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Health professions urged to speak up on AUKUS and its threats to health and safety

Introduction by Croakey: “While media and political attention is focused on whether AUKUS can be delivered, in the background lurks a strategic question: even if we can get AUKUS done, is it even a good idea?”

This question is raised by Sam Roggeveen in an article published this week by Inside Story, ‘Spiky questions remain for AUKUS proponents’, that challenges the defence and strategic rationale behind the AUKUS military agreement.

Roggeveen is Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, and author of a book released last year, The Echidna Strategy, which puts forward an alternative strategy to AUKUS.

But what about the health issues at stake?

In the article below, Dr Sue Wareham OAM, National President of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), argues that the health professions need to engage with health-focused analysis of the AUKUS military alliance.

“AUKUS threatens health at several levels, and health voices should be saying so loudly and clearly,” Wareham writes below.


Sue Wareham writes:

At first sight there might not seem to be much connection between health and the AUKUS military alliance. But the threats posed by AUKUS to health are multiple and strong, at local, national, regional and global levels. A serious examination of those threats should form an important part of preventive healthcare.

The AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States was announced in September 2021 by the leaders of the three nations, at that time Australia’s PM being Scott Morrison. The agreement is one of greatly expanded development and sharing of military hardware and technology, in preparation for a confrontation with China.

A key part of the deal is for Australia to acquire submarines powered by on-board nuclear reactors, and there will also be greater access for US and UK nuclear submarines to Australian ports. Morrison’s decision involved zero consultation with the port communities (and barely a word with anyone else).

Naval reactors, like all reactors, carry risks to health. The risk of accident from a naval nuclear reactor is low but nevertheless it is not zero, and with nuclear power the potential damage is high.

Nuclear reactors carry large quantities of radioactive material which, if released as a result of accident or military attack, can contaminate the environment with radioactive material for very long periods, causing elevated rates of cancer and other health problems. There is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation. For local communities, there are many questions about the health implications of having a nuclear reactor in port.

Similarly, there are many questions about how Australia will manage the high level nuclear waste (HLW) that the submarines will produce. It will need to be contained to minimise any risk to health and the environment for over 10,000 years – clearly a toxic problem for every future generation.

One of the most striking features of AUKUS is its eye-watering financial cost – for the submarines alone (let alone every other bit of AUKUS weaponry) $368 billion, a figure that will almost certainly blow out dramatically. No financial limits are set.

When former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg learned of the submarine plan, he said “Everything is affordable if it’s a priority”, an approach to military spending that the Albanese Government has embraced wholeheartedly.

What then does that say about the value that governments place on the work of thousands of healthcare workers who are overworked, underpaid and struggling in chronically underfunded areas of healthcare, and on those whom they care for? Is looking after them not a priority that deserves the same “whatever it takes” approach to funding?

Nurses speaking out

The NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association is among health professional organisations which are speaking out on this. The Association has called for the Government to withdraw from AUKUS, end the commitment to acquire nuclear submarines and direct money saved to healthcare, education and protection of the environment.

In the matter of education and training, where the training of more healthcare workers is needed, along with professionals to address a host of climate, environmental and social problems, different agendas are at work.

Already, starved of adequate funding, universities are active in seeking some of AUKUS’s largesse, and last week the US Studies Centre at Sydney University released a new report promoting a greater role for universities in helping gain acceptance (“social licence”) for AUKUS. There has been no discussion about whether we want our universities skewed towards preparations for warfare.

However, the implications of AUKUS for health go much further, and become even more alarming. Many scholars warn that it will increase tensions within our region and take us one step closer to a major war between the US and China. The health impacts of such a war would be catastrophic and long-lasting, with health professionals left trying to repair the shattered bodies and minds.

Beyond the catastrophe of a “conventional” war is the real risk of a nuclear war between the US and China, with global health impacts on an unprecedented scale. They include the possibility of nuclear winter and global famine.

With such an array of threats to local, national and global health which are at least magnified by, if not caused by, the AUKUS agreement, preventive healthcare becomes paramount.

Health professionals are not experts in military matters, but we are experts in health and therefore have a legitimate and necessary role in addressing the health threats posed by AUKUS – before they occur, not after.

In the struggle to achieve the critically-important Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it was the health and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons that played a central and decisive role. Military arguments in favour of nuclear weapons were discarded in favour of the upholding of human health and well-being.

On the matter of the human costs of a major war in our region – a matter on which military and political planners for such a war are silent – health advocacy is needed again. The focus should be the same as for any major health threat: on prevention. This means the prevention of war against China.

On peace generally, health advocacy is needed, and research is needed. Peace research, including on the links between peace and health, has long been neglected in academia in Australia, with extremely few centres remaining. To marginalise peace research while paying lip service to peace is like refusing to fund cancer research and expecting to beat cancer.

Professor Stuart Rees, who was co-founder of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, wrote last year: “At this time of wars co-existing with devastation from climate change, voices for peace need to be heard, their priorities more dominant in national conversations than the political excitement surrounding the purchase of nuclear powered submarines.”

AUKUS threatens health at several levels, and health voices should be saying so loudly and clearly.

• Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)


Further reading

Labor, Greens & Defence Experts call for AUKUS Parliamentary Inquiry: media release, The Australia Institute, 18 March 2024 (and associated open letter)

FACT SHEET:  Trilateral Australia-UK-US Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines, The White House, 13 March 2024

Briefing paper by the UK House of Commons, 2021 (includes a chapter on Australia)


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