The AUKUS nuclear submarine deal: evident harms and future-proof solutions
APLN-Korea Times Essay Contest

The AUKUS nuclear submarine deal: evident harms and future-proof solutions

2021 APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest, KoreaTimes Award

The AUKUS nuclear submarine deal: evident harms and future-proof solutions

by Sang-ou LEE

On Sept. 15, Washington, London and Canberra announced a new strategic pact to strengthen their ties across various sectors including military, cyber and maritime domains. The pact is named after a clever abbreviation of the acronyms of the three countries, namely AUKUS. However, unlike the brevity of its name, AUKUS has already started to spark conflicts from day one.

The core of AUKUS is simple: US and UK – nuclear state – providing nuclear-propelled submarines to Australia – a none nuclear state. This flagged up serious attention from countries including China and France. Beijing expressed its concern, claiming that AUKUS will escalate the tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. Paris also showed a grumpy face after Canberra renounced a multi-million-dollar diesel-electronic submarine deal with Paris. However, in my opinion, it is most noteworthy that Australia will acquire HEU-based nuclear submarines, the same HEU that can be used as a nuclear weapon without additional enrichment. This will not only temper IAEA’s safeguard but also there are some safety concerns that have not been properly addressed.

-Australia, the first state to exploit the blind spot of IAEA’s safeguard?

In fact, IAEA Information Circular 153-the father of all non-proliferation measures complied by non-nuclear states including NPT- carries a serious loophole; IAEA’s safeguard for nuclear materials such as HEU can be exempted if the material is dedicated to unforbidden military activities like naval reactors. That is, a specific member of IAEA can pull out HEU from IAEA’s watchlist if it is used for fueling a ‘military vehicle’.

Noting the fact that HEU can also be directly converted to nuclear weapons, Australia may be the first country that exploits the aforementioned loophole, which can further facilitate other non-nuclear states to possess HEU without violating IAEA’s safeguards. Indeed, Australia intentionally abusing or misusing HEU is highly unlikely. However, its case can leave a bad precedent for other members of NPT and IAEA. In the near future, this loophole might be misused as a good excuse for nuclear weapon proliferators.

In 2018, Tehran actually toyed with this loophole by saying to IAEA that they plan to build naval nuclear propulsion. Obviously, this stirred a huge backlash around the world, which made Iran give up its plan. However, as the AUKUS submarine deal is now in place without any serious objections, the basis for this kind of backlash will be weakened. Iran might take this case as a precedent when it tries to abuse this loophole in the future. In conclusion, the AUKUS deal unintentionally posed a negative impact on non-proliferation.

-Is Australia really capable of operating nuclear-powered submarines?

Submarines are the essence of the most advanced military technology, not to mention the one with nuclear propulsion. Obviously, building and operating submarines are already complicated tasks themselves. Indeed, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) does not have pleasant experiences with submarines. Its domestically manufactured submarines – Collins Class submarines – are notorious for many safety incidents and technical problems. This was one of the reasons RAN had planned to replace its submarines with Barracuda Class submarines of France.

Suddenly, because of this AUKUS, RAN will acquire an unexpected reinforcement for its forces. However, it seems a little early for celebration, as RAN is not yet ready for the nuclear-powered submarine. This is not only because of Australia’s ineptness with the submarines but also its inexperience with nuclear power.

Australia needs to seriously consider that they do not have a nuclear industry. Of course, Australia does have ANSO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization), but this has little relationship with military applications. Moreover, there is only one nuclear engineering major in the entire country with only a handful of students in it. Besides, the US’s submarine design is fundamentally different from conventional submarines. Therefore, a lot of effort has to be poured from scratch to bridge the gap between the two types of submarines. Indeed, USN and RN(Royal Navy) will certainly provide various aids to RAN. However, that will not likely include detailed know-hows in the HR and personnel training fields, which RAN would have to acquire alone.

Most of the nuclear-related accidents end up with catastrophes ensuing massive casualties. By any chance, if a nuclear accident like the Kursk submarine disaster happens in a distant deep ocean, Australia will face grave consequences.

-Way ahead.

Australia is one of the most committed partners of the IAEA, as it has served as the chair of the IAEA Board of Governors four occasions. I presume that Australia will show its continuous dedication to support IAEA’s safeguards. However, the nonproliferation effort of IAEA has already been damaged because some non-nuclear states including Republic of Korea are slowly revealing their interests in acquiring nuclear-powered naval assets as Australia did. However, there are some measures to weather this storm.

First, RAN’s nuclear submarine must be fueled by LEU, which needs further enrichment to be used as a nuclear weapon. Some argue that using HEU is safer than LEU because HEU does not have to be refueled. However, waiving LEU from IAEA’s safeguard instead of HEU can at least avoid leaving the worst example for other nuclear-yearning countries. Also, Australia’s old submarine friend – France – is currently operating LEU-powered submarine. So purchasing LEU-powered submarines from France can alleviate the emotional dispute, killing two birds with one stone.

Secondly, in order to deal with the safety concerns – whether powered by LEU or HEU – Australia must provide to IAEA a definitive roadmap for solving safety problems. Australia must also reassure the global community that it will conduct adequate training, education and other various programs in accordance with safety regulations for nuclear usage.

Clearly, the strategic upper hand AUKUS provides will outweigh the cost. However, the AUKUS submarine deal is certainly likely to be a catalyst for nuclear proliferation. Australia must take the aforementioned two measures to solve this upcoming crisis.


Image: APLN/iStock, vlastas.

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