Bombs Away: Australia’s role in disbanding nuclear weapons


Words || Mariah Hanna

Think Australia isn’t a nuclear weapon state? That’s only a half truth. While Australia hasn’t actually developed nuclear weapons, our allegiance to the United States means we are supporters of nuclear warfare, and this support makes us as complicit in nuclear warfare as any other nuclear weapon state.

Nine nuclear weapon states exist in the world, but the media would have you believe that the only real players in nuclear warfare as the US, North Korea, and Russia. Australia boasts a nuclear-free status, but continues to support the policies of the US, which has no issue with flexing their nuclear muscles at any nation who dares to suggest a conflict.

Concerns about the development and implementation of nuclear weapons are nothing new, but in light of escalating international political tensions, it’s something that’s getting some much-needed attention right now. Particularly since the election of US President Donald Trump, who seems to have no issue with sabre-rattling with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, about the capacity, and apparent willingness, the US has to “totally destroy” North Korea (see Trump’s 2017 United Nations address and try not get your eyeballs stuck from rolling them too hard).

International leaders and bodies, including the UN, have been fumbling around since the first bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, trying to figure out how to best approach the growing issue of countries developing nuclear weapons with the potential to wipe out entire nations. Since the first use of nuclear bombs in 1945, new weapons of mass destruction have been developed that have the potential to deliver far more catastrophic results.

The US began testing the world’s first hydrogen bomb in the 1950s – a bomb which is thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the ability to wipe out hundreds of millions of people. 

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is an international organisation that is working for global nuclear disarmament, and in 2017 it received the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in promoting the United Nations Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, which has been adopted by 122 countries.

ICAN started out of Melbourne and formally launched in Vienna, Austria in 2007, after being inspired by the success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. By working alongside groups like the Red Cross, ICAN have helped reshape the debate on nuclear weapons and have successfully geared the international conversation towards elimination.

Despite its roots in Australia, ICAN has not been as successful in its founding country. In fact, during talks on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, the Australian government actively stood against any move to see the treaty enacted.

“Australia pays lip service to supporting a world free of nuclear weapons, while continuing to support the nuclear program of the United States. Our government seems reluctant to progress nuclear disarmament in case it upsets the alliance,” Gem Romuld, the Australian Director of ICAN, tells Grapeshot.

So, why do we actually need to support US nuclear policies? The short answer is, we don’t. According the Australia’s defence policy, US nuclear weapons are vital for our security, something which Romuld says is dangerous as it legitimises and validates nuclear weapons and threats of nuclear war. And, despite Australia’s claims, it has been shown to be possible to maintain an alliance with the US that excludes nuclear weapons, as New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand have, who are all signatories of the ban treaty.

“Australia has joined the treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions, even when the US has not signed on. It’s time to take a clear stand against these weapons of destruction by joining the ban,” Romuld says.

Of course, it’s not only the threat of nuclear war that is detrimental to civilization, but nuclear testing itself has had devastating impacts on the environment, and a disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples worldwide. According to Romuld, “nuclear tests have been carried out in 60 locations around the world, leaving behind radioactive contamination that impacts plants, groundwater, animals and human health.”

Seeing the effects of continued testing like this, one can’t help but to feel that international efforts to protect the environment are kind of obsolete.

A spanner was thrown in the works in April when North Korea extended the hand for denuclearization ahead of planned talks with the US later in the year, saying that it will stop conducting nuclear tests. If negotiations go well and North Korea commits to nuclear disarmament, it could have potentially enormous effects on other nuclear weapons states’ nuclear policies, and it would definitely lead to increased international pressure for other nations to follow North Korea’s lead.

Organisations like ICAN are more important now than ever in leading the conversation for nuclear disarmament, because clearly governments like ours cannot be trusted to do it for its citizens. Scott Ludlam points out in an essay for The Monthly, that it is in fact our governments that are using our taxes to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons.

“For ten years, we focused on achieving a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons. Now that we have the ban treaty, we are mobilising worldwide to put it into effect,” Romuld says. “Countries are now signing and ratifying the ban, and it will enter into permanent legal force within the next couple of years. The ban makes pariahs of nuclear-armed states and their supporters, including Australia. We can use this treaty to pressure financial institutions to stop financing the bomb, to pressure our governments to reject nuclear weapons and to show the pathway for their total elimination. The tide is turning against this weapon.”