[Korea Times-APLN Essay Contest 2021] Agreement on AUKUS nuclear submarines: obvious damage and lasting solutions
On September 15, Washington, London and Canberra announced a new strategic pact aimed at strengthening their ties in various sectors, including military, cybernetics and maritime. The pact takes its name from 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 conflict from day one.
The heart of UKUS is simple: The US and UK – nuclear states – supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, a non-nuclear state. This has caught the attention of countries like China and France. Beijing has expressed concern, saying AUKUS will escalate tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. Paris also showed a grumpy face after Canberra backed out of a multi-million dollar diesel-electronic submarine deal with Paris. However, in my opinion, it is very interesting that Australia is going to acquire nuclear submarines made from highly enriched uranium (HEU), the same HEU that can be used as a nuclear weapon without further enrichment. This will not only temper the safeguard of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but also some safety issues have not been properly addressed.
Australia, first state to exploit the blind spot of the IAEA guarantee?
In fact, IAEA Advisory Circular 153 – the father of all non-proliferation measures followed by non-nuclear states, including the NPT – has a serious flaw; The IAEA guarantee for nuclear material such as HEU can be exempted if the material is dedicated to non-prohibited military activities such as naval reactors. That is, a specific IAEA member can remove the HEU from the IAEA Watchlist if it is used to power a “military vehicle”.
Noting the fact that HEU can also be directly converted into nuclear weapons, Australia could be the first country to exploit the aforementioned loophole, which may allow other non-nuclear states to own HEU without violating the rules. IAEA safeguards. Indeed, Australia is highly unlikely to abuse or misuse HEU. However, his case may set a bad precedent for other members of the NPT and IAEA. In the near future, this loophole could be misused as a good excuse for nuclear weapons proliferators.
In 2018, Tehran actually played with this loophole by telling the IAEA that it planned to build naval nuclear propulsion. Obviously, this caused a huge backlash around the world, which prompted Iran to abandon its plan. However, as the AUKUS submarine agreement is now in place without any serious objections, the basis for this type of reaction will be weakened. Iran could take this case as a precedent when it tries to abuse this loophole in the future. In conclusion, the AUKUS agreement unintentionally had 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, let alone nuclear powered. Obviously, building and operating submarines is itself a complicated task. Indeed, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) does not have pleasant experiences with submarines. Its home-made submarines (the Collins-class submarines) are known for numerous security incidents and technical issues. This was one of the reasons why the RAN planned to replace its submarines with French Barracuda-class submarines.
Suddenly, because of this AUKUS, the RAN will acquire an unexpected reinforcement for its forces. However, it seems a bit early for the celebration, as the RAN is not yet ready for the nuclear powered submarine. This is not only because of Australia’s incompetence with submarines, but also because of its inexperience with nuclear power.
Australia needs to seriously consider that it does not have a nuclear industry. Of course, Australia has the Australian Organization for Nuclear Science and Technology (ANSO), but that has little to do with military applications. Additionally, there is only one major in nuclear engineering in the entire country with only a handful of students. In addition, the design of American submarines is fundamentally different from conventional submarines. Therefore, many efforts must be made from scratch to bridge the gap between the two types of submarines. Indeed, the USN and the RN (Royal Navy) will certainly bring various aids to the RAN. However, this is unlikely to include detailed know-how in the areas of human resources and staff training, which RAN would have to acquire on its own.
Most nuclear-related accidents end in disasters with massive casualties. Luckily, if a nuclear accident like the Kursk submarine disaster strikes in a far and deep ocean, Australia will face dire consequences.
Australia is one of the IAEA’s most committed partners, having chaired the IAEA Board of Governors four times. I presume Australia will show its continued commitment to supporting IAEA safeguards. However, the IAEA’s non-proliferation effort has already been compromised because some non-nuclear states, including the Republic of Korea, are slowly showing interest in acquiring nuclear-powered naval assets, as has been done by the IAEA. Australia. However, there are some measures to weather this storm.
First, the RAN nuclear submarine is to be fueled with low enriched uranium (LEU), which needs further enrichment to be used as a nuclear weapon. Some claim that using HEU is safer than HEU because it is not necessary to refuel with HEU. However, giving up the IAEA guarantee LEU instead of the HEU can at least avoid setting the worst example for other countries hungry for nuclear power. Additionally, Australia’s old submarine friend France currently operates a LEU powered submarine. Thus, purchasing LEU-powered submarines in France can ease the emotional conflict, killing two birds with one stone.
Second, in order to deal with security issues – whether fueled by LEU or HEU – Australia must provide the IAEA with a definitive roadmap for resolving security issues. Australia must also reassure the global community that it will conduct adequate training, education and other miscellaneous programs in accordance with safety regulations for the use of nuclear power.
Obviously, the strategic advantage provided by AUKUS will outweigh the cost. However, the AUKUS submarine deal is certainly likely to be a catalyst for nuclear proliferation. Australia must take the above two steps to resolve this coming crisis.
Lee Sang-ou is a student at Korea National Open University.