On September 15, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States made waves with the so-called AUKUS security pact, which entails the delivery of a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia.
The deal essentially scuttled France’s 56 billion euro ($66 billion ) plan to sell conventional diesel-electric submarine deal to Australia scuttled. France’s foreign minister accused his country’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies of “a stab in the back.”
Australia maintains France was long aware that the submarine deal was in peril. Nonetheless, an angry France recalled its U.S. and Australian ambassadors.
China waded into the tempest, expressing concern about how the deal will affect Australia’s ability to project power in the Indo-Pacific region.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said countries in the region had “expressed concern over the possible negative consequences” of AUKUS, although the Philippines backed the trilateral security pact.
Going further, Zhao said AUKUS endangers nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
“It is widely believed by the international community that their cooperation poses a serious risk of nuclear proliferation and violates the spirit of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),” Zhao said.
He said the United Kingdom and United States were “likely to export … weapon-grade nuclear material” to Australia, which “itself poses severe nuclear proliferation and nuclear security risks.”
Zhao added that current International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards “cannot verify whether Australia will use the highly enriched uranium in the power reactors of nuclear submarines for nuclear weapons.”
However, with key details of the deal yet to be hammered out, China’s nuclear proliferation concerns, and claims that weapon-grade nuclear material will be sent to Australia, are unsubstantiated and misleading.
Chinese state media went further than Zhao, calling the nuclear submarine deal “a blatant violation of the NPT.” Zhao qualified his statement by saying AUKUS “violates the spirit of” the NPT rather than calling it an outright breach.
John Carlson, a non-resident senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, recently argued that the NPT does not exclude non-nuclear states like Australia “from non-explosive military uses of nuclear material,” including “the operation of naval propulsion reactors.”
“Where nuclear material is proposed for such a non-prescribed military use, the standard NPT safeguards agreement provides for safeguards measures to be suspended while the material remains in military use,” Carlson wrote.
“However, the non-explosive use obligation continues to apply, and safeguards measures are to immediately re-apply when the military use has ended. The state is required to make an arrangement with the IAEA to keep the IAEA informed about the material and to ensure its eventual return to safeguards.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said the deal will proceed in “partnership and consultation with” the IAEA, reflecting “longstanding leadership in global nonproliferation and rigorous verification standards.”
Still, some Western experts have expressed concern about the pact. Daryl Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) the submarine deal would compromise Washington’s own stance on non-proliferation.
“It has a corrosive effect on the rules-based international order,” Kimball said.
Kimball argued on Twitter that “cooperation on naval propulsion” may not qualify as peaceful use under Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which “generally requires the conclusion of a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement for significant transfers of nuclear material or equipment from the United States.”
AFP also cited James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who said the United Kingdom and United States had made “a significant mistake” in helping Australia acquire nuclear submarine technology.
Acton said the NPT does not forbid non-nuclear weapon states from acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, adding that “IAEA safeguards permit them to remove nuclear material from safeguards for ‘non-proscribed military activity.’”
That, he says, is a huge “loophole,” which can be exploited.
Some call those fears overblown.
Writing for Project Syndicate, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans argued that there is “no public support for acquiring nuclear weapons of our own,” and that “all Australian political parties have ruled it out as unconscionable.”
Evans said there is also no public support in Australia for the country producing its own fissile material, which would face a “conceivable diversion risk when naval reactors need refueling.”
He quoted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as saying that “[n]ext generation nuclear-powered submarines will use reactors that do not need refueling during the life of the boat.”
That, Evans argued, will preclude the need for a civilian nuclear power capability in Australia.
Experts estimate the first submarines won’t be delivered for at least a decade.
According to The Washington Post, key questions remain unanswered, including where the submarines will be built, who will build the nuclear reactors, and, assuming the submarines use highly enriched uranium (HEU), where the enrichment takes place.
Writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Anastasia Kapetas wrote that the proliferation threat will in part depend on whether Australia develops the know-how to engage in “reactor repair, fuel manufacture, storage and refueling” or abstains from the nuclear side of the project.
Kapetas argued that remaining uninvolved in the nuclear component of the project might not work in a “a wartime scenario where total dependence on the U.S. might not be feasible.”
Meantime, Acton wrote that he is “not particularly concerned” about Australia acquiring nuclear weapons as a result of the deal. “I AM concerned that other states will use this precedent to exploit a serious potential loophole in the global nonproliferation regime,” he tweeted.
George Moore, a former senior analyst at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Frank von Hippel, a professor of public and international affairs emeritus at Princeton University, expressed similar concerns.
“It is hard to understate what a departure the Australian plan is from prior U.S. policy. In the 1980s, the U.S. pressured France and the UK not to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Canada due to the perceived negative impact on the nonproliferation regime,” they wrote.
“U.S. nonproliferation policy has also had a bedrock principle of reducing the global availability and use of HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium). It would be folly for the U.S. to now export weapon-grade uranium to non-nuclear-armed states after spending more than a billion dollars since 9/11 to convert research reactors that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had exported to dozens of countries from weapon-grade to low-enriched uranium fuel.”
Kapetas noted that the use of LEU+, or uranium enriched to a lower level, is a potential workaround for issues dogging the use of HEU. But LEU requires more fuel, a larger reactor, and refueling, thus posing its own proliferation risks.
She cited a report by JASON, an independent group of scientists which advises the U.S. government. It recommended the use of LEU+, arguing that it is non-weapons-grade, but would still provide performance comparable to subs using HEU.
Kapetas said the first opportunity to use LEU+ would come with the Improved Virginia-class attack submarine, a more heavily armed U.S. sub “to be designed by 2030.”