Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Lowy Institute on March 7 that a new submarine base would be established on the East Coast to support a future nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
Plans to acquire new nuclear submarines were revealed last September as the cornerstone of AUKUS, the new security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Morrison’s naming of Port Kembla, as one of three locations being considered for the new submarine base, prompted activists in Wollongong to spring into action. Wollongong Undergraduate Students’ Association (WUSA) called a protest on March 12, which was addressed by WUSA Education Officer Sean McLachlan, Greens councillor Mithra Cox, Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Southern NSW Branch Secretary Mick Cross, South Coast Labour Council Secretary Arthur Rorris and myself.
Wollongong Against War and Nukes (WAWAN) formed after that and organised a rally against the nuclear submarine base plan outside the Wollongong City Council chambers on April 4 as council was considering a motion, moved by Cox, to extend the city’s nuclear-free status.
Wollongong was first declared a nuclear-free city in 1980 during the height of the anti-nuclear weapons’ movement. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, large Hiroshima Day demonstrations for peace and in opposition to nuclear weapons were organised.
Wollongong City Council (WCC) signed the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Cities Appeal in 2019. It has called on the federal government to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in January 2021.
After heated debate in April, WCC reaffirmed its nuclear-free status. The largely symbolic declaration is concerned with nuclear weapons rather than with the nuclear submarine base proposed for Port Kembla.
In fact, nuclear waste material is already handled at Port Kembla when it is returned to Australia after reprocessing in Britain. A shipment was received the same day as protesters rallied in Wollongong Mall on March 12. The nuclear waste was accompanied by an extensive police operation and road closures from that night into the early hours of March 13 as a container of nuclear waste was transported to Lucas Heights.
Nevertheless, the motion demonstrated a majority on WCC are concerned about the continuing threat posed by nuclear weapons and are sympathetic to some of the protester’s concerns.
10th biggest arms exporter
The Coalition government is pursuing the goal of making Australia the 10th biggest arms exporter in the world.
Liberal Councillor Elisha Aitken was among the minority who opposed the nuclear-free zone motion. She foreshadowed a motion, that was not put to the meeting, to welcome the nuclear submarine base proposal that included claims it could generate 7000–8000 jobs.
These unsubstantiated numbers were repeated by Debra Murphy of the Illawarra Regional Development Australia in an interview with ABC. It demonstrates the interest some businesses have in developing a local arms industry.
A few days after Morrison’s submarine base announcement, an industry breakfast discussed developing a defence industry in the Wollongong area despite only two local and state and federal politicians voicing support for the proposal.
The Illawarra Mercury reported that Wollongong-based Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told i3net (Illawarra Innovative Industry Network) breakfast that there had been “a lot of work behind the scenes, a lot of work to get it to this particular point”.
Kiama MP Gareth Ward also threw his support behind the project saying he backed Port Kembla as “the home of our nation’s new subs”. Fierravanti-Wells since lost Liberal Party pre-selection for the Senate and Ward has been suspended. The position of other local MPs on making Port Kembla a nuclear base is unclear
Opponents speak out
Those opposing the base have voiced a variety of reasons. South Coast Labour Council Secretary Arthur Rorris told the Illawarra Mercury that the community would “fight tooth and nail to prevent putting a nuclear target on our city”, saying that a major military installation would make Port Kembla more vulnerable in a future war.
Gem Romuld, Director of ICAN Australia, pointed to the risk of radioactive contamination in the event of an accident or military attack.
The MUA’s Cross has told rallies that the potential for a green industrial revolution in Port Kembla, that would provide sustainable local jobs, would be put at risk if the port became a military base. He has also noted the potential restrictions on access to the port and surrounds — popular locations for recreational boating, fishing and surfing — should it become a military base.
In addition to the many specific concerns about the nuclear base and its siting in Port Kembla, the AUKUS pact and the military build-up on which it is promised, poses a grave threat to peace in the Asia Pacific.
Peace through war?
Condensing his hard-won experiences in the socialist and anti-fascist struggles of the early 20th century, renown author George Orwell named the defence ministry 1984 the Ministry of Peace.
Today, the Morrison government is embracing this rhetorical doublethink with talk of “securing peace” through investment in war.
Far from securing peace, the government has provoked allies, including France and New Zealand, the latter confirming that nuclear submarines would not be welcome in its waters under its nuclear-free zone policies.
The AUKUS agreement has also been widely condemned by Pacific leaders, who remember the devastating impact of nuclear testing on the people and ecosystems of many Pacific islands.
Rather than engaging in creative dialogue and solidarity with our neighbours to build regional peace, Canberra is taking steps on the dangerous path to war.
I’m a resident of Port Kembla and I do not want my children to grow up in a town where war machines in the harbour are considered normal. I want them to grow up free of the risk a nuclear-powered submarine fleet poses to their health and to that of the ecosystem that supports them.
Politicians talk big about jobs and promise enormous investment in weapons in the name of protecting Australia from an imagined future threat. But the real threat — catastrophic climate change — is already here. The South Coast has experienced severe bushfires, a global pandemic and, now, major flooding.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has estimated the potential cost, with inflation, of building eight new submarines is upwards of $171 billion. That is another $171 billion not being invested in building resilience to climate change, not being invested in green technologies to help reduce carbon emissions, or not being invested in our public health system.
[Get in touch with Wollongong Against War and Nukes. Alexander Brown is an academic and researcher on nuclear and peace issues at the University of Wollongong. He is a member of local peace group Wollongong Against War and Nukes. This article, slightly abridged, was first published at New Bush Telegraph.]