Aussie/UK/US pact threatens global efforts to stem spread of nukes

A “terrible decision” for nuclear non-proliferation

On September 15, 2021 the American, British and Australian leaders announced a new strategic partnership, with the acronym AUKUS, intended to improve security in the Indo-Pacific.

President Biden stated:

Today, we’re taking another historic step to deepen and formalize cooperation among all three of our nations, because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term.

This partnership comes with the further “bombshell” announcement that the United States and the UK will transfer highly sensitive nuclear-propulsion technology to Australia. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in an article entitled The new Australia, UK, and US nuclear submarine announcement: a terrible decision for the non-proliferation regime, Sébastien Philippe states:

Such a decision is a fundamental policy reversal for the United States, which has in the past spared no effort to thwart the transfer of naval reactor technology by other countries, except for its World War II partner, the United Kingdom….

If not reversed one way or another, the AUKUS decision could have major implications for the nonproliferation (sic) regime.

Philippe recalls American opposition to Canadian efforts in the 1980s to acquire French or British nuclear-powered submarines, although he overstates the role of the USA in Canada’s cancellation of the programme.

RI President Peggy Mason, then working in the office of Foreign Minister Joe Clark, comments:

The arrogant, heavy-handed American reaction gave Canadian nuclear-powered sub proponents the rallying cry of “arctic sovereignty”, making it harder for those of us within the Foreign Ministry opposed to this plan on non-proliferation grounds to make our case.

What ultimately killed the deal, however, was the spiralling cost since neither the French nor the British had under-ice capable submarines.

On the content of the nuclear non-proliferation concerns that were conveyed to Canada at the time by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Philippe explains:

[T]he nonproliferation treaty has a well-known loophole: non-nuclear weapon states can remove fissile materials from international control for use in non-weapon military applications, specifically to fuel nuclear submarine reactors. These reactors require a significant amount of uranium to operate. Moreover, to make them as compact as possible, most countries operate their naval reactors with nuclear-weapon-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel.

With tons of weapons-grade uranium out of international safeguards, what could go wrong?

Arms control experts have long been concerned about the naval propulsion loophole, particularly when Brazil in the 1960s began its long (and still-ongoing) effort to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines.

Whether it is Brazil or Australia that is first to deploy a nuclear-powered naval submarine, that country will be the first non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT to remove fissile material — uranium — from international safeguards to non-monitored military use.

Potential cascading effects of this decision

Philippe speculates on the potential demonstration effect of this action by Australia, heretofore considered a staunch defender of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Among the highly negative effects he outlines are:

  • France may relax its position on not transferring naval reactor technology to Brazil as they continue to help that country build its first attack submarine;
  • South Korea may ask the USA or other nations for an arrangement similar to Australia’s, citing threats from North Korea;
  • Russia could begin new naval reactor cooperation with China to boost that country’s submarine capabilities; and
  • Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could explore new transfer opportunities in relation to this technology.

Note that Iran in 2012 expressed interest in enriching uranium to HEU levels for a possible submarine programme.

Philippe concludes:

Until now, it was the US commitment to nonproliferation that relentlessly crushed or greatly limited these aspirations toward nuclear-powered submarine technology.

With the new AUKUS decision, we can now expect the proliferation of very sensitive military nuclear technology in the coming years, with literally tons of new nuclear materials under loose or no international safeguards. [emphasis added]

Huge technical hurdles, unknown costs lie ahead for Australia

There are huge technical hurdles for Australia to overcome, given its almost complete lack of civilian nuclear power infrastructure. And the cost is “anyone’s guess”.

But the biggest challenge will undoubtedly be that of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even if Australia voluntarily agrees to international monitoring, Philippe describes the IAEA dilemma:

The agency, which is currently battling to prevent Iran from acquiring enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon—25 kilograms (0.025 ton) of HEU according to the internationally agreed standard—will have to figure out how to monitor and account for 100 to 200 times that amount without gaining access to secret naval reactor design information.

The AUKUS agreement provides 18 months for the parties to hammer out the details. In the meantime, domestic opposition is brewing and the current Australian Prime Minister is struggling in the polls.

China and France denounce US nuclear sub pact with Britain, Australia

The title above is also a 16 September 2021 Reuter’s headline, demonstrating that this ill-conceived deal has united in opposition both a close American ally and the very adversary that the new defence pact is intended to guard against.

China’s opposition is two-fold, citing both nuclear non-proliferation concerns and an “obsolete cold war zero sum mentality”. In the words of the Foreign Ministry spokesperson:

The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts.

The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards. This is extremely irresponsible.

