THE prospect of increased visits from nuclear submarines and eventually housing Australia’s own atomic fleet just off the Cockburn coast has set off a reaction in Fremantle’s once-powerful anti-nuclear lobby.
On Tuesday, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, US president Joe Biden and US prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the first major initiative of the AUKUS security partnership, which will see Australia purchase up to five US-made Virginia class submarines from next decade, before building its own SSK-AUKUS submarines using technology from all three countries some time during the early 2040s.
All up the program is expected to cost $368 billion, with $8b set aside to upgrade the Stirling Naval Base in Cockburn Sound as the fleet’s home port.
“As early as 2027, the United States and United Kingdom plan to begin forward rotations of [conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines] to Australia to accelerate the development of the Australian naval personnel, workforce, infrastructure and regulatory system necessary to establish a sovereign SSN capability,” the three leaders said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
The announcement and the short timeframe before more submarines start appearing on the horizon brought together some veterans of Fremantle’s anti-nuclear campaigns of the ‘80s, and some newcomers, to form Stop AUKUS WA and launch a Nuke Free Cockburn Sound campaign.
Octogenarian Judy Blythe attended the first protest at South Beach just after the announcement was made, one of many in her 70 years of opposing nuclear powered weaponry.
“When I was 12, I found out about Hiroshima and it has influenced me for life,” Ms Blythe said.
Her family never discussed the issue, so when a geography teacher described 100,000 people dying “in a flash” she initially had to keep her fears secret.
“I just couldn’t get over that war ever happened in a civilian population, I thought it sort of nicely happened in the middle of the Pacific, where my dad had been to war.”
Ms Blythe said purchasing the nuclear submarines threatened to derail the cordial relationships Australia had forged with many Southeast Asian countries: “We should be much more powerful as a middle power if we stand on our own.”
“And we look like suckers on the world stage because we have been just calmly following the United States of America, and before that the ‘mother country’.”
Renowned peace activist and anti-nuclear campaigner Jo Valentine, who the Herald once reported on being arrested for “intimidating” a visiting US Navy aircraft carrier, said AUKUS was “very risky” for Australia.
“By getting involved in the nuclear machinery of war, Australia is inviting targeting of our country in the horrible event of any future war,” Ms Valentine said.
“The nuclear submarines will be for the benefit of the US Navy, paid for by Australia.
“It makes no sense to squander billions of taxpayer dollars on boats that would not defend Australia, but which would increase tensions in our region.
“Our Pacific neighbours certainly don’t want Australia to go nuclear.”
Ms Valentine said there would be “grave consequences” if there were an accident involving the submarines close to WA’s coast and the state’s port safety plans were “woefully inadequate”.
Cockburn resident and Stop AUKUS member Chris Johansen said housing nuclear submarines, and possibly having visitors with nuclear missiles aboard, would make Stirling Naval Base a “prime” military target.
“From a military perspective, nuclear submarines are not suited to protecting Australia’s coastline, but are meant for distant deployment in global conflicts,” Dr Johansen said.
“In any case, the evolution of underwater drone technology is likely to render the planned submarines obsolete before they are built.”
Former Fremantle council Sam Wainwright, a member of Walyalup Climate Action, said the future of life on Earth hung in the balance.
“We face the fight of our lives to stop runaway global warming,” he said.
“We can’t possible pour billions of dollars into a new cold war and meet the challenge of climate change.
“It’s one or the other.”
by STEVE GRANT