DR CHRIS JOHANSEN is a consultant in agricultural research and development with 55 years’ experience in the safe use of radioisotopes in agricultural research in Australia and internationally.
INCREASED visits of nuclear powered, and possibly nuclear armed, submarines to Stirling Naval Base, Garden Island under the AUKUS arrangement naturally raise concerns about nuclear safety, primarily for the region of Cockburn Sound but also for the entire Perth metropolitan area.
It would be expected that reassurance on nuclear safety could be found in the manual for dealing with nuclear powered warships (NPW) in WA waters, HAZMAT Annexe A, published by the State Emergency Management Committee.
However, a detailed reading of this document, and recent responses to questions in the WA Parliament and a Senate committee, raise serious doubts about just how safe we are.
First indications of the inadequacy of the HAZMAT Annexe A guidelines are in its introduction.
It states this report only covers “unclassified material”, realising that much of the information regarding military nuclear safety is “classified” and thus not publicly available.
It also tries to reassure that the chances of a nuclear accident are “less than one in a million per reactor per year”, and thus not really worth worrying too much about.
Firstly, it is unrealistic to offer probabilities of an accident if aspects of the process are unknown, or classified.
Secondly it is known that at least nine nuclear submarines have sunk due some form of accident, and it is likely that other accidents have remained military secrets.
HAZMAT Annexe A lists in detail the roles and responsibilities of many agencies likely to be associated with nuclear safety aspects of a visiting NPW.
It clearly states: “The state government, through the Commissioner of Police” is responsible for managing nuclear safety of visiting NPWs.
In 2022, Greens MLC Brad Pettitt asked a number questions on notice to the emergency services minister representing the police minister concerning nuclear submarines visiting WA.
The answers to most of these questions were: “The Western Australian Police Force is not responsible for these items, this question should be referred to [another minister or organisation]”.
A basic requirement of a project coordinator is that they know what each of the participants in a project is supposed to do.
Thus the minister speaking on behalf of police should have been able to directly answer all of the questions posed, rather than simply referring them to other project participants.
This raises a serious concern about how reaction to a nuclear safety incident would be coordinated, especially considering the many organisations supposed to be involved.
How is the Commissioner of Police supposed to be the coordinator in the event of a nuclear safety incident in view of all of his other responsibilities?
Surely it would be necessary to have a pre-selected, full-time coordinator, fully conversant with all the safety issues, appropriate responses and roles of all organisations involved, who could devote full attention to the task when called upon.
Under Item 2.1 it is stated:
“The anchorage locations [for NPWs] have been selected so that in the unlikely event of a reference accident it is unlikely that any residences would be impacted or persons subject to a radiation hazard requiring countermeasures.”
Firstly, the response in the HAZMAT document is based on a “reference accident”, rather than a worst case scenario.
My understanding is that emergency services anywhere are supposed to base their training and preparedness on a worst case scenario.
Secondly, Stirling Naval Base is adjacent to Rockingham and other South Metro suburbs, which, according to official documentation, should essentially disqualify this site as a base for NPWs.
In the event that a NPW with a nuclear safety breach needs to be towed out to sea, it remains unclear as to how far offshore, and whether it would be sunk.
Neither Senator Jordon Steele-John’s questions to a Senate committee nor Dr Pettitt’s parliamentary questions on this could be answered.
Sinking would threaten WA’s marine ecosystem, for millenia.
According to Item 3.3.2 of the HAZMAT document, radiation monitoring in the event of an emergency is a Commonwealth responsibility.
Surely immediate intensive radiation monitoring would be required, which would demand local rapidly deployable capability and responsibility.
Item 3.4 suggests that the public will be informed of the presence of NPWs and any accidents occurring on them.
However, in view of “national security” priorities, claimed by most governments and military organisations, there are doubts about whether this would be implemented in practise.
It remains the prerogative of the NPW to raise an alarm, rather than an impartial radiation monitor, and it is well known how reluctant the military are to own up to things going wrong.
HAZMAT Annexe A does not mention a requirement for training in the procedures to be followed by each involved organisation or rehearsal of the coordination process, which would seem necessary for such a complex process involving many organisations.
It only includes a statement that “a pre–visit exercise is conducted”, but without elaborating on what this entails. Dr Pettitt could not get any answer to his questions about “training”.
In the event of an evacuation or contamination caused by a nuclear accident HAZMAT Annexe A says local government is responsible for recovery activities.
Have Fremantle, Cockburn, Kwinana and Rockingham councils been made aware of this, particularly the technically difficult and extremely costly processes of decontamination?
WA appears far from prepared for any nuclear accident resulting from increasing visits of nuclear powered and/or armed submarines.
My conclusion about HAZMAT Annexe A is that it was written as an academic exercise designed to indicate that there is a coherent plan to deal with nuclear safety issues, but with little intention of ever implementing it due to perceived low probability of such incidents – that is, “nukewashing”.
WA even has trouble in dealing with a 6×8 mm radioactive capsule that presumably fell off the back of a truck, a so-called “one in 100 year” event!
A much bigger security concern than a nuclear safety issue on a visiting NPW, however, is that we are actually sitting in a target zone of potential future global conflict.
The rhetoric from the USA in particular is creating an atmosphere that war with China is inevitable.
And the US is obviously building up Australia as a forward base for such a conflict – e.g. AUKUS, Pine Gap, US troops and facilities in and around Darwin.
With the Doomsday clock now at 90 seconds to midnight – closer to Doomsday than in any year since the clock began in 1947 – such fears of a major conflict with China are widely considered as plausible.
Should that happen, one of the first targets would be the nuclear submarine facility at Stirling Naval Base, along with Pine Gap, Darwin, etc.