AUKUS Submarine Deal Could Open ‘A Pandora’s Box’ of Unintended Consequences
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AUKUS Submarine Deal Could Open ‘A Pandora’s Box’ of Unintended Consequences


APLN member Ramesh Thakur writes: Critics of Australia’s AUKUS submarine ambitions are worried the deal will lead to more problematic countries acquiring weapons-grade nuclear technology with potentially devastating consequences. Read the original article here.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, postponed since 2020 because of COVID, opened at the United Nations in New York last week, marking 77 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The opening address from UN Secretary-General António Guterres on August 1 contained a stark warning: “Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”.

Against that global backdrop, Australia’s quest for eight nuclear-powered AUKUS subs has run into headwinds at the NPT conference.

Indonesia submitted Working Paper 67 on “nuclear naval propulsion” ahead of the conference.

The “issue deserves serious attention”, Indonesia believes, because nuclear-powered subs use uranium enriched above civilian reactors, including weapons-grade.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the UN’s nuclear watchdog that verifies non-diversion of sensitive nuclear material from peaceful to bomb-making purposes.

Because military-use uranium is excluded from the IAEA safeguards, there is a higher risk the material will be diverted to nuclear weapons programs, as well as the “the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences” of the bomb being used intentionally or otherwise.

This is why the “use and sharing of nuclear technologies and materials for military purposes could run counter to the spirit and objectives” of the NPT.

Last week, Indonesian Ambassador Tri Tharyat, without naming Australia, said the sharing of nuclear propulsion technology was a threat to the “sanctity”, “integrity” and “credibility” of the NPT.

China, smarting over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, piled on the pressure, saying Australia’s AUKUS submarine ambitions posed “severe nuclear proliferation risks”.

Australia replied by saying the nuclear subs partnership with the US and UK would “set the highest possible non-proliferation standards for naval nuclear pro­pulsion”.

It would not merely uphold, but also strengthen the integrity of the NPT regime.

This is no empty boast.

The three AUKUS partners have historically been leading champions of a strong non-proliferation regime.

As a non-nuclear NPT party, Australia has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

As for China’s taunt of double standards, it’s a bit rich for a country enlarging and upgrading its own nuclear arsenal in violation of Article 6 of the NPT to censure another for getting nuclear-propelled subs minus the bomb.

That said, there are four legitimate proliferation-sensitive concerns about the AUKUS subs deal:

  • No non-nuclear-armed country until now operates subs with nuclear propulsion: the deal could help to blur the distinction.
  • No nuclear-armed country has helped a non-nuclear state with this technology and materials: copycat transfers could follow.
  • Unlike other nuclear powers, the US and UK are the only ones to operate subs with weapons-grade 90 per cent highly enriched uranium; the others operate low-medium enriched uranium below 20 per cent.
  • Because the peculiar circumstances of this deal are not actually covered in the IAEA safeguards system, the concern about the precedent being set is widely shared and is valid.

The NPT permits non-explosive military uses of nuclear material.

Safeguards measures are suspended while the material is in military use but reapply as soon as it is returned to civilian use.

In this case the transfer will be from military to military. On completion of the 30-year life cycle, the nuclear cores will return to US or UK custody for decommissioning.

Conceivably, therefore, they could stay outside IAEA scrutiny forever.

With US and UK backing, Australia will negotiate an arrangement with the IAEA to stay NPT-compliant.

Critics of the deal are worried less about Australia, with its impeccable record, and more over opening a “pandora’s box of proliferation” for other more problematic countries.

With world geopolitical equations being reset by events in Ukraine and Taiwan, what if Russia and China announce a similar deal with Iran?

Or China agrees to supply nuclear-powered subs to Pakistan as a riposte to India’s membership of the Quad?

There are therefore still fishhooks to be avoided on the path to Australia’s fleet of nuclear-propelled subs.

Other concerns relate to the lack of a legal contract to replace the cancelled French deal, the fear that a major security threat could eventuate before the extended time for delivery and the possibility that by then submarines could become vulnerable to detection and destruction.

For allies that might need the US cavalry in a hurry, who between the transactional, ‘America First’ Donald Trump and the somnolent Joe Biden is the least undependable?

Image: The US’ nuclear-powered attack submarine PCU Virginia. Australia has struck a deal to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered subs using American or British technology.

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