APLN member Professor Trevor Findlay, Principal Fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne spoke on the deal’s implications for global nuclear governance at the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
The AUKUS trilateral defence technology partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States promises key technological benefits for Australia — in cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. The most controversial proposal is for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. If the plan is realised, Australia would become the first non-nuclear weapon state to acquire such a capability.
The proposal raises questions about Australia’s international commitments to nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear safety and nuclear security. It also has implications for the global norms, treaties and practices governing each of these fields.
The greatest impact is likely to be on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which aims to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation without interfering with states’ “inalienable right” to benefit from nuclear energy’s peaceful applications. To this end, it requires non-nuclear weapon states to declare all their nuclear material and tasks the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with verifying that none of it is used for military purposes. The use of highly enriched uranium by a non-nuclear weapon state for a non-explosive military purpose―submarine propulsion―outside of IAEA safeguards would be unprecedented. The full impact on the safeguards system, which Australia has long supported, is unknown at this stage, but Australia could be paving the way for other countries, such as Brazil, Iran and Pakistan, which have also expressed interest in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
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Image: Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr