solution to an almost eternal problem.


'The current push in the United States, China and Australia to intensify mutual hostility creates the opportunity to promote nuclear power in the name of security. There are already signs that the nuclear dream is again becoming marketable.'


The development of nuclear power also presented financial challenges. The test of any promise of cheap power is that it be cheaper and cleaner, and therefore more profitable, than other options. The damage and radioactivity produced in the accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima questioned its cleanness. The ready availability of the power of the sun and wind meant that it was more expensive than its competing technologies. It required as much power to build as it saved in costs, and had also to reckon with the costs of disposing of radioactive waste and of decommissioning the plants.

Ian Lowe writes with authority. As a graduate student he worked on plans for nuclear expansion in England and subsequently participated in many commissions and reviews of aspects of nuclear commitments in Australia. Confronted by the ethical and financial realities of uranium mining and nuclear power he became a well-informed critic of the expansion of the nuclear industry.

He writes clearly for an uninformed readership — his short introduction to the science of nuclear weapons and nuclear power is masterly in its clarity and simplification. In his account of public introduction to radioactivity and the spruiking of the benefits of nuclear power he has a keen eye for the absurd. They range from the early and lethal promotion of radium as a health additive, extending to its use in suppositories for sexual potency, to the creative adjustment of numbers by industrialists to get around inconvenient regulations. He has a tolerant eye for the human comedy of politicians’ and miners’ ignorance and deceitfulness, while maintaining an uncorrupted moral judgment of their actions and consequences.

The core of Long Half-Life deals with the efforts to promote the nuclear industry in Australia, their periodic setbacks, and returns to favour. Initially inspired by an unschooled enthusiasm for exploring a new source of power, it led to the building of a small nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights and encouraged hopes that it might lead to the development of nuclear power stations and the use of nuclear explosions for the construction of massive projects such as harbours. Scientists and soldiers were among the most enthusiastic supporters of nuclear development. The strongest support came from mining companies wanting to exploit uranium resources.

At a time when many nations were relying on nuclear power as a clean substitute for coal in producing electricity, governments of all complexions saw uranium exports as profitable. The safeguards against its misuse were predictably elided and ignored. The most sinister support, however, came from security strategists who make international relationships adversarial, push for bigger and better weapons and encourage military adventures. They have argued for the development of a nuclear industry and nuclear weapons and have persuaded political leaders. Their push, however, came up against public opinion and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The shadow that fell over nuclear power after Chernobyl and Fukushima also made the further growth of nuclear power unlikely.


'Scientists and soldiers were among the most enthusiastic supporters of nuclear development. The strongest support came from mining companies wanting to exploit uranium resources.'


That pause, however, is temporary. The current push in the United States, China and Australia to intensify mutual hostility creates the opportunity to promote nuclear power in the name of security. There are already signs that the nuclear dream is again becoming marketable. In recent years, despite repeated failures to find a way and place to store Australia’s intermediate nuclear waste, politicians and scientists explored the possibility of making Australia a dumping ground for the waste of other nations. The spruiking of nuclear power as a solution to climate change has also been renewed, and the cooing of miners is again being heard in our land. After President Trump expanded the US nuclear arsenal, the supply of plutonium, and the reasons that would justify the use of nuclear weapons, he has opened the way for strategists to press for an expanded nuclear industry that could service nuclear submarines and leave the way open for weapons.

The decision to build nuclear submarines in Australia, with its finessing of the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, will fuel this push. Little confidence can be placed in the promise that Australia will not develop nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors. Governments of all colours have been attracted to plead security in order to extend control and evade accountability, been starry eyed at the promise of whizbang technology that will cost more than it will save, have wasted billions of dollars on planes, tanks and submarines that are obsolete and unfit for purpose even before they come into production, and have wasted the lives both of Australians and of the people they were supposed to save in foolish wars that promised peace and freedom but left a desert. Such a record suggests that neither financial responsibility nor ethical sensitivity will stand in the way of nuclear development.

Yet ethical sensitivity has never been more essential. By that I mean the recognition that each human being, each human life — whether Australian, Afghan or Chinese — is unique and demands respect. It may not be taken as a means to other ends. If that recognition continues to be lacking in the consideration of nuclear power and national strategy, our few living great grandchildren may well be left to debate whether our generation was more to blame for the burning summer or for the nuclear winter that we have bequeathed them. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image:  Lighted nuclear power station at night. (Herbert Kehrer/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, nuclear power, nuclear submarines, long-half life



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Existing comments

When I read your article I was reminded of John Colet, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, preaching against the savage wars in France which so enriched the English aristocracy in Henry VIII's time. Morally, it is much the same thing. Obviously, there are differences in technology between our time and then. The atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to break Japanese resistance and speed their surrender and bring an end to the horror of WW 2. Was it a moral decision? It seemed so to those who made it. Is there a real threat to Australia from China and a rogue state like North Korea? I would say 'Yes'. I do not think Russia would have acted towards Ukraine the way she did if the latter state had kept her nuclear weapons. I am in favour of nuclear submarines and the new alliance. Without them we would be sitting ducks. Regarding a nuclear power industry and waste disposal, that is a long and contentious issue. For every Ian Lowe, you have an equally prominent, well credntialled and able person opposing them.

