“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
United Kingdom

A Plan to Reduce Nuclear Dangers in a Time of Peril

July/August 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

Deteriorating relations between the major nuclear powers have stymied progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament for more than a decade. Russia’s war against Ukraine and its brazen threats of nuclear weapons use have further heightened the risk of nuclear conflict and unconstrained nuclear competition in ways unseen since the darkest days of the Cold War.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan addresses the Arms Control Association’s Annual Meeting, June 2, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Allen Harris, ACA).The last remaining treaty limiting the massive U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals is in jeopardy and will expire in less than 950 days. There are no talks underway on what might replace it. Meanwhile, China is quickly expanding its relatively smaller nuclear arsenal, refusing U.S. overtures for a bilateral nuclear dialogue, and resisting calls to halt fissile material production for nuclear weapons.

As bleak as the situation is, reports of the death of nuclear arms control are greatly exaggerated. Last month, the Biden administration outlined a viable path for moving back from the nuclear brink that deserves serious attention and support.

Addressing the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on June 2, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declared that the United States is ready to engage in nuclear arms control diplomacy with Russia and with other nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “without preconditions.”

Sullivan criticized Russia’s suspension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) but noted that “Russia has publicly committed to adhere to the treaty’s central limits.”

“It is in neither [U.S. or Russian] interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces,” and the United States is “prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does,” he said.

With New START due to expire in 2026, Sullivan suggested that “rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.”

On June 5, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia remains open to dialogue with the United States on arms control. He described Sullivan’s comments as “important and positive,” but said Russia wants to learn more about the proposal through formal diplomatic channels.

The negotiation of a complex, bilateral nuclear arms control framework to replace New START would be difficult in good times and extraordinarily difficult so long as Russia's war on Ukraine continues.

Nevertheless, there is scope for the White House and the Kremlin to reach a unilateral, reciprocal arrangement that neither will exceed the deployed strategic warhead limit set by New START until a more permanent arms control arrangement comes into effect. In the absence of such an arrangement, each side could upload warheads on their strategic delivery systems quickly, and China might accelerate its ongoing strategic nuclear buildup.

Importantly, Sullivan also said that U.S. President Joe Biden supports “new multilateral arms control efforts,” involving all five nuclear-armed members of the NPT. “We’re under no illusions that reaching risk reduction and arms control measures in that setting will be easy. But we do believe it is possible,” he said. If pursued smartly and at a senior political level, this might open space for dialogue with China on nuclear restraint.

Sullivan proposed that all five states agree on greater transparency on nuclear doctrines, more effective crisis communications channels, common rules for missile launch notification, and policies to keep “humans in the loop” for command, control, and use of nuclear weapons.

A starting point for more responsible nuclear behavior should be to reaffirm and update the 1973 U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which pledges that those two states will “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other party, against the allies of the other party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.” It requires that “if at any time there is the risk of a nuclear conflict [each side] shall immediately enter into urgent consultations…to avert this risk.”

Although constructive, such “behavioral arms control” alone cannot erase the tensions that can lead to nuclear war, obviate the inherent dangers of nuclear deterrence, or prevent pernicious arms racing. Only a disarmament process leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons will eliminate the threat.

Now is the time for leaders of non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society groups to demand that all five NPT nuclear-armed states engage in good faith efforts to halt and reverse the arms race.

Building on the Biden administration proposals, they should demand that these five observe a global nuclear freeze, by which China, France, and the United Kingdom would cap the overall size of their nuclear arsenals and halt fissile material production so long as Russia and the United States cap their stockpiles while negotiating a new framework to cut their arsenals.

More nuclear weapons make us less secure. Embarking on a safer path through disarmament diplomacy is imperative.

Deteriorating relations between the major nuclear powers have stymied progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament for more than a decade. As bleak as the situation is, however, reports of the death of nuclear arms control are greatly exaggerated, and last month, the Biden administration outlined a viable path for moving back from the nuclear brink that deserves serious attention and support.

AUKUS as a Nonproliferation Standard?

July/August 2023
By Toby Dalton and Ariel Levite

In September 2021, upon concluding the initial agreement to supply Australia with nuclear-propelled submarines, the three AUKUS parties explicitly pledged to subject the accord to the highest nonproliferation standards.

