September 29th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

FEDERAL ELECTION 2007: NCC policy initiatives on biofuels and Internet safety

EDITORIAL: Horse flu outbreak: time to face hard facts

CANBERRA OBSERVED: John Howard's risky succession strategy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Will we learn from our quarantine debacle?

DEFENCE: Emerging nuclear challenges for Australia

NATIONAL SECURITY: Another triumph for the ABC or potential calamity?

EMPLOYMENT: Offshore assets most Australians never see

SCHOOLS: How much should we pay teachers who don't deliver?

LIFE ISSUES: 'Rosita', poster-child for pro-abortion lobby

UNITED STATES: Questions over Republican nomination

OPINION: Disgrace of the West's 'cognitive dissonance'

AS THE WORLD TURNS: libertarianism, lesbian's twins, Chinese toys, anti-Americanism

Kevin Rudd's motherhood statements (letter)

Kevinism or a Ruddism? (letter)

Facility with languages (letter)

Australia needs American help with defence (letter)


BOOKS: FAITH THROUGH REASON, by Janne Haaland Matláry

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Emerging nuclear challenges for Australia

by Peter Coates

News Weekly, September 29, 2007
How worried should we be about the increasing number of nuclear powers in our region? Peter Coates reports.

The possibility of mushroom clouds over Australia's major cities and Pine Gap is unlikely at present. But the threat will steadily grow as the increasing number of nuclear powers in our region produce more weapons within range of our country.

Australia's energy reserves are increasingly valuable to other countries that might, one day, back up their energy security concerns with force or the threats of force.

In the next decade Australia will be an island within overlapping Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Their influence will be expressed in political, economic and military terms. Within the military sphere nuclear weapons are the most potent symbol and reality of national power - weapons Australia cannot counter alone.

The issue of nuclear threats is wide-ranging and is covered in great detail in such disciplines as public health disaster-planning, nuclear safeguards engineering, counterterrorism theory, strategic defence studies and game theory. These disciplines have attempted to assess threats in quantitative terms, but no measures are widely accepted. When measures are factored together they give no better result than a subjective assessment. Hence this brief look is subjective.

Nuclear terrorism

Most current nuclear threats are "radiological", which means situations in which radioactive material is released without an actual nuclear explosion. This may involve accidental spills of radioactive material that is mined, transported or stored.

Dispersal through an accident or sabotage at Australia's one nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights is also possible. Radiological threats of all types will increase if Australia opts to build reactors for nuclear power or nuclear explosives (highly enriched uranium and plutonium).

Concerns about radiological and nuclear terrorism are captured in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2007 to 2011 which states on page 9:

"The next five years will be challenging both at home and abroad, and will be characterised by:

"- the persistent terrorist threat from Islamic extremists, including the potential use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials;

"- the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction..."

Radiological terrorism may come in the form of dirty bombs, which would, in theory, use high explosive to distribute highly radioactive material over key parts of a city. The threat of dirty bombs was of great concern shortly after 9/11, but perhaps less so now due to assessments of the difficulty for terrorists to handle radioactive material and build the required complex bombs.

Nuclear terrorism, involving an actual nuclear explosion, may became more likely if nuclear-armed Pakistan descends into anarchy. This would increase the chances that the custodians of its nuclear weapons may become undisciplined and pass on some weapons to terrorists.

Chaos in Pakistan may also result in key Pakistani nuclear scientists finding employment in rogue states (Iran and North Korea), in Saudi Arabia or by Islamic terrorist organisations. The possibility that the terrorist organisation Hezbollah would act as distributor of nuclear weapons produced by an unbalanced Iran explains much of the worries expressed about Iran building "the Bomb".

Nuclear terrorism, however, is highly unlikely because extensive facilities are required to maintain the weapons. Dangerous radiation levels from nuclear material within a weapon, as well as the possibility of premature explosion due to poor maintenance, make these weapons a dicey proposition for even the most fixated terrorist.

Foreign threats

More countries in our region are producing many more nuclear weapons that can reach Australia. Such countries may not yet have a desire to threaten us, but the proliferation of types, numbers and nationalities of weapons may well be increasing the threat.

According to Greenpeace's 2005 paper, Nuclear Threat in Our Region:

"... 140 countries now have the basic technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Over 40 countries have the materials and know-how to build nuclear weapons quickly, a capacity that is referred to as 'rapid break-out'."

In our region Japan is the country that technically would find it most easy to be the next nuclear-weapon nation. Japan has 55 operating nuclear reactors with a large stockpile of plutonium that could be used in weapons. It probably has the technical know-how to produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year.

