This story is over 5 years old.


We Asked an Expert How a Nuclear War Might Affect Australia

With Donald Trump headed for the White House, now is the time to know.
Images by Ashley Goodall

One of the most repeated fears for a Trump presidency is his alleged trigger-happy approach to nuclear weapons. This was made clear in August, when morning news presenter Joe Scarborough claimed Trump had interrupted a foreign policy briefing to ask why America couldn't use nuclear weapons.

"Three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them, why can't we use them," Scarborough told his audience on Morning Joe.


Trump's staffers denied this meeting ever took place, but he's been quoted in several other interviews admitting he wouldn't rule out using nukes. "It's a horror to use nuclear weapons, " he told NBC's Today show. "I will not be a happy trigger like some people might be," he added. "But I will never, ever rule it out."

Meanwhile, down here in Australia, we assume we're safe. We assume that if Donald Trump graduates from refusing to rule out nuclear weapons, to just using them, we're insulated by some 17,000 kilometres of land and ocean. But is this actually correct?

To find out we called Dr Brian Martin who is a physicist from the University of Wollongong. He's written extensively about how nuclear fallout would affect Australia, so he seemed like the right guy to speak to.

VICE: Hi Brian, let's say a few bombs go off in the Northern Hemisphere. What will that mean for us?
Dr Brian Martin: Well we need to look at outcomes in three different categories. That's how it'll affect our health, and how it will affect us financially, and how it will affect immigration. Immediately, we'll be OK. Radioactive fallout only reaches a few hundred kilometres, and due to trade winds in the Northern Hemisphere it tends to drift to the east. So if a bomb explodes on LA, nuclear material will end up in the desert, and if one explodes in New York, it will end up drifting out to sea. The most harmful radioactive material has quite a short lifespan so will have become safe within a few days. Of course, there are isotopes that have a much longer half-life that will end up in the stratosphere, most notably strontium-90 or cesium-137. These will eventually reach Australia, but long-term cancer rates here won't be notably higher. More people will still die from smoking than radiation poisoning.


Ok, and what will a nuclear war do for our economy?
Obviously it would be very bad. Australia has a very basic economy, we don't make any of the technology that we rely upon, so a lot of our infrastructure would eventually break down. Also the servers and satellite systems we rely on for communication are mostly controlled in the US. It's hard to predict how this would affect our social order. In terms of food we'd be ok, but other countries in the Southern Hemisphere, such as Africa, would be in trouble.

Yes, that takes us to immigration.
Well hundreds of millions of people would probably flee south. It's hard to know how Ausrtalia would deal with that. That would stretch our own food resources and would have very unknown effects on social order.

What's a nuclear winter and would we be affected?
A nuclear winter has been theorised but never proven. The idea is that nuclear explosions throw so much dust into the air, and burning cities would produce so much smoke, that you'd end up blocking out the sun. It's the opposite of a greenhouse effect. Again, we wouldn't get it so bad in the Southern Hemisphere but it's unknown how bad it might be.

If the shit really goes down, where is the best place to hide?
The best place to be is probably New Zealand because they don't have any targets. If a nuclear war broke out the other side will be interested in knocking out US communications centres, so Pine Gap could become a target. New Zealand doesn't have anything like that.

Finally, to your knowledge, is Donald Trump really poised to become the most trigger-happy president yet?
I wouldn't say that. Harry Truman obviously authorised the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations in 1945. You also have to go back to the Kennedy administration. He was ready to use nuclear weapons after the Soviets put arms in Cuba. Richard Nixon was also ready to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and had to be persuaded out of it by his advisors. So I think there have been more considered uses than most people realise. The only thing about Trump is that it's more overt, which might be an advantage. Who knows.