AUKUS and nuclear-powered subs for Australia

In September, the US, Australia, and the UK announced the trilateral AUKUS security pact, a key element of which is for the US and UK to provide nuclear propulsion technology for Australian submarines. From an arms race and proliferation perspective, the development is somewhat worrying.

To limit their size and maximize the time period between refuelling, nuclear submarines use highly enriched uranium (HEU) which could be redirected for use in a bomb. It will be important to see whether the US and UK provide the reactors as sealed packages or whether Australia will develop uranium enrichment technology. Either way, providing the submarines would position Australia to be close to being able to build a crude uranium bomb. Especially if HEU is transferred to Australia without strong IAEA safeguards, this sort of technology transfer could end up as a mechanism for placing more countries a few screwdriver turns away from a basic nuclear weapon.

The creation of the pact also seems like a classic example of ‘the security dilemma’: China feels threatened from being surrounded by potentially hostile US allies so they feel justified in a major military build-up; that build-up in turn alarms those neighbours and justifies their own further armament, which closes the cycle and makes China feel threatened and justified in building more arms.

8 thoughts on “AUKUS and nuclear-powered subs for Australia”

  1. Underwater atoms
    Brazil might get nuclear-powered submarines even before Australia
    The country has been working on the technology for decades

    Geopolitical factors are at work, too. The subs have justified the need to master the complete fuel cycle—the process of mining, milling and enriching nuclear fuel—and thus placed Brazil “in the threshold between being a nuclear state and not being a nuclear state”, says Carlo Patti, author of “Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order”. That means the country can produce its own nuclear energy, without seeking help from rich countries which, in Brazil’s view, have monopolised such technology on the pretext of non-proliferation. It also means that Brazil could produce weapons-grade uranium if it chose to. Both capabilities are sources of “political and technological prestige”, says Mr Patti.

    For largely the same reason, they make non-proliferation advocates nervous. Brazil once had a secret weapons programme. In 2019 Mr Bolsonaro’s son, a member of Congress, said that Brazil would be “taken more seriously” if it had nukes. Whereas most countries have signed a so-called Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a nuclear watchdog, which allows for enhanced inspections, Brazil has long refused to do so, on the basis that nuclear-armed states have not done enough to disarm.

  2. Most immediately, Australia is expected to serve as a forward base for a small number of U.S. submarines by the end of this decade. Then, Canberra will purchase at least three U.S.-made Virginia-class attack subs in the 2030s. Australia will also fund the construction of joint U.K.-Australia nuclear-powered submarines based on the British Astute-class boats. Those hulls would not come into service until at least the 2040s with some being delivered well into the 2050s.

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