Nuclear Geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific


The Pacific region has been a geopolitical theatre of complex and multifaceted nuclear politics, marked by key milestones that have shaped the trajectory of international relations. This represents a period of seventy-five years that has passed through a related series of events marked by the near-total devastation of two Japanese cities and the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million civilians and soldiers. The period is marked by 50 years of nuclear testing and experimentation, followed by the achievement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970) and the growth of nuclear power. The nuclear-free movement was a significant political movement that established a nuclear-free Pacific with the Treaty of Rarotonga in 1985. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) came into force in 1996 but now seems undermined by recent developments and a new nuclear arms race. Peaceful uses of nuclear power have also suffered huge credibility problems with a series of nuclear accidents in the postwar era. Most recently, the formation of AUKUS in 2021 as a trilateral partnership aids Australia in acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines by the UK and the US with an explicit security focus to build an ‘Indo-Pacific’ defence capability as a bulwark against China. The compression of these movements, policies and events has dramatically changed nuclear geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific.

The Asia-Pacific region is at the forefront of nuclear geopolitics, where maritime strategies, power balances and energy security converge among global and regional powers. The interplay between these elements underscores the complexity of achieving stability and sustainable development in the face of evolving security challenges. The geopolitics of nuclear power in the Asia‒Pacific region involves a complex interplay of strategic interests, military balance and regional security concerns among key nations. The region has been identified as a significant hub for global geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, particularly in the post-Cold War era. The rise of China and India, along with the strategic interests of the United States and Japan, play a pivotal role in shaping the regional dynamics. 187 states have signed, and 174 have ratified the CBTB treaty. India, Pakistan and North Korea still have not signed, and five others (China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States) have not yet ratified the pact. Russia ratified, then withdrew its ratification to ‘mirror’ the US position.

The Asia-Pacific has emerged as a critical arena for global geopolitical significance, with the maritime balance of power and developments in nuclear weapons at sea being key factors. The national maritime doctrines and nuclear developments of China, India, Japan and the United States indicate a competitive dynamic, influencing regional stability. Prabhakar and Bateman argue the Asia-Pacific region has emerged as the hub of global geopolitical, geoeconomic and geostrategic significance in the post-Cold War period. The rise of China and the resurgence of India will be the hallmark for the next 50 years. The nuclear dynamics between China, India and Pakistan introduce significant risks of nuclear instability in the region, and regional security largely depends on how incumbent powers like the US and Japan accommodate this surge of power. According to Salman Bashir, the Indo-US defence partnership has impacted India-China relations and the strategic balance with Pakistan, highlighting the importance of managing competition responsibly. The US policy in the Asia-Pacific, particularly its Indo-Pacific strategy, has focused on the role of nuclear capabilities in balancing the growing power of China. According to Gleb Toropchin, this strategy involves enhancing the sea and air components of the US nuclear triad in the region. Stephen Lambo argues that the shift towards energy multipolarity, spurred by the increase in US energy supplies, highlights the significance of energy security in maritime East Asia. This change affects strategic allies like Japan and South Korea and relates directly to the broader geopolitical landscape in the region. Discussions on sustainable development in the Asia‒Pacific also touch upon the role of nuclear power. According to Hans Blix, Countries like Japan, the Republic of Korea, China and Taiwan have been commended for their forward-looking nuclear programs, contributing to the region’s energy security and sustainable development goals.

Nuclear Geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific: A Brief Chronology

The philosophy of the nuclear era in the Asia‒Pacific region encompasses a complex array of ideas and perspectives shaped by the unique historical, political and cultural contexts of this area, including the history of nuclear testing, Islander Indigenous environmentalism, as well as questions of sovereignty and post-colonialism that broaches health impacts of nuclear testing and a focus on human rights and justice. The Pacific region has a strong tradition of anti-nuclear activism. Philosophies of pacifism and anti-colonialism are prevalent, as many Pacific Island nations have advocated for nuclear disarmament and opposed the militarisation of their region. New Zealand-Aotearoa was a leader in this regard and helped to establish The Treaty of Rarotonga (1985), which established a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific. The presence of nuclear weapons and the history of testing in the Pacific has raised questions about regional Asia‒Pacific and global security that is further complicated by the modernisation of nuclear arms and a new nuclear arms race involving not only the five nuclear states but also India, Pakistan and North Korea. Israel and Iran are said to have nuclear weapons. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute IPRI estimated the total number of nuclear warheads acquired by nuclear states reached 12,512 in January 2023.

