Warning about ‘nuclear sharing’ falls on deaf ears at NPT meeting

August 4, 2023
The AUKUS nuclear submarines are exploiting a loophole in the International Atomic Energy Agency's safeguards. Graphic: Green Left

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) told a committee reviewing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in Vienna, Austria, that its main concern is the growing number of NPT signatories that are undermining the treaty.

“Nuclear sharing” is exacerbating nuclear risks and jeopardising international security ICAN spokesperson Elisabeth Saar said on August 2. She cited Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus and the United States’ long-standing deployment of nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, with NATO support, as of great concern.

“If the concerned states parties fail to take prompt action to cease this practice, the NPT membership should decide by vote at the next review conference on the inadmissibility of nuclear sharing under the NPT.

“This practice runs counter to the fundamental tenets of the treaty and is a threat to the entire regime.”

Saar said that while NPT members have different opinions on nuclear sharing, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which includes undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, “leaves no room for doubt: nuclear sharing is expressly, absolutely prohibited”.

Saar criticised the “double standards” of some NPT state parties and quoted from the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “We must not tolerate a system of ‘nuclear apartheid’ in which it is considered legitimate for some states to possess nuclear arms but patently unacceptable for others to seek to acquire them.”

This is “no basis for peace and security in the world”, Saar said.

The NPT preparatory committee started its 2-week meeting in Vienna on July 31. It is the first of three before a full review of the treaty, scheduled for 2026.

The NPT, which came into force in 1970, was not only designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons: its goal was always to eliminate them altogether. Of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons — Russia, United States, China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea — only five (US, Britain, China, Russia and France) have signed it.

The NPT aims to prevent nuclear weapons states from transferring “possession or control to any recipient nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive devices” and to not “assist, encourage induce non-nuclear-weapon States to manufacture, acquire or control such weapons or devices”.

Australian governments insist that AUKUS does comply with the NPT and, on August 1, Labor’s representative told the NPT preparatory committee 2023 that it remains “committed” to a world without nuclear weapons.

But anti-nuclear campaigners argue that Australia, the US and Britain are exploiting a loophole (paragraph 14) in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) which covers the use of nuclear materials.

Exploiting IAEA loophole

The “loophole” is that the nuclear material being used in the AUKUS submarines will not be subject to an IAEA inspection because that international agency does not have to inspect nuclear material “non-proscribed military purposes”.

For James M Acton, in Why the AUKUS Submarine Deal is Bad for Nonproliferation — and What To Do About It in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this means: “The efficacy of IAEA safeguards in preventing proliferation hinges on the willingness of the international community as a whole and of individual states to enforce the rules.”

Australia argues that the use of naval nuclear vessel propulsion does not contravene the NPT, and it may become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to remove nuclear material from the IAEA inspection system. There are no automatic consequences for non-compliance (except referral to the United Nations Security Council, which is under no obligation to act).

For the NPT to work — that is, to prevent nuclear proliferation — it relies on non-nuclear weapon states, such as Australia, to declare all their nuclear materials and to then task the IAEA with verifying that none is being used to build nuclear weapons. These declarations and inspections are known as “safeguards”.

ICAN Australia also believes AUKUS sets a “risky precedent”.

“It would become the first non-nuclear weapon state to be given this highly sensitive nuclear technology. And because, under the existing agreement, the uranium to be used is likely to be weapons-grade, the plan increases the risks to non-proliferation even further.”

Highly enriched uranium can be rapidly converted into a nuclear bomb and, while that is not easy to remove from a submarine, “the possibility of diverting such material for weapons’ purposes cannot be ruled out”, ICAN said.

Australia is relying on the IAEA to maintain an in-principle agreement to support its interpretation of paragraph 14 of the IAEA safeguard agreements to allow for the nuclear-propelled AUKUS submarines.

But China is asking questions, including at the NPT preparatory committee meeting.

Li Chijiang, secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the meeting on August 2 that the AUKUS deal is “a textbook example of nuclear proliferation” and sets a bad precedent.

Bad precedent for non-proliferation

“Such move is not only a flagrant violation of the object and purpose of the NPT, but also poses a new challenge to the IAEA safeguards system and poses a serious threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Chijiang called on the IAEA states and board of governors to ensure “a reliable and effective arrangement for the AUKUS deal in favour of the NPT and non-proliferation regime”.

A Chinese Embassy spokesperson to Britain and Northern Ireland was asked in April if the AUKUS agreement challenged the IAEA non-proliferation safeguard system. He said it did, adding that there is no international consensus on the definition of Article 14 of the CSA.

He said taking into account the IAEA’s “previous practice of strengthening the safeguards system”, all IAEA states should be concerned and “an intergovernmental process” is needed to discuss it.

“That is what it means to uphold true multilateralism. The three countries [Australia, Britain and the United States] and the IAEA Secretariat have no right to make interpretations of their own, still less strike a deal between themselves and impose it on the entire membership.”

When defence minister Richard Marles announced Labor’s “nuclear-powered submarine pathway” on March 14, the IAEA said the same day it was happy with Australia’s approach. It added it had already been asked by foreign minister Penny Wong to “commence negotiations on an arrangement” adding that Australia “has also provided to the Agency preliminary design information related to this project”.

China’s view is that the AUKUS agreement coerces the IAEA Secretariat into making safeguards exemption arrangements with some countries and therefore weakens the overall nuclear safeguards system.

“It seriously compromises the authority of the IAEA, deals a blow to the Agency’s safeguards system and undermines the international community’s confidence in multilateralism,” a Chinese Embassy spokesperson said.

“Due to US requirements [refusing to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons] on the classification of technology and the whereabouts of nuclear submarines, it will be difficult for countries concerned to notify the Agency of the relevant information or accept its verification.

“As a result, the IAEA Secretariat can hardly achieve any effective safeguards arrangement in accordance with Article 14, nor is it able to carry out effective supervision of the nuclear material in Australia’s submarine nuclear propulsion reactors.

“Article 14 therefore will lose its deterrence effect and not be able to effectively prevent nuclear proliferation risks.”

No wonder then that the Australian government representative is singing the IAEA’s praises at the NPT preparatory conference meeting. It not only pledged its “steadfast support” for the IAEA, it even talked up “peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology”, something new for Labor.

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