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A disarming day

  • 23 September 2021
  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