This article uses a chronological framework as a factual basis for the narrative of nuclear geopolitics in the Pacific to provide an understanding of nuclear justice for the Pacific, highlighting ‘the inequities and injustices of past and present nuclear weapons policies and practices that exacerbate existential risks in the region.’ The narrative can be structured in terms of the following events.

Brief Chronology of the Nuclear Asia-Pacific

  1. Beginnings of the Nuclear Age

The foundations of nuclear science were laid down in the early 20th century. In 1911, Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born physicist, proposed the nuclear model of the atom, laying the groundwork for understanding atomic structure. His pivotal 1909 gold foil experiment demonstrated that atoms have a small, dense nucleus surrounded by electrons, thereby introducing the concept of the nuclear atom and marking the commencement of the nuclear age. Rutherford’s model described the atom as mostly empty space, with a small, dense, positively charged nucleus at its centre, orbited by negatively charged electrons, similar to how planets orbit the sun.

Rutherford’s Model of the Atom

Rutherford’s model was the first to introduce the concept of a nuclear atom with a central nucleus, and it laid the groundwork for the future development of quantum mechanics and the more complex models of atomic structure that would follow. James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron in 1932, furthered this understanding, providing crucial insights into the components of atomic nuclei. With Rutherford’s model of the atom, humanity entered the atomic age and specifically the age of ‘nuclear fission,’ when Meitner and Frisch’s (1939) interpretation of German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann’s key experiment explained the so-called splitting of the nucleus released a vast amount of energy, as predicted by Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence principle (E=mc²). This theoretical explanation was a pivotal moment in the understanding of nuclear fission, and it attained an emblematic status for the atomic age, revealing a dialectics of power within the context of nuclear capability and how it is gained, maintained and challenged in the geopolitically sensitive Pacific region. In the period 1939-45, most development was focused on the atomic bomb. After 1945, this changed to harnessing nuclear energy for naval propulsion and for making electricity, and, since 1956, the prime focus has been on the technological evolution of reliable nuclear power plants, although nuclear theoretical development of nuclear fusion has also been important. There are strong signs that we have already entered the world of nuclear fusion.

  1. History of Nuclear Science and Policy: The Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)

The Manhattan Project (1942-1946) was a secret research and development project led by the US with the support of the UK and Canada during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is often referred to as the ‘father of the atomic bomb,’ was the scientific director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first nuclear weapons were designed and built. The project culminated in the detonation of three nuclear devices: the Trinity test in New Mexico and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The success of the Manhattan Project marked the beginning of the ‘atomic age’ and had profound implications for global politics, leading to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1946 by the United States Congress with the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. The AEC took over the responsibilities and assets of the Manhattan Engineer District that ran the Manhattan Project with the purpose of fostering and controlling the peacetime development of atomic science and technology. The AEC regulated the use of nuclear materials and technology, overseeing the development of nuclear power for civilian and military purposes and managing nuclear weapons development. In 1974, the AEC was replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), and, later, the Department of Energy in 1977, to better manage the growing demands and complexities of nuclear regulation and development. The Manhattan Project’s development of nuclear weapons introduced a new era in warfare and international relations, while the AEC’s role in regulating and developing nuclear technology had lasting impacts on energy policy, environmental issues and public health.

  1. Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In understanding this evolving history, it is useful to gain a comprehensive chronology that provides a narrative framing to chronicles beginning with the harrowing events of August 6 and 9, 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These cataclysmic events marked the dawn of the nuclear age, an apocalyptic politics, and left an indelible impact on global consciousness. There was at this point during the Pacific war against the Japanese no-way back to the non-nuclear era. The two bombs called ‘The Little Boy’ (uranium-235) and ‘Fat Man’ (plutonium-239) dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki together had an instant kill rate of between 129,000 and 226,000 people, with many deaths from radiation poisoning. Alex Wellerstein, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ ‘Counting the Dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ provides a graphic account.

Deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The bombings played a pivotal role in shaping Japan’s post-war pacifist stance, reflected in Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution renouncing war. There’s also a strong anti-nuclear movement in Japan, advocating for nuclear disarmament worldwide. The bombings marked a turning point in Japanese history, contributing to a shift in national identity from being an imperial power to focusing on peace, economic growth and technological innovation. This pacifist transformation is deeply rooted in the collective memory of the atomic bombings and worked through in literature and art as a means for survivors and subsequent generations to process and express their experiences and grief, including ‘hibakusha’ or survivor guilt.

