We are buying more debt, pain, and death: a case against nuclear-powered submarines

Today is the International Day of Peace. That is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that, as a country, we have just scrapped a $90 billion contract with Naval Group of France for a new fleet of submarines—in favour of a currently proposed (a d as yet uncosted) deal with our American and UK allies to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. At least, in nothing I have read is the actual cost of this awkward AUKUS deal specified–it seems that is still to be negotiated.

It seems to me that, whatever the actual dollar cost of this new deal, it is outrageously expensive, and will prove to be incredibly costly. I believe we are buying, not only more debt, but also pain and death, for future generations. I am happy to leave the debate about the precise financial cost to the politicians, journalists, and defence pundits in the months and years ahead. What is perfectly clear to me, however, is that the cost to our country will indeed be large and invasive, penetrating deeply and impacting widely.

Allocating money in the federal budget to defence matters is a highly contested matter. By making this a high priority, other matters are pushed down the priority list. We hear regular pronouncements about the need to tighten our belts and reduce the deficit in our federal budget. But we rarely if ever hear considered reflections

about the impact of this on essential elements of our federal spending which are essential to our lifestyle—social security, Medicare and health care, education and training, and veterans’ affairs.

What will it mean for future federal budgets, to have massive and increasing commitments to defence spending, such that these other areas will need to be limited or even reduced? Allocating a large amount of the limited funds available to the Federal Government to this deal will mean less money for other areas. That will impact on the everyday lives of all Australians.

But it is not the financial costs that concern me. Nuclear-powered submarines have the simple function of contributing to efforts to defend our coastline—something that has been a high priority for the current federal government. But they also have the capacity to go on the attack (and against China, of all countries—what are we thinking?). They are agents of warfare, dedicated to be at our disposal to wage war.

At the moment, there is no country in the world with a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. There is only one repository in the world capable of disposing of intermediate-level nuclear waste, in New Mexico (USA), and it was shut for three years (2014–2017) because of a chemical explosion. How are we planning to dispose responsibly of our nuclear waste?

And further: do we really want nuclear-powered weapons to be involved in any future war? The environmental impact of a nuclear blast is serious. We have seen the scale of illness and death from nuclear explosions, in the 1945 bombings of Japan, the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, and the Fukushima accident in 2011.

An incident involving a nuclear-powered element in current times would be even more potent and damaging. Most worryingly, the ABC has reported that nuclear-powered submarines “have a ‘long history’ of involvement in accidents across the globe”. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-17/nuclear-submarines-prompt-environmental-and-conflict-concern/100470362

Alongside these concerns, we know that there are costs associated with warfare other than the finance required to train troops and provide weapons for the battle—costs that go deep into people’s lives and spread wide across society. War means injury and death, to our own troops, and to the troops of those we are fighting against. Every death means a family and a local community that is grieving. There is great emotional cost just in one death, let alone the thousands and thousands that wars incur.

Every person injured in waging war experiences suffering, anxiety, and pain, with their loved ones looking on, suffering with them, and with the medical and hospital system having to devote resources to their healing.

I have a friend who has served with pride in the Australian Navy, in the troubled region of the Persian Gulf. He and his mates have returned home after their service, and they are living “regular” lives in society, with families, jobs, friends. Yet I know from my friend just how costly his service was. Psychological trauma and emotional scarring place heavy burdens on an apparently healthy man in his “regular” life. Those burdens ripple out in unhealthy ways to those around him–both family and friends. It is another cost of war, that is multiplied time and time again by the numbers of people who have served in the military.

But these are the expected, observable costs of war. War also brings “collateral damage”, in that terrible, dehumanising phrase first used by the US military during the Vietnam conflict. It is a euphemistic way of referring to “civilian casualties of a military operation”. But the reality is much starker than what this smooth phrase conveys. Countrysides are invaded, villages and towns are looted, women are raped, civilian women and men are injured or killed, buildings are destroyed, and people can be forced to seek refuge in another place.

We see these consequences of war again and again on our screens, in so many places around the world. Whilst we might enter into a war in order to resolve an immediate problem, the reality is that it is usually a short-term “fix”. War never fully resolves a conflict or solves a problem; war inevitably generates further conflict and raises more problems. The history of Afghanistan in the last 43 years testifies to this—the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet Invasion, the guerilla war of the 1980s, the rise of the Mujaheedin, civil war from 1989, the rise of the Taliban, the American Invasion of 2001 and the war which has run on for two decades through into this current year. At every point, warfare has generated yet more conflict.

As people of the Uniting Church, we are committed to being a peacemaking people, firmly working for the cause of peace in our world. We are also a church which sees the problems inherent in the use of nuclear power—and especially, the use of nuclear power in waging war.

We should be totally opposed to this latest deal signalled by the Federal Government. It is not simply a matter of purchasing new nuclear-powered submarines. We are buying more debt, pain, and death, for future generations of Australians. We should be pressing our political representatives to urge the government to back away from this deal.

In 1979, the Uniting Church Assembly received a statement advocating opposition to the mining and export of uranium; see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3137-a-world-free-of-nuclear-weapons

In 1982, the Uniting Church Assembly declared that “affirm that the Uniting Church is committed to be a peacemaking body, seeking to follow the Lord of the Church by encouraging political authorities to resolve political tensions by peaceful means”, in a statement on Militarism and Disarmament, at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/500-militarism-and-disarmament

In 1988, the Uniting Church Assembly adopted a comprehensive statement relating to nuclear power and the nuclear arms race. See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/499-nuclear-deterrence-disarmament-and-peace

The same year, the Assembly adopted the Statement to the Nation: Australian Bicentennial Year, 1988, in which it describes itself as a church which had “engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker.” See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

In 2003, the Uniting Church Assembly declared once more that “the Church is committed to be a peacemaking body” and adopted the Statement, Uniting for Peace; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/497-uniting-for-peace

The Uniting Church has supported the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries, promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canberra Region Presbytery signed a letter of support for this campaign in 2020, on the 75th anniversary year of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. See https://www.icanw.org/australia

See also a fine blog on this topic by Chris Walker at https://revdrchriswalker.wordpress.com/2021/09/21/nuclear-submarines/

and an address for International Day of Peace by the Moderator of the UCA in NSW.ACT, Simon Hansford, at https://talbragar.net/2021/09/21/when-peace-is-not-peace/