Even after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L), U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met in San Diego in March to move their AUKUS defense agreement forward, many questions persisted about how their plans to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines would affect efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States stated that “Australia is committed to adhering to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety, and security of nuclear material and technology…[and] to fulfilling all of its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].” They also asserted, “Our three nations are deeply committed to upholding our leadership on global non-proliferation.”1

Eighteen months on, however, the official release in March 2023 of the AUKUS implementation plan makes clear that the arrangements do not meet the high nonproliferation bar that the parties have set for themselves.2 Recognizing the serious concerns raised by the unprecedented transfer of conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines, a new class referenced as the SSN AUKUS, from two nuclear-weapon states to a non-nuclear-weapon state, the three parties have gone some distance to reassure the international community about their intentions.3 The practical implementation arrangements, which include the transfer of sealed power units, would make it exceedingly difficult for Australia to divert without detection the highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel during the operational lifetime of the submarines. Furthermore, statements by IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi affirm the progress made in the extensive discussions between the three parties and the IAEA on special safeguards arrangements. They indicate that the agency is now confident it could ascertain that the nuclear fuel has not been diverted, notwithstanding the severe national security restrictions imposed by the AUKUS parties on the agency’s access to the fuel and the submarines.4

Welcome as these positive steps are, they nevertheless fall short of the stated aspiration to achieve the highest standards for nonproliferation. Even the AUKUS parties’ explanation that cost and convenience were the driving rationale for choosing HEU fuel over the far less sensitive and precedential option of low-enriched uranium fuel, for example, shows that they put other considerations well ahead of nonproliferation.5

There is still time and opportunity for Australia, the UK, and the United States to remedy outstanding concerns and come closer to establishing a stronger nonproliferation baseline for such endeavors and for the international community to develop a broader framework for building reassurance around more sensitive applications of fissile material and related activities of proliferation concern.

Proliferation Concerns

Two serious, interrelated proliferation concerns pertaining to the submarine transfer remain to be tackled. First, the nonproliferation commitments that Australia has made thus far in the AUKUS context reflect narrow, inherently reversible, unilateral or trilateral policy choices. This is disconcerting because a future Australian government, perhaps in consultation with its partners, may opt to walk them back with the same ease and speed that the previous government reversed the earlier contract to acquire French diesel electric submarines, opting for UK/U.S. nuclear-powered ones instead.

One important element pertains to the announced Australian commitment “not (to) enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel as part of this program.”6 This pledge does not preclude Australia from developing a parallel, indigenous nuclear fuel cycle unconnected to AUKUS activities. Although the Australian government has given no indication of a desire to do that, the policy option remains. Notably, Australia has extensive prior experience in developing uranium-enrichment technology and at one time had a strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.7

Until it struck an agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States for nuclear-propelled submarines, Australia planned to replace its Collins-class diesel-electric submarines, such as the one shown, with a conventionally-powered French model. To assuage concerns about the AUKUS nuclear technology transfer, Australia has made new nonproliferation commitments but would Canberra renege on those as it did on the French deal? (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)As a matter of policy involving the UK and the United States, Australia also could decide to convert the AUKUS submarines to carry U.S. nuclear weapons under a dual-key arrangement similar to that by which the United States “shares” nuclear weapons with its NATO allies. This would require the United States to develop and deploy new nuclear-armed cruise missiles for sea-based platforms, a capability that is already under active consideration as part of U.S. nuclear modernization plans.8 Such dual-key arrangements are not simply relics of the Cold War because Russia now officially seems determined to set up a similar arrangement with Belarus, claiming merely to be emulating a standard NATO practice.9 With creative lawyering, the AUKUS parties could argue that such a development would not contravene any of their legal obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or Australia’s obligations not to station nuclear weapons on its territory under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, commonly known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, although it is clear that such a move would violate the spirit of these agreements. In any case, the elaborate and tight integration of the Australian navy, through the AUKUS initiative, with the UK and U.S. nuclear navies could make such a reversal easier, faster, and smoother to imagine.