  1. Cold War Nuclear Arms Race and Nuclear Testing

As one source puts it, ‘From the first nuclear test in 1945 until tests by Pakistan in 1998, there was never a period of more than 22 months with no nuclear testing.’ Another source indicates there were ‘over 2,000 nuclear explosions detonated worldwide between 1945 and 1996, 25% or over 500 bombs were exploded in the atmosphere: over 200 by the United States, over 200 by the Soviet Union, about 20 by Britain, about 50 by France and over 20 by China.’ Over the fifty years from 1946 to 1996 ‘the US, UK and France detonated 318 nuclear devices in the Pacific region in the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia/Te Ao Maohi, Kiribati, Australia, the US territory of Johnston/Kalama Atoll and Amchitka Island, Alaska.’

The Cold War nuclear arms race was a period of intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop superior nuclear weapons capabilities. This competition was both a symptom and an exacerbation of the geopolitical tension between the two superpowers that sought to establish dominance without direct military conflict. It extended to various theatres around the globe, with the Pacific region becoming one of the critical arenas for nuclear testing.

Pacific Nuclear Test Sites

The Pacific Proving Grounds, particularly the Marshall Islands, saw some of the most significant nuclear tests of the era. The United States conducted Operation Castle in 1954, which included the detonation of the Castle Bravo device ‒ the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States. This test alone was a turning point, not just for its sheer magnitude but for the profound environmental and human toll it took. The radioactive fallout from the test contaminated the surrounding islands and their inhabitants, leading to long-term health effects and displacement of communities.

Nuclear testing in the Pacific was driven by both technological advancement and strategic showmanship. The tests demonstrated new weapons’ capabilities and communicated to adversaries the readiness and strength of the testing nations. However, these tests were not without international scrutiny and condemnation, particularly as the environmental and humanitarian impacts became apparent. The fallout from tests such as Castle Bravo did not respect international boundaries, affecting not just the immediate vicinity but also distant regions through atmospheric dispersion.

The arms race also involved the development and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), which could deliver nuclear warheads to targets across the globe, including the Pacific region. The introduction of these delivery systems marked a shift in strategy from bomber-delivered nuclear weapons to a focus on second-strike capabilities, ensuring that each side could retaliate even after a devastating first strike. This strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) sought to prevent an actual nuclear exchange by ensuring that it would lead to the total annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.

As the arms race progressed, both sides accumulated large arsenals of nuclear weapons, leading to a proliferation of warheads and delivery systems. The stockpiling of such weapons raised concerns about the potential for accidental launches and the security of nuclear materials. These concerns eventually led to various arms control treaties, including the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of 1963, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements, which sought to limit the growth of nuclear arsenals. Despite these agreements, the legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific continues to be felt today. The ecological damage to the test sites has been long-lasting, with some areas remaining uninhabitable or requiring extensive cleanup efforts. The human cost, too, has been significant, with populations suffering from health issues related to radiation exposure, cultural dislocation and economic hardship.

The Cold War nuclear arms race and the accompanying nuclear testing in the Pacific represented a period of stark contradiction. On the one hand, it was an era of unprecedented scientific advancement and technological achievement; on the other, it was a time of great peril and suffering, with the threat of nuclear war looming over humanity and the Pacific peoples bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. The historical lessons from this era continue to inform current nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, serving as a sombre reminder of the costs associated with nuclear weapons.

  1. From Nuclear Testing to Nuclear Power in the Asia-Pacific Region

As the Asia-Pacific region transitioned from an era marked by nuclear weapons testing to one focused on the peaceful use of nuclear technology, the landscape of nuclear power development has been notably shaped by the lessons of the past. As of June 2021, Asia has become a significant nucleus of nuclear energy, hosting about one-fourth of the world’s operational nuclear power units. With six key players ‒ Japan, South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, India and Pakistan ‒ operating 113 reactors that generate a total of 97.4 gigawatts, the region is a testament to nuclear power’s role in modern energy portfolios. However, it’s noteworthy that over half of these reactors were established before 2011, a year indelibly marked by the Fukushima disaster.

The catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi sent ripples through the nuclear community, prompting a profound re-evaluation of nuclear safety protocols. In the wake of the disaster, apprehension regarding the safety of nuclear projects surged. Governments across Asia responded by placing new project approvals under intense scrutiny, and many existing projects, still under the shadow of construction, faced stringent reviews and consequential delays, all in pursuit of a tighter safety net.

Now, a decade after the tragedy that reshaped the global discourse on nuclear safety, Asian governments have been prompted to reassess the role of nuclear energy within their borders. The reassessment has been comprehensive, touching upon the very core of nuclear policy, and has led to a period of reflection and action. This period has seen an enhanced commitment to upgrading safety measures, adopting new technologies and recalibrating the nuclear agenda to align with contemporary safety expectations and the urgent demands of climate change mitigation.

