Trilateral partnership launches Australia nuclear submarine programme

16 September 2021

Australia is to acquire nuclear submarines as the first initiative under a new enhanced trilateral security partnership announced by the leaders of Australia, the UK and the USA. The submarines are to be built in Australia, but the country is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Morrison (left) and Johnson (right) joined Biden by video for the announcement, which was shared online

The AUKUS partnership was announced by Morrison alongside US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said in a joint statement the initiative aims to strengthen the ability of each nation to support its security and defence interests, promote deeper information and technology sharing, foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains, and significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defence capabilities. The endeavour, they said, will "help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region."

"As the first initiative under AUKUS, recognising our common tradition as maritime democracies, we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. Today, we embark on a trilateral effort of 18 months to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability," they said.

The three nations will focus immediately on identifying the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, Morrison said. Australia will establish a Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce in its Department of Defence to lead this work. The government intends to build the submarines in Adelaide, South Australia, maximising the use of Australian workers, which he said would be the "best way to develop a strong and effective sustainment industry" to ensure the safe operation and maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines.

"But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability. And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations," he said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the three nations had informed it of the trilateral effort and would be engaging with the Agency over the coming months. "The Director General notes that the three countries have informed the IAEA at an early stage on this development. The IAEA will engage with them on this matter in line with its statutory mandate, and in accordance with their respective safeguards agreements with the Agency," it said.

"This will be one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting for decades and requiring the most advanced technology," Johnson said. "It will draw on the expertise that the UK has acquired over generations, dating back to the launch of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear submarine over 60 years ago."


Australia has the world's largest known uranium resources and is the world's third-ranking producer of the metal, behind Kazakhstan and Canada. It uses no nuclear power, generating most of its electricity from coal, although the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has operated nuclear reactors for research and isotope production since the 1950s and currently operates the OPAL reactor which started up in 2006.

Tania Constable, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, said the announcement represented an "incredible opportunity" for the Australian economy to develop the skills and infrastructure to support this naval technology, but also to connect to the growing global nuclear power industry and its supply chains.

Federal and state-level regulations that prohibit nuclear power - and in some cases, uranium exploration and mining - mean Australia is currently "unable to properly even consider let alone develop this important industry," she said.

"Reforming the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is the first step in developing the skills and infrastructure to support the critical technology needed to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as announced today by the Australian, British and United States governments," she said.

"Now that Australia is acquiring nuclear submarines which use small reactors, there is no reason why Australia should not be considering SMRs for civilian use," she added.

Joanne Lackenby, president of the Australian Nuclear Association, said the country's nuclear experience over more than 60 years including uranium mining, reactor operations and medical radioisotope production, along with its "excellent" credentials in nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear security and nuclear safety, would provide a strong basis for nuclear submarine capability.

"Australia already operates and manages sophisticated nuclear technologies and has considerable expertise in this field," she said. "Today's announcement will facilitate an expansion of this nuclear expertise and enhance Australia's STEM sector."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News