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AUKUS sub deal triggers debate on nuclear safeguards

FUMI MATSUMOTO and KOYA JIBIKI, Nikkei staff writers


SYDNEY/JAKARTA — Australia is expected to seek an exemption from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards system operated for the deployment of the country’s first proposed nuclear submarines, which has raised concerns in the region over a potential weakening of the global nonproliferation regime.


Australia unveiled its AUKUS defense pact with the U.S. and the U.K. in September, with the aim of containing China’s growing military might in the Indo-Pacific region.


The prospect of a new entrant into the handful of countries deploying nuclear submarines has drawn criticism from some countries at the IAEA, whose safeguards are meant to stop countries that do not have nuclear weapons from developing them.


Russia hopes that AUKUS participants “will come to the conclusion that they need to curtail the nuclear submarine project,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, told the IAEA Board of Governors on Friday.


Russia is not alone in speaking out against AUKUS. “There is no guarantee that such nuclear material will not be diverted by Australia to the production of nuclear weapons,” China’s Permanent Mission in Vienna said in a letter to the IAEA dated October, proposing the creation of a special committee open to all IAEA members to discuss safeguards on naval nuclear technology.


Australia is one of roughly 190 signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. The treaty bans states without nuclear weapons, like Australia, from developing or possessing them. It also requires these countries to submit to IAEA inspections of the location and size of their nuclear material stockpiles, in order to ensure they are put to peaceful uses.


“The naval nuclear propulsion reactors and their associated nuclear material to be transferred by the U.S. and the U.K. to Australia cannot be effectively safeguarded under the current IAEA safeguards system,” China said in its letter.


Six countries possess nuclear submarines. The U.S., the U.K., France, China and Russia are recognized under the NPT as nuclear-weapon states, while India is not a signatory to the treaty.


Australia is likely to become the first non-nuclear-weapons state that is part of the NPT to gain a nuclear sub. The Australian subs are expected to run on highly enriched uranium, which would mean they would not need new fuel rods during their lifetimes. But managing highly enriched uranium poses a challenge under the NPT.


Australia will seek to balance its nuclear submarine program and its commitments under the NPT. The NPT requires non-nuclear weapons states to enter into a comprehensive safeguard agreement with the IAEA. Under this agreement, a state is allowed to suspend safeguards of some nuclear material for a time if the state reaches an arrangement with the IAEA and as long as the material is not used in weapons production.


Some experts say Australia may import the uranium in sealed reactors from the U.S. or the U.K., and return the still sealed reactors to those countries when the subs are decommissioned.


Australia has been considered a model signatory to the NPT, becoming one of the first countries to enter into a comprehensive safeguard agreement with the IAEA, and agreeing to additional restrictions ahead of other countries in 1997.


Still, concerns persist that suspending safeguards for nuclear submarine fuel could open up a crack in the nonproliferation regime. Iran is among the countries said to be considering the acquisition of nuclear submarines.


“Some will argue that if Australia can be exempt from safeguards, other countries should have the option too,” said Hirofumi Tosaki at the Center for Disarmament, Science and Technology in Tokyo. Australia should conclude an arrangement with the IAEA that narrowly defines the scope of the suspension and other conditions, Tosaki said.


China has responded to Australia’s plans by giving voice to concerns over nuclear proliferation in the region.


On Nov. 22, President Xi Jinping told leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that China is ready to join the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. The treaty, which has been ratified by the 10 ASEAN members, bans parties from developing or deploying nuclear weapons.


Some voices in Indonesia’s government have called for not allowing Australian nuclear subs to pass through the archipelago nation’s waters, on the grounds that the Australian plan will only encourage an arms race in the Asia-Pacific.

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