Nuclear power capacity and number of reactors in the Asia Pacific region as of June 2021

As the region looks to the future, the narrative of nuclear technology’s role continues to evolve. The balance between meeting energy demands, ensuring safety and environmental protection remains delicate. The Asia-Pacific’s journey with nuclear power reflects a broader story of learning, adaptation and cautious progress. The region’s nations stand at a crossroads where the choices made today will resonate through their energy policies and environmental strategies for decades to come as they collectively navigate the complex legacy of the nuclear age.

  1. Nuclear Treaties NPT and CTBT

In 1970, a crucial chapter in nuclear politics unfolded with the entry into force of the NPT. The treaty, signed by 191 countries, sought to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and foster international cooperation for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It established a framework that categorised nations into nuclear-armed states (Nuclear Weapons States ‒ NWS) and non-nuclear-armed states (Non-Nuclear Weapons States ‒ NNWS). The NPT also mandated regular Review Conferences to assess the treaty’s effectiveness and address emerging challenges.

During the era of nuclear testing, from the mid-20th century to the late 20th century, the NPT played a significant role in influencing global attitudes toward nuclear weapons. The 1960s, a period of heightened Cold War tensions, saw the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in 1963, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater. This treaty paved the way for subsequent arms control agreements and contributed to the easing of nuclear tensions during the 1970s.

The growth of nuclear power stations, especially in Japan, emerged as a notable development in the post-NPT era. Japan, having experienced the devastating impact of nuclear weapons firsthand, initially approached nuclear energy with caution. However, as concerns about energy security and economic development intensified, Japan embarked on a path of nuclear expansion in the 1960s. The NPT played a crucial role in shaping the global discourse on nuclear energy, emphasising its peaceful uses while urging nations to forgo nuclear weapons development.

The nuclear-free movement gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, coinciding with the NPT’s implementation. The 1980s witnessed widespread activism and protests against nuclear weapons and energy. Notably, the NPT’s Article VI commits nuclear-armed states to pursue nuclear disarmament, a principle that resonated strongly with the anti-nuclear sentiments of the movement. The NPT, therefore, provided a legal and ethical framework for advocates of nuclear disarmament, influencing public discourse and government policies.

The spectre of nuclear accidents, namely Chornobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, cast a shadow over the perceived safety of nuclear energy. While the NPT primarily addresses issues related to nuclear weapons, these incidents underscored the broader concerns associated with nuclear technology. The NPT’s promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy has been met with increasing scrutiny, prompting discussions on the necessity of robust safety measures and international cooperation in the event of nuclear disasters.

  1. The Nuclear Free Movement

The Nuclear Free Movement in the Pacific has been a potent force shaped by a unique confluence of historical, cultural and geopolitical factors. It represents not only a collective aversion to nuclear weapons and energy in the wake of historical nuclear testing in the region but also a powerful statement about sovereignty, environmental stewardship and human rights.

Beginning with the immediate post-World War II era, the Pacific region was subjected to nuclear tests by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. These tests left a legacy of environmental devastation and human suffering, particularly in places like the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia and the Christmas Islands. As news of the health and ecological impacts of these tests spread, public outcry grew, giving birth to a movement calling for a ban on nuclear weapons and testing.

The movement gained significant momentum in the 1970s and 1980s as civil society groups, church organisations and regional political parties joined forces to advocate for a nuclear-free Pacific. This period saw numerous protests, conferences and the establishment of various anti-nuclear and peace organisations, which worked tirelessly to raise awareness and pressure governments to change their policies regarding nuclear issues. One of the movement’s most significant achievements was the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) through the Treaty of Rarotonga, which came into force in 1986. This treaty prohibits the use, testing and possession of nuclear weapons within the boundaries of its member states. It was a landmark victory for the movement, reflecting a regional commitment to peace and security without reliance on nuclear deterrence.

The Nuclear Free Movement in the Pacific also has been closely tied to anti-colonial and indigenous rights movements. For many Pacific Islanders, the imposition of nuclear testing was seen as a continuation of colonial disregard for their sovereignty and well-being. Thus, the call for a nuclear-free Pacific became intertwined with a broader call for respect for indigenous rights, self-determination and environmental justice. The legacy of nuclear testing has also led to a strong stance on environmentalism within the movement. The long-term impacts of radiation on the marine environment and on local populations have underscored the fragility of the Pacific ecosystem and the need for its stringent protection. Activists and communities have highlighted how the contamination from nuclear tests disrupted traditional lifestyles, leading to forced relocations and loss of livelihoods, particularly for those communities reliant on the sea and land for sustenance and cultural identity.

