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There is no shortage of Coalition U-turns on nuclear. But this Aukus example might be the most remarkable | Karen Middleton

PoliticsThere is no shortage of Coalition U-turns on nuclear. But this Aukus example might be the most remarkable | Karen Middleton


When he unveiled preliminary details of his nuclear power plan this week, Peter Dutton was not asked any questions about the relevance of the Aukus agreement.

His energy spokesperson, Ted O’Brien, mentioned the nuclear-powered submarine pact in his opening remarks at Wednesday’s joint news conference, called to name seven sites for possible future nuclear reactors.

O’Brien’s reference was in the context of safety – that nuclear technology was already in use in Australia medically and anticipated for the military.

Journalists were more concerned about interrogating the absence of details on cost, reactor type, volume of power generated and the like, than exploring what relevance Aukus might have.

But there’s an Aukus-related back story to this week’s nuclear announcement that sheds some new light on how we got here. Or, more precisely, why we didn’t get here sooner.

When Scott Morrison was prime minister, the Coalition thought about having a second go at a nuclear power policy. It had been part of John Howard’s bid to engage with climate change in late 2006 as the Kevin ’07 juggernaut advanced.

Twelve years later, contemplating the 2022 election, Morrison considered having another go. The climate debate had shifted and embracing coal was no longer going to cut it. Nuclear energy offered a possible low-emissions course.

But polling on the proposal came back negative and Morrison quietly shelved the idea immediately, despite the urgings of some who thought a case could be made.

Then came the Aukus negotiations and the extraordinary announcement in September 2021 that Australia had ditched its contract with France to buy conventional submarines, securing a nuclear-powered option instead.

With a Coalition government in power, it seemed logical this might reopen the nuclear energy debate in Australia. But any thoughts of that were banished before they had time to form.

“Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” Morrison declared at the surprise announcement via satellite with the United States president and British prime minister. “And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

Turns out, this wasn’t just a definitive Morrison statement. It was a condition of the Americans agreeing to go ahead.

As the Aukus deal reached its crucial end point, the US made it plain to senior members of the Morrison government that if there was any suggestion the submarine deal could precipitate any broader policy change in Australia – anything at all that could generate speculation about acquiring nuclear weapons, no matter how fanciful – the deal was off. It must not, under any circumstances, give rise to any extraneous suggestion that the US was bending non-proliferation rules.

That included any talk of establishing a civil nuclear industry.

At the announcement, all three leaders – Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden – emphasised that the agreement did not and would not breach the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

“I want to be exceedingly clear about this: we’re not talking about nuclear-armed submarines,” Biden said at the time, throwing in a shout-out to snubbed and furious France, a “key partner and ally”. “These are conventionally armed submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. This technology is proven. It’s safe. And the United States and the UK have been operating nuclear-powered submarines for decades.”

Peter Dutton was defence minister at the time. But three years later and now in opposition, his circumstances have changed. Aukus has become a Labor government project. Domestically, the historical public animosity towards nuclear power also appears to have softened – at least in principle.

So the Coalition is going all-in, no longer responsible for upholding the guarantees of government nor at the same risk of sparking proliferation speculation that might arise if it did so while in office.

And now Aukus isn’t a handbrake but its own nuclear weapon against Anthony Albanese and his Labor colleagues who are now the agreement’s custodians.

On Wednesday, the fact that journalists gave him no direct opportunity to enlist Aukus to counter inevitable nuclear safety scares did not stop Dutton from doing it.

“There will be a reactor there where submariners, in Australian uniforms, will be sleeping in a submarine alongside the reactor in a safe way,” Dutton said, in a lengthy response to a question that was actually about whether he could convince the Senate to overturn a nuclear ban.

To a question about the viability of getting reactors up and running within 10 years, he said: “I mean, this is a good question to the government in terms of Aukus. The Aukus submarines will arrive in 2040 and that’s a decision that we’ve taken now, with a lead time.”

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A question about convincing Australians that nuclear technology is safe allowed him to talk about it again.

“Would a prime minister sign up to an Aukus deal using this nuclear technology to propel submarines, and to have our members of the Australian Navy on those submarines 24/7, if he thought, or she thought that that technology was unsafe?” he asked. “No.”

And there was one final opportunity, when a question came about where nuclear waste should be stored. Dutton said the waste should be stored onsite until the end of the reactor’s life and then moved to a permanent disposal site.

“That should be where the government decides for the waste from the submarines to be stored,” he said.

So Aukus has gone from being the reason Australia couldn’t have a nuclear energy industry to the Coalition’s handiest argument in favour.

It’s not the only aspect of this policy that involves a 180-degree swivel.

The seven sites the Coalition has chosen for nuclear reactors – sites that host coal-fired power stations now – are not negotiable. There was a brief suggestion late on Wednesday from Nationals’ deputy leader Perin Davey that unhappy locals would have a veto.

“If the community is absolutely adamant, we will not proceed,” Davey told Sky News.

Littleproud and Dutton said she was wrong.

But in late 2019, back when the Morrison government was briefly entertaining the idea of nuclear power again, it was the Davey – not the Dutton – view prevailing.

In December that year, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy published a report entitled Not Without Your Approval: a Way Forward for Nuclear Technology in Australia. The chair of its inquiry into the pre-requisites for nuclear energy in Australia was Ted O’Brien.

Its terms of reference noted Australia had a bipartisan moratorium on nuclear energy and declared it would “remain in place”. Nonetheless, it was commissioned to look at “the circumstances and prerequisites necessary for any future government’s consideration of nuclear energy generation”.

O’Brien wrote a foreword, which included a final note headed “Honouring the will of the people”.

“The Committee believes the will of the people should be honoured by requiring broad community consent before any nuclear facility is built,” O’Brien wrote. “That is, nuclear power plants or waste facilities should not be imposed upon local communities that are opposed to proposals relating to nuclear facilities presented to them.”

But that was then and this is now.

Whether to the US government or the federal parliament, it seems nuclear undertakings given in government no longer apply.



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