AUKUS moves to next phase

14 March 2023

The leaders of Australia, the UK and the USA have outlined the phased approach through which Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines through the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) enhanced security partnership.

L-R: Albanese, Biden and Sunak made their joint statement at San Diego Naval Base in California (Image: Simon Walker/No 10 Downing Street)

The plan was announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the UK and President Joe Biden of the USA, and marks the next stage for the trilateral partnership which was launched in September 2021.

"This plan is designed to support Australia's development of the infrastructure, technical capabilities, industry and human capital necessary to produce, maintain, operate, and steward a sovereign fleet of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines. Australia is fully committed to responsible stewardship of naval nuclear propulsion technology," the leaders said in their joint statement.

"We continue to consult with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop a non-proliferation approach that sets the strongest precedent for the acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine capability."

The plan "elevates all three nations' industrial capacity to produce and sustain interoperable nuclear-powered submarines for decades to come, expands our individual and collective undersea presence in the Indo-Pacific, and contributes to global security and stability," they added.

The phased approach aims to provide Australia with a conventionally-armed, nuclear powered submarine, or SSN, capability, and will ultimately see a new fleet of submarines built by the UK and Australia based on the UK’s nuclear-powered submarine design.

Firstly, beginning this year, Australian military and civilian personnel will "embed" within the UK and USA's navies and their submarine industrial bases, to accelerate training and development of Australian personnel. Australian sailors will join US crews for training and development, and a "rotational presence" of UK and US nuclear submarines will be established in Western Australia from as early as 2027 to accelerate the development of the necessary naval personnel, workforce, infrastructure and regulatory system.

Next, subject to approval by the US Congress, the plan sees Australia buying three - and possibly up to five - Virginia class submarines, starting in the 2030s, to grow its sovereign SSN capability and support capacity.

The first generation of AUKUS nuclear submarines - SSN-AUKUS - are to be based on the UK's submarine design incorporating US submarine technology. The first UK submarines built to this design will be delivered in the late 2030s to replace the current Astute-Class vessels, with construction principally taking place at Barrow-in-Furness. Australia will work over the next decade to build up its submarine industrial base, and will build its submarines in South Australia with some components manufactured in the UK. The first Australian-built submarines will be delivered in the 2040s.

Transformative endeavour

The Australian government described the AUKUS submarine programme as "the most transformative industrial endeavour in Australian history", creating around 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30 years across the country's industry, defence and public service sectors.

Australia has the world's largest known uranium resources and is the world's third-ranking producer of the metal, behind Kazakhstan and Canada, but does not use nuclear power for electricity generation. It is already working to develop the skills it will need for the programme, Albanese said.

"Engineers, scientists, technicians, submariners, administrators and tradespeople. Good jobs with good wages, working to ensure the stability and prosperity of our nations, our region, and indeed our world," he said. "For Australia, this whole-of-nation effort also presents a whole-of-nation opportunity. … Already, today, Australians are upskilling on nuclear technology and stewardship alongside their British and American counterparts."

Non-proliferation considerations

Australia is a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This gives the Vienna-based agency the right and obligation to apply safeguards to all nuclear material in all peaceful nuclear activities within Australia, under its jurisdiction or carried out under its control anywhere, to verify that material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The UK and USA are nuclear-weapons states party to the NPT and have voluntary safeguards agreements with the agency, under which they must report international transfers of nuclear material to non-nuclear weapon states.

The AUKUS partners have reiterated that as a non-nuclear-weapon state, Australia does not - and will not - seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It will not enrich uranium or reprocess used fuel as part of the programme, nor will it produce its own fuel for its SSNs: the UK and USA intend to provide Australia with nuclear material in complete, welded power units that will not require refuelling during their lifetime. Also, the material could not be used in nuclear weapons without further chemical processing, which would require facilities that Australia does not have.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong has formally requested that the agency begin negotiations on the arrangements required under its CSA. Australia has also provided to the agency preliminary design information related to the project.

"The legal obligations of the Parties and the non-proliferation aspects are paramount," Grossi said. "The agency will continue to have its verification and non-proliferation mandate as its core guiding principle. It will exercise it in an impartial, objective and technical manner."

Grossi said the AUKUS parties had reaffirmed their commitment to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and to fulfilling their non-proliferation and safeguards obligations under their respective agreements with the agency. "I also note Australia’s previous declaration to the agency that it does not intend to pursue uranium enrichment or reprocessing in relation to AUKUS and that it has no plans to undertake nuclear fuel fabrication as part of this effort," he said.

The IAEA will conduct its AUKUS-related work independently, impartially and professionally in a transparent process, he said: "Ultimately, the agency must ensure that no proliferation risks will emanate from this project."

"I will also submit a report on this matter to the next regular session of the Board of Governors, to take place in Vienna in June 2023."

According to the AUKUS parties, the security partnership "will promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that is secure and stable". However, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the three countries "have totally disregarded the concerns of the international community and gone further down the wrong and dangerous path". Until a "consensus" is reached by all IAEA member states, the US, the UK and Australia "should not proceed with relevant cooperation, and the IAEA Secretariat should not have consultation with the three countries on the so-called safeguards arrangements for their nuclear submarine cooperation," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News