Moreover, the Nuclear Free Movement has often been a grassroots endeavour, with its heart in the local communities that have experienced the direct consequences of nuclear policies. Through marches, voyages, art, music and international advocacy, Pacific Islanders have communicated their vision of a nuclear-free world. This vision extends beyond their own region, contributing to global disarmament discussions and challenging the power dynamics of larger nuclear-armed nations. In addition to the environmental and health aspects, the movement has been propelled by spiritual and ethical considerations. The Pacific’s diverse cultures, with their strong connections to land and sea, often hold deep-seated beliefs about the sanctity of life and nature. The introduction of nuclear weapons and the potential for nuclear energy accidents are seen as affronts to these beliefs.

Despite the movement’s successes, the path to a truly nuclear-free Pacific remains fraught with challenges. The legacy of nuclear testing continues to be a source of unresolved issues, including adequate compensation for affected communities, environmental remediation and health care for those suffering from the long-term effects of radiation exposure. The movement also faces new challenges in the form of proposals for nuclear waste disposal sites in the region and the potential for a resurgence of interest in nuclear energy as a response to climate change. These developments have compelled the Nuclear Free Movement to adapt and reaffirm its objectives, ensuring that its message remains relevant in a changing geopolitical landscape.

The Nuclear Free Movement in the Pacific is a testament to the resilience and agency of Pacific communities. It encapsulates a broader struggle for peace, environmental integrity and the fundamental human right to a safe and healthy environment. As the movement looks to the future, it continues to inspire a global audience and shape international policy, reminding the world of the human and environmental costs of nuclear proliferation and the enduring power of collective action for disarmament and peace.

The movement’s narrative is interwoven with the larger tapestry of global efforts towards non-proliferation and disarmament. It has impacted international law, contributing to the discourse that led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by the United Nations in 2017. This treaty, although not universally ratified, represents the aspirations of the Nuclear Free Movement and other like-minded global citizens and states that envision a world free from nuclear threats.

In the Pacific, the Nuclear Free Movement has transcended its regional boundaries and has become emblematic of the global struggle against nuclear weapons. It has shown that regional cooperation and solidarity can challenge the status quo and influence global norms and treaties. The Pacific’s nuclear-free zones have served as a model for other regions, demonstrating that collective security and safety can be envisioned without nuclear arms. The Nuclear Free Movement in the Pacific stands as a powerful voice in the chorus of global movements advocating for a nuclear-free world. Its achievements and ongoing activism continue to provide moral and ethical guidance for the world, highlighting the importance of harmony between humanity and the natural environment and the pursuit of security measures that respect and preserve both.

  1. Major Nuclear Accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima

The history of nuclear energy is marked by significant strides in technological advancement and the promise of a low-carbon future. However, it is also shadowed by the occurrence of major nuclear accidents, which have raised serious concerns about the safety and sustainability of nuclear power. Three Mile Island, Chornobyl and Fukushima stand out as the most significant nuclear incidents, each contributing to the global discourse on nuclear safety and policy.

  • Three Mile Island ‒ March 28, 1979, marked the date of the United States’ most significant nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania. A series of mechanical and human errors led to the partial meltdown of the reactor core. The incident exposed systemic issues in both reactor design and operational protocols. Although the radioactive release was relatively limited, the event had a profound impact on public opinion, resulting in widespread fear and mistrust of nuclear power. It led to sweeping changes in nuclear regulatory policies, improving safety protocols and enforcing stricter operational oversight.
  • Chornobyl ‒ On April 26, 1986, the world witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union, now Ukraine. The disaster occurred during a safety test that went disastrously wrong, resulting in a steam explosion and fires that released massive quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The fallout spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. The catastrophic event not only had immediate health effects, leading to several deaths and cases of severe radiation sickness, but also long-term consequences, including an increase in cancer rates among the exposed populations. The environment surrounding Chornobyl suffered severe contamination, leading to the creation of an exclusion zone that remains in place. The disaster highlighted the grave potential risks of nuclear power, particularly regarding older reactor designs and the importance of safety culture in nuclear operations.
  • Fukushima ‒ The most recent of the major nuclear accidents, Fukushima Daiichi, occurred on March 11, 2011, when a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan. The natural disaster disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident. All three cores largely melted in the first three days. Significant releases of radioactive materials led to evacuation orders for hundreds of thousands of residents. The Fukushima accident was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to natural catastrophes and raised questions about the placement and robustness of nuclear facilities in disaster-prone areas.

