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Australia’s Nuclear Conundrum: A Hedging Strategy to Save the Day

10 Sep 2020
By Samvrutha Bhavani Mukilan
Nuclear power plant, Grohnde, Germany
Source: Wostemme,

Intensifying tensions and the resurgence of nuclear debates in the Asia-Pacific will have profound and uncertain implications for war and peace in the 21st century. In this era of strategic uncertainty dominated by nuclear-armed giants, middle powers are thinking about how to avoid subjugation without a nuclear deterrent of their own.

How to do so is a question that has recently taken hold of scholarly circles in Australia, a nation that has traditionally strongly adhered to nuclear non-proliferation. Present debates involve arguments either for or against an indigenous nuclear defence capability in the context of a declining American presence and reliability, and an increasingly powerful China. The military and strategic communities have been weighing the relative advantages of an independent Australian nuclear program in an antiseptic, apolitical environment, focusing on questions of cost and successful operation. However, this is far from reality.

Physically, Australia undoubtedly has the capacity to develop a nuclear defence capability. It has the necessary raw materials and the intellectual know-how. Australia has the world’s largest exploitable reserve of low-cost uranium, which it has been exporting worldwide. It also has top-notch nuclear physicists who presently work in nuclear power plants around the world.

However, developing a nuclear defence capability is not as simple as handing a physicist some uranium. Most of the uranium mined is uranium-238. This needs to be separated from uranium-235, the isotope used in nuclear warheads, which requires giant centrifuge cascades. Thus, if Australia decides to go nuclear, it will require enrichment facilities, power reactors, and mechanisms for extracting the right type of uranium, none of which exist in Australia today.

The real concerns in developing an effective and credible nuclear capability are about understanding how to control and protect the weapons prior to use and then the mode of eventual delivery. Australia’s missile development and high-tech electronic sectors are either in catch-up mode or in their infancy, and developing long-range missiles would take years of exhaustive effort and testing.

Aside from these technical challenges, there are also the issues of political will and sheer cost. Australia lacks a supportive political cadre that is willing to undertake a bipartisan effort to build and maintain a nuclear arsenal. But more important is the economic factor. A fundamental prerequisite for a nuclear defence program is nuclear power generation capacity. Nuclear power is estimated to be 20-50 percent more expensive than coal without carbon pricing. The widespread availability of other, cheaper renewable energies like solar and wind makes the economics of nuclear power generation less convincing.

Steps in the Nuclear Direction – A Hedging Strategy

This brings us back to the question of should Australia develop nuclear weapons. The answer is not yet. However, this does not mean that Australia must continue to live in strategic limbo without considering the nuclear option. If the trends of the last 20 years continue, Australia may soon have a seemingly overwhelming superpower at its doorstep.

But the immediate acquisition of nuclear weapons might be premature. A nuclear defence capability consists of two components – the technical know-how and the capacity to build the weapons, and the weapons themselves. Australia should focus on the former, and quietly and methodically acquire the technology and materials necessary to build nuclear weapons on short notice if the political conditions require. Such a hedging strategy would allow it to gradually increase its nuclear competence and shrink the period of its strategic vulnerability – the time between making the decision to acquire nuclear weapons and the actual possession of a usable arsenal.

The merit of such an approach is that Australia could continue to remain poised on its non-nuclear position, as it would only be acquiring the capacity for a future defence capability within internationally agreed upon limits. By doing this, Australia could robustly prepare for strategic uncertainties while continuing to champion its long-held non-proliferation principles. Japan is a fine example of this model. Australia’s immediate strategic environment does not face such clear and grave threats as Japan. However, if Canberra is truly worried about Asia’s intensifying power politics, it would be wise to follow in Tokyo’s footsteps and reduce the technological lead time to prepare for a similar eventuality.

One way that Australia could realistically develop its nuclear capacity is by adding nuclear power to its suite of power generation technologies, regardless of the perceived costs. The nuclear waste that remains after electricity generation can be reprocessed to separate the plutonium for eventual use in warheads. Another way it could develop its nuclear capacity is by turning its uranium into fuel rods and leasing it to other countries. The spent fuel rods can then be repatriated for processing. Aside from this, Australia must also invest further in nuclear delivery options, especially ballistic missiles that can be launched from Australian submarines and long-range nuclear cruise missiles that can be carried by strategic bombers. By engaging in nuclear fuel fabrication, fuel leasing, and the storage of spent nuclear-fuel waste, Australia will have developed a full-fledged nuclear industry.

Why Not Nuclear Weapons?

The purpose of developing an indigenous nuclear capacity is twofold. Firstly, it emboldens Australia to face uncertainties in an evolving strategic environment. But secondly and more importantly, it addresses the single point of failure that has been created through decades of defence policy that has considered the US nuclear umbrella an appropriate response to nuclear threats. However, America’s willingness and capacity to effectively defend its allies is dwindling, especially under the current presidency. Meanwhile, the economic and military might of China is quickly growing in the Indo-Pacific.

And yet, the immediate procurement of nuclear weapons is inadvisable for several reasons. The first and foremost is the absence of a clear or direct threat for Australia. A threat encompasses a combination of capability and intent. Though China has enormous capability that continues to grow, it lacks any immediate hostile intent, at least towards Australia. At present, China is a larger threat to South Korea and Japan than to Australia, yet neither of these countries possess nuclear weapons. Thus, in the absence of any immediate danger, it seems premature for Australia to be considering this option.

The main value of China’s own small nuclear force is in countering nuclear coercion. China has consciously refrained from engaging in a sprint to nuclear parity with other powers because its governing doctrine envisages only one role for its nuclear weapons, which is preventing nuclear blackmail. Also, given the economic, military, and subversive political power that China is willing to wield in pursuit of its interests, should its intent ever turn hostile towards Australia, it has levers other than nuclear weapons for coercion and influence.

If such coercion were to occur someday, it would be in Australia’s best interest to keep the US in good faith and take steps to strengthen the ANZUS alliance. The US was the pioneer of the nuclear disarmament global movement and has strongly opposed proliferation among its allies. If this opposition persists, then the cost to Australia acquiring nuclear weapons would be severe.

Australia would also need to consider the impact its nuclear defence capability would have on other nations. If it decides to pursue the nuclear route, it risks delegitimising the institutional solidarity underlying the non-proliferation treaty and may embolden regional rivals to do the same. Of note, Indonesia, also a close ally of the US, presents a unique case in which Australian and American interests may not intersect. Australian acquisition of nuclear weapons would give Indonesia reason to reciprocate for both status and security reasons. This would, in turn, create a more hostile security environment for Australia. Thus, prematurely building nuclear weapons could backfire, heightening tensions and aggravating security concerns in the region.

Lastly, Australia needs to keep in mind that the non-proliferation treaty has served to maintain peace in the world. Abandoning such long-standing principles of its foreign policy which have contributed to creating a better world would be an implosion of Australian character.

By adopting a hedging strategy, Australia will be equipping itself with the capacity to build a robust nuclear defence capability while remaining within the boundaries of the non-proliferation treaty. Whether intensifying power politics will push Australia to break its long-held commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation remains the biggest question, and only time can provide an answer.

Samvrutha Bhavani Mukilan holds a Masters degree in International Relations from the Australian National University. She is currently the assistant editor of Australian Outlook at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Her research interests include gender studies, South Asian studies, and defence and strategic studies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.