Australia’s Atomic Dilemma: Is the Outback Going Nuclear?

B61 Nuclear Bomb: In service (estimated) 1968 present
Image: Flickr/Kelly Michals

By Lake Dodson

When imagining what makes the Land Down Under quintessentially Australian, one may think of a deep, flat, and orange expanse filled with kangaroos, didgeridoos, and the Sydney Opera House. However, one surprising element of Australia’s identity many rarely discuss is the mass excavation of nuclear material.

Indeed, Australia’s unpredictable relationship with nuclear materials, weapons, and energy spans over a half-century and is filled with contradictions and internal confusion over whether the island nation should or should not utilize its massive reserves for any use at all.

Australia’s interest in becoming a nuclear state, recent developments concerning activity within the United Nations, investment into a nuclear-powered military, and concessions to American grand strategy have sent global shockwaves to the rest of the world, signaling a sobering message about its commitment to the rejection of nuclear weapons.

Australia may finally accept the responsibility of becoming an internationally recognized, legitimate nuclear state.

A History of Peace

Throughout the Cold War and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, Australia distinguished itself as a pillar of nuclear deterrence. Even during the tensest periods of possible nuclear annihilation, Australia’s citizens and government banded together to express their adamant denial of obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

This dedication to keeping Australia a nation free from the destructive capabilities of nuclear warfare was most apparent in the 1950s and 1960s when the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) considered purchasing weapons of mass destruction from either America or the United Kingdom (UK). However, this was thwarted by Australia joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970.

In Australia’s Uranium Moratorium Protests of April 1977, over 10,000 demonstrators walked the streets of Melbourne while thousands more joined in large population centers around the country, demanding a five-year moratorium on Uranium mining.

From binding United Nations’ treaties to national protests, Australia is under constant pressure. Still, for a nation so committed to nuclear non-proliferation treaties, it has been blessed with more nuclear raw materials than any other nation on Earth.

Australia and Its Radioactive Outback

Dotted across the vast island continent rest over 111 known uranium deposits hosting a combined total of 1.8 million tons of confirmed nuclear material. Note that this is only the confirmed number, as experts believe multiple reservoirs of uranium still have not yet been discovered

Despite Australia’s progress on the issue of denuclearization, recent changes in foreign policy and doctrine signal an alarming shift towards becoming a nuclear state.

An Unexpected Abstention?

In a tactical decision at a United Nations meeting in October, the Australian delegation shocked the world by abstaining from a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Here, Australia defied expectations again by using abstention to support a treaty. For over five-years, the Australian delegation voted in the renunciation of this legislation to appease its nuclear-friendly allies: the UK, Russia, China, India, and most importantly, the United States.

As Australia’s most prominent customer of raw nuclear materials, the United States has expressed its distaste for the delegation’s choice. The US Embassy in Canberra released the statement: “we do not support the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.” While the assertion may seem outwardly hawkish, the embassy attempted to justify its claims by adding, “The United States does not believe that progress toward nuclear disarmament can be decoupled from the prevailing security threats in today’s world.” For Australia, the United States is a power that cannot be easily ignored, especially because of its place in the US grand strategy.

US Grand Strategy

The American nuclear umbrella, an international defense strategy in which non-nuclear allies have garnered protection from a nuclear state should weapons of mass destruction ever be used in warfare, protects Australia. According to Australian professors of national defense and political science, Stephan Frühling and Andrew O’Neil, respectively, the protections under this system are sufficient for Australia to not worry about its nuclear threat. They write, “Since the 1960s, Australian governments have supported hosting joint facilities that contribute to America’s ability to execute global nuclear operations. Australia has regularly invoked the nuclear umbrella as part of the alliance.” 

This is all possible through Australia’s place in the world, both socio-politically and geographically, which plays into the grand strategy of the United States outlined in the Biden Administration’s first National Security Strategy.

As Australia fluctuates between bending to the will of the United States or keeping true to its ideals of rejecting nuclear statehood, the landscape of the Indo-Pacific balance of power may change. Should the Land Down Under come to a resolution, the global community must find a way to temper the wake of such a monumental decision.

Lake Dodson is a regular writer for the Realist Review. He studies Political Science and Global Security at the University of Mississippi.

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