Australia’s nuclear security leadership far exceeds middle-power pretensions

2012 Nuclear Security Summit Plenary Hall, COEX, Seoul, Korea, 27 March 2012

There’s been a long-running debate on The Strategist about whether Australia should be content with middle-power status. It’s a term that many Australians think downplays their country’s strategic importance, especially its growing centrality to the security and stability of the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. This debate might appear self-absorbed and parochial to many outside Australia, but it has important implications for international security cooperation.

In several key areas, Canberra has demonstrated a level of international leadership that has far exceeded any middle-power pretensions. Nuclear security is one of these. Over the years, Australian nuclear security experts have honed their expertise and transformed Australia into a world leader in nuclear security practices, both in securing materials and facilities at home and in helping build nuclear security capacity abroad. They’ve learned key lessons along the way, including how to successfully transfer critical skills to neighbouring states, how to help national and international organisations develop and improve nuclear security mechanisms and guidance, and how to build international consensus around the need to take nuclear and radiological terrorism risks seriously.

Australia’s efforts have boosted Australia’s national security, that of its near neighbours, and the rest of the world. Despite this, the country’s nuclear security legacy isn’t valued as highly as it should be in Australia’s decision-making circles. A lack of publicity surrounding Australia’s nuclear and radiological security work means that most Australians, including many in the political and strategic realms, don’t fully appreciate the nature of global nuclear and radiological threats or the extent to which Australia’s expertise and outreach efforts are respected and relied upon around the world (as are Australia’s efforts in non-proliferation and disarmament). This helps explain why one of Australia’s flagship projects, known as the Regional Security of Radiological Sources (RSRS) Project, was recently cancelled. There’s a disconnect between Australia’s nuclear security champions, who operate both in the official and non-governmental sphere, and Canberra’s political elite.

The new Abbott government can address this problem by launching a nuclear security strategy that would require a modest financial output (about $2 million per year) and yet reap significant national, regional and international rewards. Such a strategy would consist of:

  • Re-launching the RSRS project. This project was the most advanced of its kind and proved extremely successful in all respects, so much so that the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saw it as a trailblazer. Time is of essence: the sooner it’s revitalised, the better so that the network it’s developed since 2004 won’t have broken up.
  • Taking the lead in creating a new regional mechanism centred on improving nuclear security in the Asia-Pacific more generally. This should be a multi-stakeholder effort conducted in close collaboration with the IAEA, domestic nuclear agencies across the region and the nuclear security centres of excellence in Japan, South Korea and China. Efforts should focus on capacity-building in Southeast Asia – particularly Vietnam, which is set to develop relatively ambitious nuclear power program, and Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, which have ambitions to follow suit.
  • Starting a public education campaign both in Australia and at the international level, making full use of Australia’s domestic agencies as well as the IAEA and the Nuclear Security Summit process, to raise awareness of nuclear security challenges and opportunities.

These initiatives would serve the triple purpose of helping to reduce nuclear dangers, achieve Australia’s broader strategic objectives, and fulfil its international obligations—and all at a very modest cost. Nuclear security is an area that has long offered Canberra a ‘fair go’ to turn a small investment into an ability to exert leadership in the international arena and, by doing so, strengthen ties with key allies and new partners. The upcoming Nuclear Security Summit, which is due to be held in The Hague at the end of March, provides the Abbott government with the perfect opportunity to do this, building on many years of nuclear security efforts that have far exceeded middle-power pretensions and earned Australia its reputation as a global leader.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is director of research at the Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University. David Santoro is a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. These ideas are further elaborated in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Australia’s Leadership Role (Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, January 2014). Image courtesy of Flickr user: IAEA Imagebank.