AUKUS submarine deal erodes non-proliferation norms

On September 15th the UK, US and Australia announced a cooperation agreement that will see Australia fielding nuclear-powered submarines in the 2040s. The announcement kicks off an 18-month period where the three states will work out the technical details of the arrangement. However, the Australian submarines are almost certain to run on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), a serious erosion of nuclear non-proliferation norms.

The deal follows a troubled effort to build a new generation of Australian diesel-electric submarines with French assistance. France reacted angrily to the announcement and recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the US. Contrary to the French assessment that the UK played a minor role in the deal, it appears that the British government played a significant role, reacting positively to an initial approach from Australia and engaging in a joint pitch to President Biden at the G7 meeting in June.

Submarine options

Among the details to be decided over the next 18 months are the submarine design, where the submarines will be based, what infrastructure will be needed to build them, how they will be maintained, the handling of reactor fuel, crew training, waste management and disposal of the submarines when they leave service. The Australian government stated that the submarines will be built in Adelaide, South Australia, although it is not clear whether this would involve assembling parts exported by the UK and US or manufacturing them domestically.

The Australian Defence Secretary said that other options were on the table, beyond a strict choice between adopting either the US Virginia-class attack submarine or the UK Astute class. This may mean that Australia will be provided with the next generation of submarines built by either nation (currently known as the SSN(R) in the UK and the SSN(X) in the US), or if they will build a hybrid design incorporating parts from some or all of these options.

There are drawbacks to all the known options. The US is trying to keep to a punishing schedule of submarine production and will not have capacity to manufacture additional Virginia-class units. Adoption of the Astute class is even less likely. The UK needs to finish building its final Astute models as soon as possible to minimise delays in building the Dreadnought fleet. The production line for reactor cores and fuel at Rolls-Royce Raynesway is also in the process of being converted to produce cores and fuel for the new PWR3 reactor, rather than the PWR2 reactor used in the Astute class. Additionally it is not known whether the fuel element problem which necessitated the refuelling of HMS Vanguard was solved in production of the Core H units that were produced for the later Astute submarines.

While some of these issues could be solved by manufacturing additional components where capacity allows with final assembly of the submarines taking place in Australia, statements by the Australian Prime Minister and the US Chief of Naval Operations anticipate a decades-long production process, suggesting that the focus will be on the next generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines, rather than the ones currently in production.

If the intention is a wholesale purchase of either nation’s next generation attack submarine, any delays to current projected in-service dates will cause concern for the Australian government, who are already extending the lives of their current Collins fleet as part of the announcement and will need to have a replacement in place in the 2040s.

HEU Fuel

Although many details need to be resolved, it is almost certain that the eventual submarine design will run on HEU. Successive generations of both UK and US naval reactors have been fuelled by HEU enriched to around 93.5% uranium 235, above the threshold for uranium to be considered weapons grade. Under standard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) are allowed to remove nuclear material from the system of international oversight known as ‘safeguards’ if it is intended for use in a naval submarine reactor.

This ‘loophole’ remained largely theoretical until Brazil began work on a nuclear powered submarine in 2012, the first state without nuclear weapons to pursue the technology. However Brazil’s Álvaro Alberto submarine, which is scheduled to be launched in the early 2030s, will run on Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel. If Australia’s submarine reactors run on the same fuel as the US and UK fleet, Australia would be setting a precedent of a NNWS removing weapons-grade uranium from international safeguards, an easy example for a state running a clandestine nuclear-weapons programme to follow while diverting material into warhead production.

Analysts have rightly expressed alarm at the precedent being set, even if they judge the likelihood of Australia using the material in this way to be very low. However, calls for France to be included in the partnership in order to provide LEU reactor technology appear to have been dismissed by a White House spokesperson, and the Australian government expects its submarines to run without refuelling for their entire service lives, which would rule out using LEU fuel.

Despite briefing that the partnership was designed to counter the growing power of China, a major benefit to the UK and US is the potential revenue for the arms companies that supply their respective submarine programmes. Neither country appears to have seriously countenanced a robust safeguards system to account for nuclear material being used in submarine reactors, or moving away from HEU reactor technology, despite calls for them to do so. Faced with the possibility of extremely lucrative sales to Australia, they do not appear to be interested in bringing in another supplier, even if it means weakening the counter-proliferation regime.

UK Role

From the US perspective, the UK brings relatively little to the table beyond its role in initially brokering the deal. Although the Dreadnought submarine and the SSN(R) are unlikely to be carbon copies of their US equivalents, there is substantial knowledge-sharing between the two programmes and General Dynamics Electric Boat, who build the US submarine fleet, have a team in Barrow providing guidance to the Dreadnought and Astute programmes.

The PWR3 reactor which will likely power the SSN(R) is closely based on a US design, most likely the S1B reactor that will power the US nuclear-armed Columbia class. This dependency means that the UK was in no position to assist Australia alone, but the same is not true of the US. The continued presence of the UK as a partner in the deal suggests that the US considers it strategically useful to shore up elements of the UK nuclear enterprise, but it remains to be seen what role the UK is to play once the 18-month scoping period is over and more details emerge.

The UK announcement suggested that both Rolls Royce in Derby and BAE in Barrow could benefit from the arrangement. Both companies have struggled through the pandemic, with Rolls Royce being hit particularly hard by the damage to the aviation industry. The eventual shape of the agreement with Australia may be determined as much by a need to support struggling elements of the UK nuclear enterprise as anything else.

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