This possibility may seem farfetched today, but in the past, the UK and the United States had collaborations with Australia involving nuclear weapons. Australia pursued several paths to acquire nuclear weapons after 1945.10 Through the late 1960s, Australia and the UK discussed the potential for Canberra to co-develop or procure UK nuclear weapons, part of a broader UK program of engaging in defense and security with its Commonwealth partners.11 Australia also built infrastructure to support an indigenous nuclear weapons program and purchased U.S. F-111 dual-capable fighter bombers.12 Australia still engages in activities that support U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.13 The two governments also are planning for the United States to deploy nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Australia and have not ruled out that those bombers could carry nuclear weapons.14

A second, related concern with the AUKUS arrangement derives from how its nonproliferation assurances are operationalized. In the context of the potential reversibility of stated policies, the weight of demonstrating Australia’s continued abjuration of nuclear weapons falls almost exclusively on the application of its IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement and additional protocol, while invoking the agreement’s Article 14 exemption from safeguards for so-called nonproscribed military nuclear activity, i.e., military applications not prohibited by the NPT. Granted, these are absolutely necessary first steps. Yet, they do not constitute a sufficient reassurance package given the unprecedented nature of the planned AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation.

Although the geopolitical rationale behind the AUKUS arrangement is understandable, the parties lamentably have failed to come to terms with its core problems: cooperation between two NPT nuclear-armed states (the UK and the United States) and a non-nuclear-weapon state on the military use of nuclear technology, the transfer of tons of HEU to Australia, and cooperation in developing extensive capabilities for the command, control, and operation of strategic nuclear submarines. Australia also will have to acquire significant expertise in handling spent fuel as part of the plan to dispose of this material within its territory. These perceived risks have triggered international concerns about the AUKUS agreement, however misplaced or contrived some of them may seem.15

All of these issues are exacerbated by the fact that IAEA safeguards were not expressly designed for activities and cooperation of this nature and scope. The security sensitivities inevitably associated with such military applications of nuclear technology and the impracticality of inspecting submarines that are to be deployed stealthily for extended periods at sea will result in substantial restrictions on transparency and IAEA access to the information, facilities, people, and materials involved in the AUKUS cooperation. Such access and information restrictions circumscribe traditional modalities for reassuring the international community about a state’s intent to forswear nuclear weapons and raises questions about the IAEA’s ability to do so for Australia. In this case, Australia’s dependence on highly secretive UK and U.S. naval propulsion and weapons technologies, much of it also supporting UK and U.S. nuclear weapons-carrying submarines, greatly narrows the options available to Australia and its AUKUS partners to persuade others that statements about their non-nuclear strategic intentions are credible.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, with headquarters in Vienna, is expected to play a large role in ensuring that Australia’s nuclear program, as stipulated in the AUKUS agreement, is focused on propelling submarines and not directed at nuclear weapons. (Photo by Liu Xinyu/Xinhua via Getty Images)The stress created by the AUKUS project thus far on the nonproliferation regime broadly defined and on the IAEA safeguards system at its core has far broader implications for the agency’s continued role as the primary international nuclear watchdog. These precedents cause worry that others might engage in similar sensitive activities, whether indigenously or in cooperation with their security partners, that would widen the fissure between the agency’s verification mission and the nonproliferation assurances that it can practically deliver. Indeed, it is plausible that some states, citing the AUKUS precedent, may invoke an exemption to remove fissile material from safeguards and then aim to use that material for nuclear weapons activities. Among such states are those that profess a desire to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines or, in the future, spacecraft and undertake indigenous nuclear fuel production, yet resist ratification of an IAEA additional protocol and have a far less honorable contemporary nonproliferation track record than Australia. What the AUKUS project exposes, therefore, are gaps in the entire regime that cannot be filled readily by traditional nonproliferation norms and mechanisms.

Against this background, it becomes easier to appreciate the inadequacy of what the AUKUS parties have done to reassure the world that their unorthodox agreement will not further erode the already stressed nonproliferation regime. How would they have reacted if their adversaries took similar action? How keen would they be to see other aspirants of nuclear-propelled submarines and other non-proscribed nuclear applications stand behind similar policy-oriented and limited reassurances? Would they be critical of the loopholes and shortfalls similar to the ones they have left in the AUKUS arrangement for reasons of national security, geopolitics, cost, and convenience? It is difficult to imagine that Australia, the UK, and the United States would shy away from pointing out the flaws in such initiatives.

