Back-door proliferation: IAEA, AUKUS and nuclear submarine technology

September 19, 2022
Protesters in front of the Department of Defence in Sydney on the one year anniversary of AUKUS. Photo: Peter Boyle

China’s permanent mission to the United Nations has been rather exercised of late. Its members have been particularly irate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its Director General, Rafael Grossi, who addressed the IAEA’s Board of Governors on September 12.

Grossi was building on a confidential IAEA report, circulated the previous week, concerning the role of nuclear-propulsion technology for submarines to be supplied to Australia under the AUKUS security pact.

The AUKUS announcement, in September last year, shook security establishments in the Indo-Pacific. It signalled the transfer of otherwise rationed nuclear technology to a third country.

Ian Stewart, executive director of the James Martin Center in Washington, observed then that such “cooperation may be used by non-nuclear states as more ammunition in support of a narrative that the weapons states lack good faith in their commitments to disarmament”.

Stewart then revealed his bias by suggesting that such cooperation would not involve Australia using nuclear weapons and, anyway, it would be accompanied by safeguards. It was all “a relatively straightforward strategic step,” he said.

James M Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was less sanguine.

“[T]he nonproliferation implications of the AUKUS submarine deal are both negative and serious,” he said last year.

Australia’s operation of nuclear-powered submarines would make it the first non-nuclear weapon state to manipulate a loophole in the inspection system of the IAEA.

In setting this “damaging precedent”, aspirational “proliferators could use naval reactor programs as cover for the development of nuclear weapons — with the reasonable expectation that, because of the Australia precedent, they would not face intolerable costs for doing so”.

Terrible example being set

It did not matter, he said, what the AUKUS members intended; a terrible example that would undermine IAEA safeguards was being set.

A few countries in the region have been quietly riled by the march of this technology sharing triumvirate in the Indo-Pacific.

leaked draft of Indonesia’s submission to the United Nations 10th review conference of the Parties to the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT Rev Con), opined that the transfer of nuclear technology for military purposes was at odds with the spirit and objective of the NPT.

In the draft’s words: “Indonesia views any cooperation involving the transfer of nuclear materials and technology for military purposes from nuclear-weapon states to any non-nuclear weapon states as increasing the associated risks [of] catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences”.

At the nuclear non-proliferation review conference, Indonesia said nuclear material in submarines should be monitored with greater stringency.

The foreign ministry argued that it had achieved some success in proposing more transparency and tighter scrutiny on the distribution of such technology, claiming to have received support from AUKUS members and China.

Tri Tharyat, director-general for multilateral cooperation in Indonesia’s foreign ministry said: “After two weeks of discussion in New York, in the end all parties agreed to look at the proposal as the middle path”.

While upending the regional security apple cart, Jakarta’s view is that AUKUS also fosters a potential, destabilising arms race, placing countries in a position of having to keep pace with the ever rising expensive pursuit of weapons.

Even before AUKUS, China and the United States were eyeing each other’s military build-up in Asia.

Beijing is concerned about an increasingly voracious pursuit of arms. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last November: “The US, the UK and Australia’s cooperation in nuclear submarines severely damages regional peace and stability [and] intensifies the arms race”.

China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Wang Qun told Grossi on September 13 that he should avoid drawing “chestnuts from the fire” by endorsing the nuclear proliferation exercise of Australia, the US and Britain.

Rossi told the IAEA Board of Governors that four “technical meetings” had been held with the AUKUS parties. “I welcome the AUKUS parties’ engagement with the Agency to date and expect this to continue in order that they deliver their shared commitment to ensuring the highest non-proliferation and safeguard standards are met.”

The IAEA report also gave a nod to Canberra’s claim that proliferation risks posed by the AUKUS deal were minimal given that it would only receive “complete, welded” nuclear power units, making the removal of nuclear material “extremely difficult”.

In any case, he said, were such material used in the units to be used for nuclear weapons, it would need to be chemically processed using facilities Australia did not have, nor would seek to develop.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning did not agree.

“This report lopsidedly cited the account given by the US, the UK and Australia to explain away what they have done, but made no mention of the international community’s major concerns over the risk of nuclear proliferation that may arise from the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation.”

It turned “a blind eye to many countries’ solemn position that the AUKUS cooperation violates the purpose and object of the NPT”.

Beijing’s concerns are hard to dismiss.

Despite China’s own military build-up, attempts by the AUKUS partners to dismiss the transfer of nuclear technology to Australia as technically benign and compliant with the NPT is dangerous nonsense.

Despite strides towards some middle way advocated by Jakarta, the precedent for nuclear proliferation via the backdoor is being set.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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