It’s Time for Australia to Get Serious About Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

Marianne Hanson

Australia has long been a champion of nuclear non-proliferation. It has observed the electorate’s wishes about the undesirability of developing any local nuclear industry, for military or non-military purposes. And it has also, at times, been a strong advocate for nuclear disarmament, as demonstrated by the creation in 1995 of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This project surveyed the utility of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world, and concluded that a phased, balanced and verifiable move towards full nuclear disarmament should be put in place.1

The Canberra Commission made the following points: because of their imprecise nature and the massive and indiscriminate destruction aimed at civilians, nuclear weapons have little military utility; that the ongoing risks of accidental or inadvertent use were too high; and that proliferation by other states remained a danger. Nuclear deterrence is simply too risky a strategy. These views are in line with those of several analysts and political leaders, including US former Secretary of Defence William Perry and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.2 Even that Cold War warrior, President Ronald Reagan, together with Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1987 declared that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons should be undertaken.3

Although the number of these weapons has dropped considerably after the Cold War ended, over 13,000 still exist, many of these hundreds of times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. They are held by a handful of countries – Russia, the US, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – but instead of moving to reduce and eliminate their arsenals, these states are intent on modernising them, making them more lethal, and even expanding their arsenals.4

We must not forget that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Yet unlike the other two kinds of WMD – chemical and biological weapons – there had not been an explicit treaty making these weapons illegal.

There is now. The rest of the world has become frustrated waiting for the nuclear states to fulfil their obligation to disarm, as the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other doctrines of international humanitarian law urge them to do. In 2017, this led 122 states to vote in the UN in favour of creating the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

This treaty entered into force on 22nd January this year. For the first time, there is a ruling which judges these weapons to be immoral, illegitimate and now clearly illegal, for all states. Unsurprisingly, none of the nuclear states have signed the TPNW yet, but the nature of such treaties is that over time they will reinforce the inhumane basis of these weapons, and can lead to more states joining. A prohibitionary treaty makes explicit the wishes and moral priorities of those who sign it, signalling an expectation of behaviour by others.

Pressure and persuasion will be placed on all the nuclear states to fulfil their commitments to disarm and to move – in a phased, balanced and verified way – to eliminating their nuclear arsenals. Attention will also be focused on financial institutions, urging them to divest from companies producing nuclear weapons.

The TPNW allows for a nuclear weapon state to join, providing that it is clearly committed to eliminating its nuclear arsenal. It also allows any ally of the US to join, provided that that state renounces any dependence on a nuclear weapons “umbrella” and removes itself from any actions which assist a nuclear weapon state to continue its nuclear weapon activities.

The first Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW (MSP1) will take place in March 2022 and will be attended by the 86 signatory states, plus many other state representatives acting as observers. Importantly, two NATO member states – Germany and Norway – will be attending. These states, and others in alliance with the US, are exploring ways in which they can remove themselves from the US nuclear umbrella and remain in NATO as non-nuclear allies. NATO was not originally set up as a nuclear alliance, and various members have long held differences on the organisation’s nuclear policies.

The growth of public support for nuclear disarmament is driving the German and Norwegian governments to attend the MSP1, and to consider signing the TPNW. Some allies of the US have already signed, recognising that security does not have to depend on the threat to annihilate millions of people.

The present Australian government has so far refused to sign the TPNW, claiming US alliance commitments. But the ANZUS treaty can continue, as long as Australia disavows any nuclear “protection” and rejects the nuclear activities associated with Pine Gap and other joint facilities.5 Should there be a legitimate need to use military force, it is more than likely that it is the significant capabilities of US conventional weapons which would be invoked.

Support for the TPNW is growing in Australia. Thirty-eight local councils have signed an appeal calling on the Federal Government to join the treaty; this was backed up by the Australian Local Government Association unanimously passing a motion in 2021 urging Australia to sign the treaty. Across the country, 238 sitting Parliamentarians – from all the major parties – including 92 in the Federal Parliament alone, have pledged to work for Australia to sign the treaty. There is also a strong “Parliamentary Friends of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” group.