The concern that an NPT member state might one day renege on its nonproliferation obligations and seek nuclear weapons through use of assets it acquired legitimately is neither theoretical, new, or unique to Australia. Notably, in January 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol explicitly discussed the possibility that his country could need nuclear weapons to defend against North Korea, notwithstanding Seoul’s robust nonproliferation commitments.16 What makes the Australian case especially disconcerting is that if Canberra were to decide to abandon its nonproliferation commitments, it would be in a far more advanced position to develop a nuclear weapons option thanks to the AUKUS arrangement. Again, accepting that few believe Australia harbors such ambition today, the mere perception that the arrangement could provide a path to this future is provoking regional concerns and creates an unhelpful precedent with which the nonproliferation regime to contend.

Thankfully, the final verdict on the AUKUS agreement is still out. There is time for the AUKUS partners to address outstanding proliferation concerns, reassure others about Australia’s long-term peaceful nuclear intentions, and set a genuinely high nonproliferation bar. The objective should be to establish parameters that would be sufficient to dispel suspicions that the nuclear activities of the AUKUS partners or any other countries that might emulate their agreement might have a weapons orientation. Australia, the UK, and the United States would be well advised to work individually and collectively for such a stronger baseline, but decisions have to be made well before the submarines approach Australian shores. Others, such as Brazil, are also embarking on projects involving nonproscribed military nuclear applications under safeguards exemptions.17

Establishing a Stronger Precedent

To address the two main concerns raised by the AUKUS agreement, Australia first would need to take steps to demonstrate that any reversal of course toward nuclearization would be detectable, difficult, and costly. The more that Australia’s AUKUS nonproliferation commitments are institutionalized through domestic laws and international commitments, the more difficult they become to reverse. Such measures could include passing a law stipulating that Australia would not deploy nuclear weapons on its submarines under any arrangement. It also could establish a mechanism for international monitoring of the new submarines to verify nondeployment of nuclear weapons, a step that could discourage or restrict nuclear sharing arrangements by other states. Australia also could expand in law its commitments not to build national enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

In addition, in conformity with its aspiration to remain a nonproliferation champion and build stronger assurances around the AUKUS arrangement, Australia could pioneer new practices that other states using a safeguards exemption could then be expected to follow. For example, under the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, Australia could augment its declaration of nuclear material and facilities with a list of dual-use activities that fall under the Nuclear Suppliers Group Part II guidelines pertaining to research, development, and testing of nuclear weapons.18 In Australia’s case, such a “weaponization” declaration would make a material contribution to the IAEA process of reaffirming its so-called broader conclusion that Australia’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful or at least not directed toward nuclear weapons. This precedent would be exceedingly beneficial for the IAEA if and when it is asked to monitor and inspect programs involving weapons-usable fissile materials in other non-nuclear-weapon states.

Individually, none of these steps are irreversible, but implementing them would still make it a little more difficult, through political friction and the potential for international consequences, to reverse course. Collectively, they would greatly reassure the international community and therefore set a stronger precedent. Because the AUKUS agreement is such a special case, it demands special arrangements to go further than the parties have thus far committed to go. Actions of the nature suggested here would lend considerable credibility to Australia’s claim to be a nonproliferation and nuclear responsibility champion.

The UK and the United States also should consider complementary steps that would help achieve the high nonproliferation standard they promised. First, although the safeguards measures that Australia will undertake with the IAEA to monitor the HEU transferred for submarine fuel will create reasonable assurances that this material would not be diverted for use in nuclear weapons in the immediate future, there is the long-term matter of what happens to that fuel once the submarine has reached the end of its operational life. Ideally, this irradiated HEU would not remain in Australia, but would be transferred back to the UK or the United States for disposition so that Australia would not possess or store any spent fuel on its territory. In parallel to existing programs to take back irradiated HEU from research reactors around the world and to its domestic program to manage its own spent submarine fuel, it is reasonable that the United States should create a legal avenue to enable the return of Australian submarine fuel.19 In the unwelcome but likely event that at least some spent fuel remains in Australia, Canberra should anchor its pledge not to undertake any spent fuel reprocessing of any type on its territory in a law that requires an especially large parliamentary majority to overturn. Together, these acts would create a much higher standard with respect to the disposition of submarine spent fuel.