Edward Fido | 23 September 2021  

There are already more than enough nuclear weapons in the world to make any nuclear war unwinnable. This is recognised by the - at least - lipservice paid to disarmament by most nations. The persistence in defence and foreign relations theory of defining other nations as 'threats' is therefore at odds with these recognitions. The first, if not the only, rational response to the possession of such weapons by other nations must thus be dialogue with them about our differences. In a world where such weapons abound, the greatest threat to world peace is a return to the Cold War demonisation of other nations.

MICHAEL T LEAHY | 24 September 2021  

China has threatened to “nuke Japan continuously”, yet, as usual, the Left’s distrust is directed inwards.
General Milley had “concerns about President Trump’s state of mind”, but not about President Biden’s rambling, incoherent speeches and his inability to take questions: “I’m not supposed to take any questions.”
Biden expressed “great confidence” in Milley—the man who confided with the Chinese military ahead of his own President; botched the Afghan withdrawal; left $90 billion of weapons with the enemy; and left American citizens behind enemy lines. And Biden had urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to misrepresent the true position: “Whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
Former Biden family business partner, Tony Bobulinski, has publicly stated that Joe Biden is “compromised” in that he was getting a 10% cut of Hunter Biden’s energy deal with Communist China. The communist Chinese have a clever “elite capture” strategy to neutralize world leaders.
Rather than a “burning summer” or “nuclear winter”, our grandchildren might wonder how “our generation” cost them their freedoms, as might our war dead:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Ross Howard | 24 September 2021  

Thanks for the article... but I think it's conflating nuclear weapons with nuclear power generation and associated fallout/waste, the contamination isn't the same. Nuclear fusion H-bombs are relatively clean, the tiny fission reaction to detonate is the dirty bit but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Humans love mining, purifying and collecting stuff...precious metals were the go but the even more rare (and expensive) radioactive elements allow uses other than storing it in a bank vault or making jewelry. We learned that it goes "bang" in a fission reaction and the harder lessons of contamination and half-life looms over every discussion when anyone suggests nuclear power as a clean alternative to carbon-based fossil fuels. The real situation is we're surrounded by decaying radioactive elements; go to any granite rock deposit, say Kakadu or Giraween National Park or a kitchen benchtop and it emits beta and gamma radiation. We willingly accept stuff like that but fear radioactive waste through selective conditioning. It can be buried back deeper (10 km) in the ground where it came from in the first place...and slowly decay in safety. The waste left on the surface is what becomes weaponized by those who can't obtain it otherwise.

ray | 24 September 2021  

Andrew, many thanks for your clear and incisive comment re Mr. Morrison's decision, not the Parliament's decision to build and use nuclear submarines. We have no information re the cost, timeline or impact of this remarkably singular decision to go down such a path linked to the two greatest colonial powers of the 19th and 29 centuries!
I find it difficult to comprehend the thinking behind many of the recent military hardware purchase in recent years - purchsing untried and very expensive items which,as you so accurately pointed out, were obsolete before their projected delivery.
Why do we need strike fighters - attack submarines - tanks and armouredpersonnel carriers? Whom do we think warrants such aggressive and costly equipment?
Unfortunately, the same "thinkers" consider a correesponding focus on housing, health and a living wage as too costly! As for our aid and development programs to our Pacific and Asian neighbours???
Thanks once again for reminding us about what is really important if we are to truly advance Australia FAIR?

michael schell | 25 September 2021  

I think you did and said the right thing, Andy. War, sadly, appears to be part of human nature. We have been killing each other for centuries. Whilst I defend the right to prepare for a defensive war, such as the Allies, including Australia, fought against the Axis powers in WW 2, military forces can be used for oppression viz India and Ireland. The British Army is still involved in its longest war in Northern Ireland, which is always simmering. Several atrocities have been perpetrated here which will remain unpunished. John Colet, a thoroughly good man, was right. So are you. Jesus was not a warmonger. If he had been, the result would have been very similar to that of the Maccabean Revolt. Instead Christianity went on to build a great spiritual empire which superceded and absorbed what was best of the old, corrupt and brutal Roman Empire. I admire the Quakers who are for decency, probity in business and who are against war. Sadly, I belong to the realist school in foreign policy and defence. It is sometimes a difficult position to hold, believe me. Thank you for being 'a voice in the wilderness'.

Edward Fido | 26 September 2021  
Show Responses

Edward, one step forward and another in reverse? Where exactly do you stand?