Each of these accidents triggered a re-evaluation of nuclear safety standards and the development of new technologies to prevent similar incidents. Post-Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry in the United States and beyond improved training and operational safety, including establishing the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and significant upgrades to control room equipment. After Chornobyl, the global community pushed for more transparent reporting and international safety standards, leading to the formation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the adoption of the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

Fukushima led to a rethinking of the safety of older reactors and the strengthening of international guidelines on disaster preparedness and response. In several countries, older nuclear power plants were phased out, and others were upgraded with additional safety measures. Globally, there was increased scrutiny of the placement of nuclear plants in seismic zones, and the concept of multi-layered safety measures, or ‘defence in depth,’ was reinforced.

The psychological impact of these accidents has been profound and lasting, particularly for the communities directly affected. The fear of invisible radiation has created a ‘nuclear stigma’ associated with the affected regions, leading to social and economic difficulties for the residents. Moreover, each incident has led to increased public scrutiny and scepticism towards the nuclear industry and, in some cases, policy shifts away from nuclear energy.

These three accidents also shifted the focus of nuclear research towards developing safer reactor designs, including passive safety systems that do not require active controls or human intervention to remain safe in the event of a malfunction. The industry has also increased its emphasis on the safety culture and the importance of human factors in nuclear safety.

In conclusion, Three Mile Island, Chornobyl and Fukushima serve as sombre milestones in the narrative of nuclear energy. They illustrate the necessity of rigorous safety protocols, the potential consequences of oversight and the challenges of balancing the benefits of nuclear power against the risks. These events have indelibly shaped energy policies, technological development and environmental consciousness regarding nuclear power. As the world grapples with the dual challenges of energy security and climate change, the lessons from these nuclear accidents remain critically relevant, informing both the future of nuclear energy and the broader effort to ensure the safe and sustainable use of technology.

  1. Nuclear Disarmament Movements and Safety Standards

Nuclear disarmament movements have been a central force in shaping global security policies since the advent of nuclear weapons. These movements are driven by the goal of eliminating nuclear armaments worldwide, addressing the existential threat they pose to humanity. They comprise a diverse array of activists, organisations, governments and international bodies, each contributing to a multifaceted approach to disarmament.

The roots of disarmament movements can be traced back to the immediate aftermath of World War II when the devastating effects of nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted a global outcry. This led to the formation of various pacifist and anti-nuclear organisations, which began to advocate for disarmament and non-proliferation.

Over the years, these movements have achieved significant milestones. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) of the 1970s, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996 all signify the impact of sustained advocacy and negotiation. The recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January 2021, marks the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination.

Parallel to the disarmament efforts, developing nuclear safety standards has been a crucial aspect of the nuclear narrative. The growth of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s and 1960s, coupled with the onset of nuclear accidents, underscored the need for robust safety measures. Nuclear safety standards are protocols and regulations designed to ensure the safe operation of nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities, as well as the protection of workers, the public and the environment from harmful radiation exposure.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), established in 1957, has been instrumental in developing a comprehensive framework for nuclear safety. The IAEA’s safety standards are an internationally recognised benchmark for nuclear safety and serve as a guide for member states to enhance their national regulatory frameworks. These standards encompass the design and construction of nuclear plants, operational safety, radiation protection, emergency preparedness and the safe management of radioactive waste.

The push for safety standards gained new urgency following major nuclear accidents. After Three Mile Island in 1979, nuclear regulatory bodies worldwide began to emphasise human factors in safety procedures and emergency response planning. The Chornobyl disaster in 1986 further highlighted the need for international cooperation on nuclear safety, leading to the adoption of the Convention on Nuclear Safety in 1994, which set binding safety commitments for land-based nuclear power plants.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011 brought about another wave of re-evaluation of nuclear safety standards. In response, the nuclear community focused on strengthening the safety of existing reactors, enhancing the safety of new nuclear plants, improving emergency preparedness and response and promoting a robust safety culture. Safety and disarmament movements have often intersected. Concerns about the potential for nuclear power facilities to contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation have been a recurring theme in disarmament discussions. The movements advocate for stringent measures to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials and technology from civilian to military applications.

At the heart of both nuclear disarmament movements and the development of safety standards is the recognition of the unique risks associated with nuclear technology. Disarmament movements address the risk of nuclear war and its catastrophic humanitarian consequences, while safety standards confront the risk of nuclear accidents and the long-term environmental impacts of radioactive contamination.

The international community continues to grapple with these challenges, balancing the benefits of nuclear technology against its potential dangers. The effectiveness of nuclear disarmament movements and safety standards relies on sustained global cooperation, robust verification mechanisms and an ongoing commitment to prioritise human and environmental well-being over geopolitical interests. In pursuing a nuclear-free world, these movements and standards serve as critical components of a global infrastructure aiming to mitigate nuclear risks. They are an enduring testament to the power of international solidarity and the relentless pursuit of a safer and more secure world for future generations.

