Why Has Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal Been Making Waves in the Pacific?

Nick Bradman

In September 2021, Australia unveiled a new security partnership with Britain and America (AUKUS), under which Australia will acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. After the deal was announced, attention was primarily focused on the controversy it sparked with France—with whom Australia had abruptly broken an existing deal for conventionally powered submarines. But AUKUS also made waves closer to Australian shores.


The reaction of Pacific leaders to AUKUS made it clear that France was not the only party to feel blindsided. Kiribati President Taneti Maamau expressed surprise at Australia’s lack of “courtesy.….to discuss [the deal] with its neighbours,” while Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare remarked that he “learned of.….AUKUS in the media” and would have expected consultation with “members of the Pacific family.” However, poor communication about the partnership is not Pacific Islanders’ only concern: AUKUS also conflicts with long-standing anti-nuclear ideals in the region. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister echoed this sentiment, observing that Pacific Islanders “want to protect [their] very peaceful part of planet earth.” Similar views have been expressed by other nations in the region. While speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, the Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Sogavare stated that his country “would like to keep [its] region nuclear-free [and did] not support any form of militarisation.….that could threaten [its] stability.” Similarly, Vanuatu’s Opposition Leader expressed that the deal made him “fearful for [the] Pacific[‘s] future,” and New Zealand reiterated that nuclear-powered vessels “could not come into [their] waters” — as has been the case since 1984.


From these remarks, it is evident that AUKUS has “touched a nerve” for several Pacific nations, and understanding this strong response requires an appreciation of the deal’s links to two key histories: nuclear testing and colonialism.


Although downplayed in Western media, nuclear testing in the Pacific was extensive. From 1946–1996, approximately 318 tests were conducted by France, Britain and America—primarily in French Polynesia, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands respectively. These tests had devastating personal and environmental impacts. Many Indigenous persons were forcibly relocated from their homes. Nuclear fallout harmed people’s health, and that of the environment in both nearby and distant communities. Women reported having unrecognisable “jelly-fish babies,” various populations suffered increased cancer rates, and delicate ecosystems were destroyed. Today, the leakage of radioactive waste into the Pacific from former “containment sights” (such as the compromised ‘Runit dome’) is an ongoing problem. Australia was also a British test sight. However, the Australian government collaborated with British and American operations in the region (which ran until the late 1950s and 60s), and only officially criticised ongoing French testing in the 1970s.


Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand the opposition of Pacific Islanders to nuclear-propelled, military vessels in their region. As the Fijian Prime Minister noted: this opposition “is not based on an abstraction [but] real experience.” Indeed, the dangers of the Pacific becoming a ‘highway for nuclear submarines’ are not merely hypothetical. In 2005, for instance, an American nuclear submarine hit a seamount near the Federated States of Micronesia—and with “remarkable” fortune— avoided a breach of its reactor. Another concern is that Australia’s proposed submarines would likely be powered by weapons-grade uranium, and could set a precedent that undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: acquiring uranium for “submarine propulsion [could] become cover for making bombs.” As Kiribati recently argued, the deal ultimately “increases the risks [of nuclear-weapons] proliferation.”


A second key reason for resistance to AUKUS is that it forms part of a pattern of neo-colonialism in the eyes of Pacific nations. It represents a deal constructed by former colonial powers without regard for the perspectives of the Pacific peoples that it will impact. In this way, AUKUS is reminiscent of the ”many colonial processes that affect the Pacific” and of other contemporary forms of “imperial exploitation”—including nuclear testing, the dispossession of land, the commercialisation of oceans, climate change, and the proposed dumping of nuclear waste into the Pacific by Japan (and backed by America). AUKUS thus seems like yet another example of Pacific Islanders bearing the consequences of foreign powers’ unilateral decision-making.


However, for Pacific Islanders, a silver lining to these histories is the resistance displayed by Pacific nations—particularly in collectively advocating for a nuclear-free Pacific. Indeed, nuclear testing “was a key political driver” in the founding of the Pacific’s peak regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum, in 1971. So too did the diverse communities of the region display “Pacific-wide collaboration” through the “Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement,” which emerged in the 1970s. This movement facilitated the Rarotonga Treaty in 1986, which prevents the placement of nuclear weapons or dumping of nuclear waste by member states in the South Pacific. More recently, Pacific advocacy played a “crucial role” in the widespread adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons.


The region’s legacy of advocating for a nuclear-free Pacific—along with its recent opposition to AUKUS—underscores a belief of leading Pacific scholar Epeli Hau’ofa that the Pacific’s “sense of regional identity.….is felt most acutely.….in the movement toward a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific.” In response to regional threats, Hau’ofa believed, the Pacific was not afraid to show a “united front.” Indeed, through the Pacific Islands Forum in particular, the region has increasingly displayed an “assertive Pacific diplomacy” and sought to “take [collective] ownership of its future.” As this legacy of activism reveals, Pacific Islanders are not afraid to make their collective voice heard. This is a history on which the Pacific must continue to build, and one that Australia would be wise to remember.


Nick Bradman is a fifth-year Bachelor of Laws (Honours) / Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy & Economics student at the Australian National University, currently studying under Dr Kerryn Baker.