Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have moved to assure the international community any nuclear-powered submarines under the trilateral AUKUS alliance would not contravene the non-proliferation treaty.
Nuclear states are prohibited from sharing nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
In a joint working paper submitted to the Review Conference of the Parties to the treaty, the AUKUS nations argued the highest possible standards would fulfil their obligations.
This includes welded power units which mean Australia couldn’t conduct uranium enrichment or fuel fabrication.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The welded units mean the removal of nuclear material would be “extremely difficult” and would render the submarine inoperable, the nations say.
“Naval nuclear propulsion cooperation under AUKUS will be conducted in a manner that is fully consistent with our respective obligations under the (treaty), and relevant safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” the working paper reads.
“Further, the nuclear material inside of these reactors would not be in a form that can be directly used in nuclear weapons without further chemical processing, requiring facilities that Australia does not have and will not seek.”
The working paper released in New York and made public on Monday comes in response to one submitted to the conference by Indonesia which – while not mentioning AUKUS – expressed concerns about the exploitation and safety risks of highly enriched uranium for nuclear naval propulsion.
“The uranium enriched to fuel naval propulsion reactors is above levels used in civilian power reactors, near-weapons-grade levels, and even weapons-grade, which poses a growing risk to achieving the non-proliferation goals of the treaty,” Indonesia’s working paper says.
“The use and sharing of nuclear technologies and materials for military purposes could run counter to the spirit and objectives of the treaty, as it could potentially set precedence for other similar arrangements and complicate safeguards mechanisms.”
But the AUKUS nations retort that they’re working closely with the atomic energy agency to ensure the precedent set by Australia “strengthens the global non-proliferation regime and closes the door to any potential misuse … for the purposes of developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program”.
The conference will run for the next four weeks and comes as concerns heighten about the potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine.
Australia has sent a delegation, led by Assistant Trade Minister Tim Ayres, to the review conference to underline its commitment to non-proliferation as part of its acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.
Sixteen Australian government officials will be involved in the conference over four weeks, including the arms control and counter-proliferation ambassador and disarmament ambassador.