Michael Furtado | 03 October 2021  

Like the movement of John Frawley’s grandfather’s fence paling, a defensive war is a step forward and, when it’s over, another in reverse. An offensive war is a step backwards, and, when vanquished, the enemy offered a step forward in magnanimity through such things as the Marshall Plan and the Japanese reconstruction (courtesy, in part, of Kim Il Sung who took a step backwards to where the Hermit Kingdom still languishes today), or a get-well card to the ICU in the case of John Frawley’s grandfather’s fence paling, now restored to its sacred site and under whose magisterial symbolism Quakers and Mennonites can chatter happily about virtue to their heart’s content without the risk of ever having to live up to their cherished beliefs.

roy chen yee | 07 October 2021  

Fr Andrew, all wars are won by technology. The reason the allies won WW2 is because the USA developed Little Boy and Truman, warned by some of his advisers that any attempt to invade Japan would result in horrific American casualties, ordered that the new weapon be used to end the war. On August 6, 1945, Enola Gay dropped a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Now if you think about this between 1956 and 1963 the British detonated seven atomic bombs at Maralinga; one was twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They never told us about that when I went to the brothers. On the other side of the coin, nuclear power generates electricity and provides useful x-ray technology,Low-cost energy, Reliable, Zero carbon emissions, Promising future energy supply, High energy density.
The reason the Aboriginals were decimated by the British and the settlers is because spears, nullahs and Boomerangs were no match for canon, rifles, mounted troopers, swift ship movements along the coast. Michael Schell if your enemy has 74 submarines and 300 warships and 300 new hypersonic missiles aimed at your capital cities, why shouldn't we have a dozen or so new subs and a deterrent force of jet fighters? Given their recent aggression world wide shouldn't we (as Baden Powell suggested), Be Prepared?

Francis Armstrong | 27 September 2021  

There is good and bad to be found in all things even in those beings created by God in his own image. The bombing of Hiroshima was conceived out of goodness and achieved goodness, not evil, in its wake. The aggression of inhumane regimes such as Hitler's Germany and modern day China is not conceived in goodness. As Francis Armstrong points out there is some goodness in nuclear power - something which God has given mankind as part of his creation. Like all things in creation, however, the human being abuses the good for his own purposes or aggrandisement - a bit like that bloke Lucifer. Nothing new in this world but we tend not to learn from our errors regardless of how diabolical those errors might be.!! My Irish grandfather cautioned that I should never get into a fight with an aggressive bully. "Walk away." he said. "Find the biggest fence paling you can , then go back and get in the first bit hit before the bully is expecting it - he won't come back for more".

john frawley | 30 September 2021  
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Dr Frawley, notwithstanding your grandfather's views, it is the case that Group Captain Leonard Cheshire regretted his supposedly heroic role in both the Dam-busters saga in which he felt his skills misused and his views misrepresented, as well as the bombing of Hiroshima in which he was called upon to be a witness. One would think that a physician, with an anticipated understanding of the role that proportionality must play in determining the justice of armed intervention, would appreciate that.

Michael Furtado | 03 October 2021  

Andy, the saddest thing about the naysayers here is that some of them attended Jesuit school. There they would have missed, allowing for their poor attention-span, the conditions that apply to waging a Just War, unless Bob Santamaria got to those who went to the Brothers instead, in which case they are more to be pitied than disdained for views that make no sense. For some, the scars of their woundedness show, as for instance in those who argue, whenever defence and China aren't on the ES menu, as if the Royal Commission never occurred. Yes; upon reflection, 'naysayers' is the politest appellation one can attach to them, including those who cite Lucifer as a justification for their warmongering attitudes. At the latest count the overwhelming majority of European and NESB nations, as also Canada & NZ, do not support the forming of armed camps as a measure of ensuring world peace and it happens that Chinese diplomacy and foreign aid has won them over much more persuasively than the tawdry post-War rhetoric of the Colonel Blimps on show here. At best our progeny will be able to read their posts one day and thank ES for occupying them therapeutically.

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2021  
Show Responses

‘the saddest thing’ oh? ‘that some of them attended Jesuit school.’ Sadder than, excepting Hong Kong, none of them attended Jesuit school and probably never will? Shouldn’t a loyal Ignatian like you be in therapy over that?

roy chen yee | 02 October 2021  

Still intoning the 'Dies Irae', Roy, while the rest of 'em grinning skeletals hang, draw and quarter a Jesuit for proclaiming the truth? What about turning the page and raising the tempo to Chopin's Funeral March? 'Too much verisimo and not enough flatulent base-trombone', I hear them baying. You could at least play the piper and lead your clique into a merry rendition of 'Marche Diabolique'. That would stir the pot no end and encourage the flagging pall-bearers of our tragically-terminal Church? Isn't THAT what they're really after? Tearing Christ down for standing up for what's right?

Michael Furtado | 04 October 2021  

‘tragically-terminal Church?’ The Church Militant terminates when Christ returns. There’s nothing tragic about that. Until then, he is with the ‘Church’ until ‘the end of time’, which must mean the Church Militant and the Church Suffering, as the Church Triumphant is beyond time. So, nothing tragic or terminal there either. Nobody’s hanging, drawing and quartering Father Sosa for speaking your truth (although it would be nice if both of you were to check your facts). Your tears over a supposedly ‘tragically-terminal Church’ recall tears from another time over an assumption that preparations for a lunch were about to go tragically-terminal because everybody was in the living room listening to Jesus.

roy chen yee | 05 October 2021  

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