Significantly, the Labor Party at its national conference in 2018 voted in favour of a resolution setting out that Labor, in government, would sign and ratify the TPNW.6 This aligns well with previous Labor initiatives, such as the Canberra Commission mentioned above. Community support is also growing, from faith-based leaders, youth and environmental groups, Rotarians, unions, and others. Public opinion polls show that over 70 percent of Australians support Australia joining the TPNW.7

Against all this, however, was the announcement made in September 2021 by Scott Morrison that Australia will embark on a new trilateral security partnership with the UK and the US (AUKUS), which includes the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. This was a significant statement, but it came as a monumental surprise to many, both in and outside the government. It has disturbed many of our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific and the South Pacific, and has been described as a regrettable “reversion to the Anglosphere”.8

Most importantly, it could damage our reputation as a state which staunchly upholds the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If the deal goes ahead, Australia would become the first non-nuclear weapon state to be given this nuclear technology; the proposed submarines will run on highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, which could remain outside the scope of IAEA safeguards.

Morrison mentioned that this did not mean that Australia will acquire nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the proposal sets a dangerous precedent where other states will argue for similar concessions. It has been judged as an unwise decision by numerous non- proliferation specialists.9

All this raises the question of where Australia stands regarding the problematic issue of nuclear material and technology. For a country that has resisted developing nuclear energy and has consistently been opposed to nuclear waste-dumps, AUKUS raises more concerns than it provides iron-clad guarantees of security against China. It will undoubtedly have emboldened nuclear power advocates in Australia.

AUKUS thus signifies a move towards, rather than away from, close entwinement with nuclear materials and technology. At a time when the world has made nuclear weapons illegal and sought to strengthen non-proliferation, and when key states are closing down their nuclear energy plants, Australia appears to be favouring a nuclear future at odds with its citizens.

The nuclear submarine deal may or may not happen. But Canberra should proceed to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; this will at least allay international concerns about weapons proliferation. It should also send observers to the MSP1 next March. With the TPNW now an established part of international law Australia, like all states which have not yet signed, will be faced with the choice of either committing to a rules- based order where international law, human rights, and respect for the UN prevail, or remaining subservient to an archaic system which threatens massive civilian and environmental destruction.


Marianne Hanson (Ph.D.) is Co-Chair ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Australia.


End notes

  1. Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, DFAT, Canberra 1996. Available at

  2. From 2007, Perry and Kissinger, together with George Shultz and Sam Nunn, published a series of op eds in the Wall Street Journal. The first of these was titled, ‘A world free of nuclear weapons’, 4 January 2007. Available at https://

  3. In 1984, Reagan had stated that “I just happen to believe that we cannot go into another generation with the world living under the threat of those weapons and knowing that some madman can push the button some place ... My hope has been, and my dream, that we can get the Soviet Union to join us in starting verifiable reductions of the weapons. Once you start down that road, they’ve got to see how much better off we would both be if we got rid of them entirely.” Interview, Time Magazine, 30 October 1984,

  4. Hans Kristensen, ‘Nuclear weapons modernization: a threat to the NPT?’ Arms Control Association, 2019. https://

  5. See Choosing Humanity,

  6. Labor’s statement can be found here: weapon-ban-treaty-tuesday-18-december-2018

  7. IPSOS poll 2018. See

  8. Dee Carol Johnson, ‘An intersection society no more?’ Inside Story, 4 October 2021. intersection-society-no-more/

  9. See for example, Trevor Findlay, deal-consequences-for-global-nuclear-governance; Tariq Rauf, powered-submarines-will-risk-opening-a-pandoras-box-of-proliferation.html; and Sébastien Phillipe, https:// nonproliferation-regime/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=MondayNewsletter 09202021&utm_content=NuclearRisk_TheNewNuclearSubmarineAnnouncement_09172021