I had a funny experience a few weeks ago. So there I was, on my way to pick up the kids from school, and Senate Question Time came onto the radio. A West Australian Green (Senator Ludlam) was asking the Minister for Defence to finally take notice of a question he’d asked three months before.
The reason it got my attention was contained in one word: nuclear. I was hooked.
The Senator’s question had many parts, and several of them really made me wonder. In particular, he wondered about Australian cities’ preparedness for nuclear attack or nuclear accident.
Wow, thought I. Not often heard in the Australian public conversation. I thought back to 2009, when, desperate to resuscitate my Army career, I considered reinventing myself as a nuclear expert. When I visited Defence’s CBRN staff, I found a tiny group of people completely focused on chemical defence. Nothing else. I tried to say “nuclear” and nobody was interested.
Now I know the national position on nuclear defence. It’s a non-issue, because America will protect us forever. For free. Even while America is going broke. Even while American forces shift to Africa and American public opinion shifts to isolationism. Apparently we should expect the US to, if necessary, fight a nuclear-armed foe on our behalf. We’re that important.
So it may be totally academic to worry about such things, but I do. And my inner geek compelled me to run some numbers, just to get a feel for the problem. (The equations are at http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/.) Here’s what I came up with.
Imagine a 475-kiloton two-stage thermonuclear device airburst 10000 feet above Parliament House, Canberra. (475 kilotons is the yield of one of the four W88 warheads atop a Trident D5 SLBM. Granted, one of those will never be fired at Canberra, but it gives us an average-sized starting point. 10000 feet is a fairly standard airburst height.)
What are the immediate effects? (Not fallout, or lasting contamination, or nuclear winter. The effects on the day.)
- Third-degree burns on every exposed person and animal for at least 8.4 kilometres – that’s all the inner northern suburbs out to the highway junction, all the inner south, all of Woden and Weston Creek, and parts of the outer town centres and Queanbeyan. All these people will die, because the health care they need will not be available. Here’s a sketch of what that means:
- Total building destruction of even the strongest reinforced concrete from Red Hill to Russell. Destruction of all ordinary buildings, homes, shops, office blocks etc from the Tuggeranong Parkway to Majura Road, from Hindmarsh Drive to Macquarie Drive. Many more buildings destroyed and damaged throughout Canberra and Queanbeyan. Those not burned will be buried under rubble.
- Lethal radiation in the inner north and inner south, for those who somehow avoided being crisped or crushed.
Of course, that means the loss of nearly all hospital capacity, roads choked with rubble, destruction of most emergency services, loss of power, water, communications and sewerage, broken gas lines, uncontrollable fires and flying objects including cars.
All this is from one relatively small weapon. This is not a multi-megaton city-smashing device from the Cold War days. It’s the small, accurate, sort of nuke deployed by today’s humane professional militaries.
That’s the threat we refuse to consider, believing ourselves safe.
And of course, we are, until the day Kim Jong-Un means what he says. Or any of the overcrowded nations of the world decide to take an empty continent for themselves. Faced with the choice of colonisation or the scenario I described above, how could we resist? (Silly me, I forgot. The US will risk that happening to, say, Chicago, in order to prevent it happening in Melbourne.)
Or do we believe the world’s several nations and non-state actors will all voluntarily give up the power these weapons confer?
I don’t believe Australia’s ever really considered owning an independent nuclear deterrent. Maybe the time for that debate is here.