Japan has also developed a reliable long-range missile (the M5), originally for scientific use, but which has been retained by Japan for "national interest" purposes.

Not surprisingly, Russia is the most likely country to target Australia from the standpoint that it still sees us as an important regional ally of its main opponent, the United States. Russian land-based missiles, as well as nuclear cruise missile and ballistic missile submarines, all present a threat to Australia. In a limited nuclear war none of our major cities might be hit; but Canberra and Pine Gap, with roles that include signals intelligence and communications, would certainly be high-value targets.

North Korea is currently responding to international pressure to shut down its nuclear-weapons reactors, but probably retains substantial stocks of weapons-grade plutonium sufficient to produce more nuclear weapons. Australia will eventually be in range, but is unlikely to be a target of North Korea's Taepodong 2 nuclear missile which was unsuccessfully tested last year.

India and China have been in a little known nuclear arms race since the 1960s when border skirmishes broke out (and tensions remain). Each is developing longer-range missiles capable of carrying the thermonuclear devices ("H-bombs") that both have developed and tested. An Indian test occurred in 1998. While Australia is not the perceived target, this Asian nuclear escalation is a poorly recognised concern.

China has about 20 land-based missiles deployed with a range sufficient to hit Australia, but the US, Russia and India would be more likely targets. However, China is building submarines capable of firing nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles and operating closer to Australia.

India this year successfully tested the Agni 3 missile with a theoretical range of up to 12,000km (sufficient to hit Australia), and is also developing the Surya missile with a projected range of 20,000km. India, like China, is developing a potent submarine capability. From 2009, India will operate the first of three or four nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines.

Future energy shortages

We can envisage that, in the future, China and India's increasing need for "energy security" (certainty of adequate energy supplies) will increase economic, political and military pressure on Australia. Price aside, the words of Chinese and Indian negotiators in energy trade deals carry more weight because their countries have many nuclear weapons, and we continue to have none.

China and India are mentioned because it is widely anticipated by economic forecasters in the US that the economies of these two countries will overtake that of the US - China in five years, and India in 20.

According to the 2007 edition of the CIA's The World Factbook: "Measured on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, China in 2006 stood as the second-largest economy in the world after the US." PPP measures relative purchasing power for baskets of goods and services in each country.

The CIA comments: "The data derived from the PPP method probably provide the best available starting point for comparisons of economic strength and well-being between countries."

According to the CIA, the Chinese GDP is currently US$10.17 trillion (one trillion is a million million!), while that of the US is US$13.13 trillion. Australian GDP meanwhile is a paltry US$0.674 trillion or 1/15th that of China's!

If China's annual GDP growth rates continue to run at 10.7 per cent and the US at only 3.2 per cent, China will have a larger economy (on the PPP basis) than the US in the next five years. India meanwhile is predicted to surpass the US within the next 20 years.

World oil production may begin to decline in a phenomenon known as "peak oil" in the 2020s, according to some estimates. A possible severe world energy shortage would coincide with China and India becoming the world's largest economies. They will also have large nuclear arsenals. Increasing world demand for energy will lead to shortages and higher prices.

Competition for energy among the major powers will grow. With the US dominating oil-bearing areas in the Middle East, and Russia sitting on its vast national reserves of oil and gas, the newly emerging powers, China and India, will rely on alternative energy sources and much more intensively. This will make it more likely that they will put pressure on Australia as the supplier of cheap uranium, coal and gas.


What does all this mean in terms of nuclear threats and responses? Australia alone cannot defend itself from conventional or nuclear attack or nuclear threats (such as a nuclear-armed naval blockade) without an ally. That ally has been the US for over 60 years, and we have the common interest, or common problem, of having comparatively shrinking economies to keep us together.

In the face of this growing Chinese (and perhaps Indian) threat, the US seems to be making efforts to strengthen its ANZUS military alliance with Australia. On September 5, 2007, Australia and the US signed a Treaty on Defence Trade Cooperation.

Its relevance to nuclear threats to Australia may only become obvious after several years. The Defence Trade Treaty makes it easier for the US to pass on advanced weapons technology to Australia, including technology for shooting down incoming nuclear missiles.

Nuclear threats are therefore a complex picture extending from accidents with nuclear waste to nuclear war. Economic changes in our region are an increasingly important influence on military threats. The US is becoming less dominant in an economic and nuclear sense, while China and India are rising to prominence.

How Australia responds to these changes is a complex challenge.

- the author Peter Coates is an independent researcher who formerly worked for the Australian Government on intelligence and policy issues. His website Pete's Blog is at

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