  1. Modern Nuclear Challenges: North Korea and AUKUS

Modern nuclear challenges are characterised by a mix of enduring and emergent issues, with North Korea’s nuclear program and the AUKUS security pact featuring prominently in contemporary discourse. North Korea presents one of the most persistent nuclear proliferation challenges. Its nuclear program began in the late 20th century and has since evolved into a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests that have escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Despite numerous sanctions and diplomatic efforts, including the Six-Party Talks, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities, citing the need for deterrence against perceived external threats.

Pyongyang’s nuclear tests have drawn widespread condemnation and have led to a cycle of escalation that complicates the regional security dynamic. The secretive nature of the regime and its nuclear program adds to the unpredictability and difficulty in assessing the exact capabilities of its arsenal. North Korea’s nuclear endeavours not only challenge non-proliferation norms but also raise questions about the effectiveness of the global non-proliferation regime and the role of nuclear weapons in international politics.

The international community faces the challenge of addressing North Korea’s nuclear status while seeking to avoid military conflict. This involves a delicate balance of applying pressure through sanctions, offering diplomatic incentives and ensuring regional security through defence arrangements. The goal remains the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, a complex objective that requires navigating a web of historical, political and security considerations.

The announcement of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, in September 2021, introduced a new element to the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific. One of the pact’s most significant aspects is the provision for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, leveraging US and UK technology. While not nuclear-armed, these vessels represent a step-change in Australia’s military capabilities and reflect growing concerns about the strategic balance in the region, particularly regarding China’s rising military assertiveness.

The AUKUS pact has sparked debate on several fronts. Proponents argue that bolstering Australia’s naval capabilities contributes to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and acts as a counterbalance to potential regional coercion. Critics, however, perceive the move as a potential arms race catalyst and have raised non-proliferation concerns, citing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The transfer of nuclear propulsion technology, while not a direct spread of nuclear weapons, touches upon sensitive issues related to the dissemination of nuclear materials and technologies.

The pact has also raised diplomatic tensions, most notably with France, which had a pre-existing contract with Australia to supply conventionally powered submarines ‒ a deal that was scrapped in favour of the AUKUS agreement. Moreover, there are concerns in the region about the implications for strategic stability, with some states wary of an intensified arms race and the further militarisation of the Indo-Pacific.

The AUKUS agreement underscores the complexities of maintaining a balance between deterrence and disarmament. While the submarines themselves are not a proliferation risk, the deal underscores the importance of nuclear technology in security strategies, even among non-nuclear-weapon states. It also highlights the evolving nature of alliances and partnerships in response to perceived threats and the changing strategic environment.

Both North Korea’s nuclear activities and the AUKUS pact are indicative of broader trends in nuclear challenges, where geopolitical rivalries, security concerns and technological advancements converge. These challenges are not just about the weapons themselves but also about the broader security architecture, the credibility and effectiveness of international agreements, and the assurance of non-proliferation amidst evolving strategic realities.

In addressing these modern nuclear challenges, the international community must navigate a path that discourages proliferation, enhances regional and global security, and upholds the principles of international law and non-proliferation. Engaging in diplomacy, strengthening multilateral institutions and fostering dialogue are essential to managing the nuclear challenges posed by North Korea and the implications of the AUKUS pact. These efforts must be underpinned by a commitment to transparency, confidence-building and the pursuit of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

  1. AUKUS and the Containment of China: Geopolitical Implications in the Asia-Pacific

The announcement of the AUKUS alliance (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States) in September 2021 marked a significant development in the geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific. Central to this alliance is Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, a move that carries profound implications for regional security dynamics, particularly in the context of China’s rise. Examining the AUKUS alliance and Australia’s emergence as a nuclear-powered nation provides insight into the complex interplay of strategic interests, regional balance of power and the broader question of containing China’s influence.

The AUKUS alliance’s centrepiece is Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This move, facilitated by technology transfer from the United States and the United Kingdom, represents a significant enhancement of Australia’s maritime capabilities.

The AUKUS arrangement has introduced a notable shift in regional power dynamics. The enhanced maritime capabilities of Australia, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, alter the balance of power and influence. This development is seen as a response to the changing geopolitical landscape, focusing on preserving regional stability, providing a deterrent against potential security threats in the Asia-Pacific and managing China’s growing assertiveness.

