‘Target Oz’: Defence Strategic Review must address nuclear risks

Nov 3, 2022
Flag of China painted on a cracked wall with soldier shadow

The Defence Strategic Review must act in accordance with Australia’s commitment to sign the UN “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” (the ‘Ban Treaty’) and not seek to compromise that path by supporting roles in nuclear warfare alongside the US.

Anthony Albanese made a commitment in his “Changing the World” Speech (ALP National Conference, 18 Dec 2018), stating:

“We have on our side the overwhelming support of the Australian people. …

Our commitment to sign and ratify the nuclear weapons ban treaty in government is Labor at our best”

The ALP National Platform (2021, p.117) commits “to sign and ratify the Ban Treaty” and Australia must do so in this term of the ALP in federal office.

The Ban Treaty Article 1 Prohibitions require nations to never under any circumstance use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, OR to assist or encourage, in any way, anyone to do so.

To come into compliance with the Ban Treaty, the Defence Review must evolve our Alliance with the US to put an end to defence reliance on US ‘nuclear deterrence’.

The US ‘nuclear weapons umbrella’ is a threat to use nuclear weapons in Australia’s defence policy – a threat that has long been contrary to International Humanitarian Law and is now illegal since the Ban Treaty came into force as a permanent part of International Law from 22 January 2021.

The roles of Pine Gap and the North-West Cape communications base must evolve to exclude military operations related to the use, or threat to use, nuclear weapons.

The ICAN Report “Choosing Humanity” (July 2019) best sets out the case for Australia to sign the Ban Treaty. Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong should now refer the Ban Treaty to an Inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties as a proposed treaty action.

 Australians have a right to know the risk exposure we face in peace time and in war:

While preparing for war, a second lead task for the Defence Review is to provide transparency on the consequences for Australia as a target in an escalating conflict between the US and China.

The Review must report on the scenarios, risks, and consequences of a nuclear or conventional attack by China on bases in Australia and on the potential resultant health calamity.

Both China and Russia’s priority and capacity to attack US bases in Australia has long been recognised. An ASPI Report (Sept 2022) states Pine Gap is a high-level nuclear target, noting:

 “We need to understand what the implications would be for Alice Springs, which is a town of 32,000 people only 18 kilometres from the base.”

The lead author of the report, Paul Dibb has stated: “The risk of nuclear war is now higher than at any time since the Cold War. … Australia should not feel its geographic distance from the epicentre of conflict affords it any significant protection. … We need to plan on the basis that Pine Gap continues to be a nuclear target, If China attacks Taiwan, Pine Gap is likely to be heavily involved.”

A Lowy paper (09 August 2021) also cites Darwin as a potential target in a US-China conflict:

The arena of hostilities for any such conflict would be mostly confined to East Asia, with the possible exception of strikes against US forces using Darwin as a rear-area staging base.

No doubt Australia acquiring nuclear powered attack submarines and visits or basing US or UK nuclear subs at Stirling naval base near Fremantle escalates the risk profile we face.

Beijing’s Global Times “China needs to make a plan to deter extreme forces of Australia” (07 May 2021) threatened “retaliatory punishment” with missile strikes “on the military facilities and relevant key facilities on Australian soil” if Australia coordinates with the US in a war over Taiwan:

“China has a strong production capability, including producing additional long-range missiles with conventional warheads that target military objectives in Australia when the situation becomes highly tense.”

Pine Gap near Alice Springs, RAAF Base Tindal for US B-52’s near Katherine, Darwin Harbour, North-West Cape near Exmouth, and the Stirling submarine base near Fremantle are all potential targets for a strike by China in a conflict with the US over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

A third task I set for the Defence Review is to answer the question:

Why does Australia still sell uranium to China?

War with China is in open debate. China has potential to attack Australia with nuclear weapons.

Australia banned sale of uranium to Russia in 2014, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott stating:

Australia has no intention of selling uranium to a country which is so obviously in breach of international law as Russia currently is.”

China should be disqualified from receiving Australian uranium sales given China’s severe breaches of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law against the Uighur and Tibetan peoples.

I have campaigned against uranium sales to China “Uranium policy a hypocrisy” (Opinion, The Age & SMH, 5 Oct 2009) and raised Human Rights cases:

“Australian uranium will effectively disappear off the safeguards radar on arrival in China, a country whose military is inextricably linked to the civilian nuclear sector and where nuclear whistle-blowers and critics are brutally suppressed and jailed. This alone is reason to disqualify China from acquiring Australian uranium.”

The routine “substitution” of Australian uranium in China, and the Illusion of Protection in ASNO safeguards, warrant an exit from uranium sales to China.

Transparency is a core pre-requisite to any ‘trust’ in nuclear issues but is sorely lacking in China.

BHP Olympic Dam is the only outfit still selling Australian uranium to China.

At best this frees up China to divert its own limited supply of uranium for use in its military nuclear regime, at worst, it directly contributes to nuclear weapons. This is a Defence Review issue.

Australia has no leverage on China and must end our exposure in BHP’s risky uranium sales to China.


David Noonan B.Sc., M.Env.St., is an Independent Environment Campaigner and was a long-term campaigner for Australian Conservation Foundation.

See the public submission to the Defence Review by David Noonan (29 Oct 2022).

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