AUKUS and the nuclear non-proliferation regime

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Whether Australia leases, buys or builds nuclear-powered submarines, it will be the first non-nuclear state to do so. The recent announcement by AUKUS – the trilateral agreement between Australia, the UK and the US – to procure this technology highlights the issue of the continued health of the nuclear ‘big market’. Australia.

The great deal, concluded in the late 1970s following the Ranger Uranium Inquiry, and enunciated by the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, determined that Australia, while renouncing the development of a nuclear industry fully-fledged civilian country, would respect its obligations as a non-nuclear weapon State (NNWS) member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by exporting only uranium subject to the strict guarantees of the International Security Agency. atomic energy (IAEA) and conditioned by the NPT status of the beneficiary countries.

This approach was based on a commitment to ensure that the desire to reap the potential economic benefits of exporting uranium were balanced against the country’s strategic and normative interests in limiting nuclear proliferation. Over the following decades, Australia leveraged this commitment to strict export controls to expand the capacity of the non-proliferation regime through the development of additional agreements and institutions such as the Group of nuclear suppliers (NSG) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

For Australia, one of its biggest considerations must be balancing the risk of a nuclear nuclear reactor at HEU with its commitment to the non-proliferation regime.

There is no doubt that nuclear powered submarines are the most deadly and revolutionary advancements in submarine weaponry. The increase in performance, deployment and speed without the need to refuel cannot be overstated, but it carries a risk to Australia’s established nuclear policy and status. Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) naval reactors are currently in use in four navies, bringing Australia in line with its trilateral partners, but also with Russia and India. Most existing naval HEU nuclear reactors use military grade uranium (enriched to more than 90%) or uranium enriched to at least 20% in U-235. For context, a typical civilian nuclear reactor uses about 3.5% enriched uranium.

For Australia, one of its biggest considerations must be balancing the risk of a nuclear nuclear reactor at HEU with its commitment to the non-proliferation regime. Australia to initiate and adhere to further scaling up of HEU production, use and disposal under IAEA and NPT safeguards if HEU reactors are used in the new park. Australia has a rich history in influencing and shaping state behavior within the nuclear regime and this new agreement could be the cornerstone for Australia to lead in addressing the proliferation and disarmament issues raised by the nuclear regime. naval nuclear reactor.

Most of the existing highly enriched uranium naval nuclear reactors use military grade uranium (more than 90% enriched). For context, a typical civilian nuclear reactor uses about 3.5% enriched uranium. Reed College nuclear reactor, Portland, Oregon (Don McCullough / Flickr)

The naval reactor has long been viewed as a loophole from NPT and IAEA guarantees that a NDWS could divert materials from naval reactors and potentially use those materials for weapons production. There is obviously a clear difference here with Australia’s intention with the new fleet. Nonetheless, as James Acton noted, the risk remains that Australia’s potential exploitation of this loophole to avoid IAEA surveillance of HEU could be a precedent exploited by others. It would be an irony of some order of magnitude given Australia’s long history as a champion of IAEA safeguards and oversight if its pursuit of this strategic capability were in fact to enable others to avoid more easily the scrutiny of the IAEA.

Australia could be a leading NNWS with sensitive nuclear technology and be tasked with filling this gap, thus staying true to its commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament. As Thomas E. Shea, among others, proposed in a solution to this problem in 2017, Australia could and should be at the forefront of examining this scenario through the NPT. In 2017, no NNWS was set to acquire or build nuclear-powered submarines, but clarification was needed then, as is the case today. Among the points to be considered in Shea’s proposal, Australia should be transparent regarding the application of IAEA safeguards; have strict methods of verifying the quantities of enriched uranium and its use; and promise unambiguous assurances that a naval nuclear reactor is just that and not the precursor of anything more. It would be a watershed moment for Australia as a vanguard and model on which to base any other NDFS considering a sovereign or shared nuclear-powered vessel.

Australia’s place of influence in the nuclear regime must remain a key factor in sustaining Australia’s grand nuclear deal.

Indeed, if these measures were adopted through the nuclear regime, Australia could have nuclear-powered submarines while maintaining its stance on non-proliferation, rejecting any notion of “floating Chernobyls” as an alarmist mistake. and factual. Australia occupies a strong position with exemplary nuclear credentials, and its past commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation regime – with abundant uranium reserves and export potential, and now with the capacity to ‘being the first NNWS with this type of technology – gives it further leverage to influence the behavior of other states.

One question, however, remains about the longevity of the large Australian market. Advocating capability rather than concept leaves Australia in a precarious position within the nuclear regime and requires very particular strategic thinking. The ceding of some strategic and defensive sovereignty to the United States by acquiring dual-use nuclear technology unmistakably for military use leaves many unanswered questions. To begin with, where will the fuel come from? Will Australia eventually be forced to process and enrich uranium?

This opens up Australia to scrutiny and it must be prepared to have its position as a nuclear ‘white knight’ in the non-proliferation regime under scrutiny. Over the next 18 months, these issues, along with Australia’s place of influence in the nuclear regime, must remain a key factor in sustaining Australia’s grand nuclear deal.

Seen in the context of Australia’s historic engagement in nuclear issues, the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines and the potential risks they entail from a non-proliferation perspective should not be abandoned. with complacency.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of the Department of Defense.


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