As for France, whose $90 billion dollar contract with Australia for diesel-powered subs was summarily cancelled to make way for the nuclear-powered subs, one quote from Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suffices to underscore the intensity of their reaction:

It’s a stab in the back. This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is very similar to what Mr. Trump used to do.

And this condemnation was followed on Friday by France taking the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the US and to Australia.

New Zealand PM: these subs will not be permitted in our waters

As for Australia’s neighbour, New Zealand, while careful not to criticize the new defence pact per se, Prime Minister Ardern made it clear that the nuclear-powered subs would not be welcome:

New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged.

In the view of, the agreement to transfer highly sensitive nuclear technology and nuclear material to Australia should be condemned on both arms control and non-proliferation grounds and we concur with the following conclusion by Sébastien Philippe:

It is difficult to understand the internal policy process that led the Democratic Biden administration to the AUKUS submarine announcement.  It seems that just like in the old Cold War, arms racing and the search for short-term strategic advantage is now bipartisan.

Whither Canada?

Like New Zealand, Canada has soft-pedalled the significance of this new pact, and made no public comment on the negative non-proliferation implications.

That Conservative leader Erin O’Toole would seek Canada’s participation in this misconceived deal is entirely unsurprising.

What is truly astonishing and disturbing, however, is the apparent concurrence of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh:

The pact seems like a potential avenue to add more pressure [on China]. Canada was absent.

Since the NDP has a strong, long-standing position in support of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, we can only assume that Singh was not briefed on the highly problematic implications of the AUKUS deal for containing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Election Call:

We call on all federal parties to recommit publicly to the goals of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament enshrined in the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The growing chasm between China and the USA

For some balance and context that is utterly lacking in most Canadian media coverage of China, we draw readers’ attention to an excellent webinar hosted by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy (IPD) entitled Ambassador Chas Freeman: The Sino-American split.

The event webpage includes a transcript of the ambassador’s opening remarks as well as a link to the full webinar.  The ambassador concludes his opening statement thusly:

And that is why it distresses me as an American to say that, while China will not gain from the Sino-American split, the United States seems likely to lose from it.

We strongly recommend reading the opening remarks in their entirety, as well as listening to the one-on-one discussion between Ambassador Freeman and Dr. Wenran Jian, an IPD advisor, by clicking here.

Call from across party lines to end Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia

So long as the arms continue to flow, this war is just going to get worse

Four former members of Parliament, from four different parties, joined together to pen an opinion piece for the Ottawa Citizen urging Canada to stop arming Saudi Arabia. They are Libby Davies (NDP), Daniel Turp (BQ), Douglas Roche (PC) and Adam Vaughan (Liberal).

They write:

[A]s former members of Parliament from four of Canada’s five major political parties, we find ourselves in agreement on a pressing foreign policy issue that must transcend party lines: Ending Canada’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia must be a priority of the next government, regardless of its political stripe….

The next government of Canada should follow in the footsteps of several European countries and immediately suspend arms exports to Saudi [Arabia], expand humanitarian assistance to Yemen, and play a diplomatic role in bringing an end to this brutal conflict.

Upcoming webinar on Afghanistan on 23 September from 11:00 to 12:30 EST

Further to our many recent posts on the situation in Afghanistan, we are pleased now to announce a webinar hosted by the University of Ottawa Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) and the Fragile States Research Network  entitled Afghanistan 360 Degrees… So Now What? The poster accompanying the event announcement reads in part:

Join us for a deeper look at Afghanistan and the post-9/11 path to 2021 and beyond.

Professor and development practitioner Nipa Banerjee will moderate a discussion featuring former Afghanistan Ambassador to Canada Omar Samad and current Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason. This will mark the first public engagement together for Samad and Mason since their online Globe and Mail moderated discussion on 18 May 2006.

Don’t miss this timely discussion! To register on Eventbrite, click here.

Photo credit: Wikimedia (UK Trafalgar class nuclear-powered submarine)

Tags: Adam Vaughan, Afghanistan, Ambassador Chas Freeman, Ambassador Omar Samad, Arms Control Association, AUKUS defence pact, Australia, Brazil, Brazil nuclear-powered submarine programme, Canada and nuclear-powered submarines, Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS), China, Daniel Turp, Douglas Roche, fissile material, Fragile States Research Network, France, highly enriched uranium (HEU), Institute for Peace and Diplomacy (IPD), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), international safeguards, Libby Davis, naval nuclear propulsion loophole, New Zealand prohibition on nuclear-powered submarines, Nipa Banerjee, nuclear material, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nuclear-propelled submarine, Peggy Mason, Sébastien Philippe, Sino-American split, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, UK, University of Ottawa, USA