China has strongly objected to the AUKUS alliance, characterising it as an attempt to sow discord and exacerbate regional tensions. The move has heightened concerns about an arms race and increased regional militarisation. China’s response, both diplomatically and in terms of its military posture, will influence the trajectory of regional security dynamics. The AUKUS alliance and Australia’s nuclear ambitions underscore the importance of multilateral diplomacy in conflict prevention. Regional organisations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will play a crucial role in fostering dialogue, de-escalation and promoting a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific.

Nuclear Politics in the Asia-Pacific is a game of shifting dynamics and strategic implications encompassing nuclear policies, security dynamics and strategic considerations in the Asia-Pacific region. The region is home to several nuclear-armed states, including China, India, Pakistan and North Korea, each with its own nuclear policies and strategies. Efforts to promote arms control and non-proliferation play a crucial role in nuclear politics in the Asia-Pacific. International agreements like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and regional initiatives aim to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear program has been a persistent security concern in the region and globally. Geopolitical rivalries and territorial disputes in the region can have nuclear implications. The South China Sea, for example, has been a source of tension among countries with competing claims. Nuclear-armed alliances, such as the US’s extended deterrence commitments to allies like Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, have strong implications for regional security dynamics. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have civilian nuclear energy programs. Managing these programs and addressing nuclear safety and security concerns is a key aspect of nuclear politics. Efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, enhance crisis communication and establish confidence-building measures are important for regional stability. Nuclear politics in the Asia-Pacific involve a complex interplay of regional rivalries, nuclear arsenals, diplomatic initiatives and non-proliferation efforts. The strategic implications of these dynamics are multifaceted and continue to evolve.

In all this, one element stands out: the Island states that comprise the Pacific, 11 recognised sovereign island states, not to mention 28 states bordering the Pacific – three in North America, six in Central America, four in South America, two in Oceania and thirteen states in Asia – do not have strategic control over their environment. With the ‘pivot to Asia,’ the US, which spends more than all other countries combined on armaments and nuclear technology,  entered into the AUKUS pact with the UK and Australia to equip Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines and nuclear technology as the major US strategic focus of geopolitics in the early twenty-first century. Now, the contest involves both hard and soft power as the US and China embark on system rivalry for security and development in the Asia-Pacific, to win Pacific friends, to trade and to establish spheres of influence that will determine larger questions concerning world politics and the future of the global economy.

In this new and emerging regime of post-Cold War nuclear geopolitics, the Five Eyes alliance, comprising the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plays a significant role in nuclear geopolitics through its intelligence-sharing and strategic collaboration. According to Brad Williams, the early Cold War originated from a mix of identity, strategic interests and mutual trust. Australia’s role and participation increasingly challenge the view that the United States unilaterally dictates the terms of intelligence sharing, according to Andrew O’Neill. New Zealand, by contrast, is often seen as the ‘weak link’ given its lack of a substantial or sophisticated defence system and its dependency on China as a trading partner. Its nuclear-free Pacific policy is also seen by US and Australian hawks as an immovable obstacle to the integration of NZ in AUKUS, although there is now a serious discussion of participation in the ‘second tier’ of nuclear technology, as Christine Persico argues.

The shadow of the Manhattan Project and its culmination in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hang over the Asia-Pacific like a contaminated dust cloud ready to fall, as the old Cold War logic and nuclear politics become once again inextricably bound together as the risks of nuclear conflict and nuclear accidents rapidly increase with each stage of system rivalry, constituting an Asian nuclear age.

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Full Citation Information:
Peters, M. A. (2024). Nuclear Geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific. PESA Agora.

Michael A. Peters

Michael A. Peters (FRSNZ)  is a New Zealander and is currently Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University and Emeritus Professor University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He was awarded a Personal Chair at the University of Auckland in 2000 and became a Research Professor at the University of Glasgow (2000-2006) before being appointed Excellence Hire Professor at Illinois and Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. He has Honorary Doctorates from Aalborg University, Denmark and SUNY, New York.

Michael was Editor-in-Chief of Educational Philosophy and Theory for 25 years and is currently Editor of Beijing International Review of Education (Brill). He is the founding editor of Policy Futures in Education (Sage); E-Learning & Digital Media (Sage); Knowledge Cultures (Addleton); Open Review of Educational Research (Taylor & Francis); Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy (Brill) and on the board of many other journals and book series.

Michael has written over 120 books and many journal articles on a wide range of topics and has worked with and mentored many younger scholars. He was given the Social Science and Humanities Leader in China Award in both 2022 and 2023 ( and is ranked 1st in China and 5th in Asia for Education and Educational Philosophy and Theory (AD Scientific Index, 2023). He is also ranked in the World’s Top 2% of Scientists by Stanford University. His recent works includes two books on the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic philosophy to be published in 2024.

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