AUKUS submarines: Beasts of nuclear proliferation

July 6, 2022
Nuclear non-proliferation has remained a major global challenge since the end of the Cold War.

When faced with the option of acquiring nuclear technology, states have rarely refused. Since the splitting of the atom and the deployment of atomic weapons in war, the acquisition of a nuclear capacity has been a dream. Those who did acquire it, in turn, tried to restrict others from joining what has become, over the years, an exclusive club.

Members of this club engage in elaborate ceremonial claims that their nuclear weapons inventory will eventually be emptied. Non-nuclear weapons states allied to such powers go along with appearances, taking comfort that nuclear weapons states will offer them an umbrella of security.

This hypocrisy underlines such arrangements as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Central to the document is the discouragement of non-nuclear weapons states from weaponising nuclear technology, as long as members of the nuclear club pursue “good-faith” disarmament negotiations. While it is true to say that the NPT probably prevented a speedier, less infectious spread of the nuclear virus, it remains a constipated regime of imperfections that has only delayed proliferation.

Most tellingly of all, most non-nuclear weapon states have complied with their undertakings whereas nuclear weapons states have not: they have disregarded serious multilateral nuclear disarmament. Nor do they have an incentive to alter current arrangements, given that any changes to the NPT can only take place with the unanimous support of the three treaty depositaries: Russia, Britain and the United States.

The NPT supporters pour scorn on alternative approaches to nuclear weapons, such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which held its first meeting of state parties in Vienna from June 21–23.

While the Anthony Albanese government sent Susan Templeman MP to the meeting as an observer, Canberra has remained consistently opposed to the TPNW as a threat to the accepted disarmament and NPT framework. Dated and spurious concepts, such as extended nuclear deterrence and the interoperability of Australian and US military systems, tend to be common justifications.

The AUKUS security partnership, announced last September by Australia, the United States and Britain, has muddied the pool of non-proliferation.

A central component of the agreement is a promise to share nuclear propulsion technology with Australia, thereby enabling it to acquire eight nuclear submarines, to supposedly be built in Adelaide.

While much of this is wishful thinking — Australia has no expertise in the field and will have to rely on expertise from the other two — the glaring problem with AUKUS is what it does to non-proliferation arrangements.

While former Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the agreement would comply with Australia’s own non-proliferation commitments, such confidence is misplaced.

For one thing, Article III of the NPT exempts naval reactors from nuclear safeguards, which threatens a pillar of the non-proliferation regime — limiting the production and use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) which can be used, in turn, to make nuclear weapons.

Non-proliferation experts have not been enthusiastic with the promised new Royal Australian Navy submarines. Daryl G Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, noted the salient difference between deepening defence cooperation with allies on the one hand and proliferating “sensitive HEU nuclear propulsion tech in contravention of US and global nonpro[liferation] principles”.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, greeted AUKUS with gloom when it was announced. Its provisions on nuclear technology would “further intensify the arms race in the region and the dynamics that fuel military competition”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is visiting Australia to discuss safeguards of nuclear material used for naval propulsion.

This is nothing short of problematic, given that IAEA inspectors are unable to inspect such material for extended periods of time when the vessel is at sea. Grossi described this process as “quite complex”, although he wants Australia to commit to non-proliferation alongside the acquisition of nuclear technology.

“There is a period of 18 months which was given by the three partners — the United States, United Kingdom and Australia — to define how the project is going to be implemented but, already we have started this interaction, this joint work of technical levels so that we can reconcile both things.”

Prior to Grossi’s visit, Foreign Minister Penny Wong reiterated Australia’s “longstanding” support of the “IAEA’s mission to harness the peaceful use of nuclear technology in areas like medicine, industrial processes and environmental monitoring, as well as upholding the international nuclear non-proliferation regime”.

The world Wong described is distinctly pre-AUKUS. Despite promises of “open and transparent engagement with the IAEA on nuclear safeguards”, the whinnying horse of proliferation has bolted from the stable. Assurances to avoid the future development of nuclear weapons capability in Australia or a national nuclear fuel cycle also ring hollow.

The precedent of permitting Australia to be the only non-nuclear weapons state with HEU-propelled technology is also seismic on another level.

There will be nothing stopping China and Russia doing what the United States and Britain promise to do: proliferate naval reactor technology and long-range missiles with a nuclear capability.

[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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