As international reaction to the AUKUS initiative demonstrates, there is palpable concern that the AUKUS partners might someday choose to deploy U.S. or, secondarily, UK nuclear weapons on Australian submarines. To address this criticism and reassure the international community as to the defensive purpose of the initiative, the partners should join Australia in making a nuclear weapons nondeployment commitment and in establishing an inspection protocol, most reasonably with the IAEA, to ascertain that no nuclear weapons are on board. This protocol could entail the use of information barriers or other black-box techniques that would permit confirmation that nuclear material is not present in the vertical launch payload section of the submarine.

Beyond the AUKUS Arrangement

Looking ahead, the international community faces the prospect of further growth in novel and nonproscribed nuclear military applications and, with it, pressure on the IAEA and its traditional safeguards measures to sustain nonproliferation assurances. These applications include not only naval propulsion, but also micro- and mobile reactors deployed on military bases or used in space or other nonterrestrial activities, for example. Such developments occur against a sobering backdrop of a broader and growing global interest in nuclear enrichment technology and related indigenous activities, as well as in the accumulation of higher enrichment levels for and quantities of uranium-235.20 On the face of it, none of these activities is illegitimate, precluded, restricted, or even subject to special scrutiny under any international regime currently in place, given that the long-discussed fissile material cutoff treaty has never materialized. Unfortunately, geopolitical rivalries do not inspire much hope for breaking the deadlock on negotiating new arms control and nonproliferation treaties or conventions that could generate new or additional legally binding approaches to reassurance in cases involving these proliferation sensitive activities.

Thus, it is imperative for the international community to look for alternative means to supplement traditional legal nonproliferation and arms control regimes. Namely, it will be necessary to develop voluntary, cooperative, complementary measures. Such measures should aim to provide reassurance that nuclear activities involving safeguards exemptions for military applications, especially classified programs such as naval propulsion or other atypical uses of nuclear materials, are not conducted in support of a weapons program, while giving timely and credible early warning of any potentially alarming changes. For example, states undertaking nonproscribed military nuclear activity, in addition to implementing a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an additional protocol, should be expected to provide additional forms and means of transparency to the IAEA, such as wide-area environmental sampling, declarations of their other technical activities that could contribute to nuclear weapons design,and regulated access to military facilities where such activities occur. These states also should commit voluntarily to address all pertinent IAEA queries, even when they go beyond nominal safeguards obligations. Expanding the voluntary exchange of information around best practices in all aspects of nuclear operations—safety and security, as well as safeguards—would be a useful and expedient means of building confidence at a time of growing geopolitical tension.

To secure broad buy-in, new arrangements must meet significant criteria. First, they should be constructed carefully so as not to stand in the way of activities that might be sensitive yet legitimate, such as naval propulsion projects such as the AUKUS arrangement. Second, as it is unlikely that new binding obligations can be negotiated, it would be more expedient to frame new reassurance measures as expectations for responsible nonproliferation conduct. Third, they must be directed at all parties involved in proliferation-sensitive activities: exporters, importers, governments, and enterprises alike, including when the activity is purely indigenous. Such expectations should also be nondiscriminatory in nature, meaning they would apply equally to all non-nuclear-weapon states, not just those favored by one major power or another. Finally and perhaps most critically, it is useful to consider how to meaningfully incentivize responsible behavior with sensitive nuclear materials and technologies.

When viewed in this light, many of these proposed AUKUS-related reassurance actions could thus also pioneer a broader reassurance regime, should a global increase in the military uses of nuclear technology indeed materialize. Such actions might not quell the criticism of those opposed to the AUKUS arrangement on geopolitical grounds, but it could assuage genuine, although perhaps exaggerated concerns and provide a road map for innovating nonproliferation regimes that risk failing to keep pace with developments. In doing so, Australia, the UK, and the United States could credibly claim to be setting the highest standards for such activities going forward.



1. The White House, “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” September 15, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/.

2. The White House, “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” March 12, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus-2/.

3. Frank N. von Hippel, “The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Mitigating Proliferation Concerns,” Arms Control Today, November 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-11/features/australia-uk-us-submarine-deal-mitigating-proliferation-concerns; Laura Rockwood, “The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Submarines and Safeguards,” Arms Control Today, December 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-12/features/australia-uk-us-submarine-deal-submarines-safeguards.

4. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Director General Statement in Relation to AUKUS Announcement,” March 14, 2023, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/director-general-statement-in-relation-to-aukus-announcement.

5. U.S. officials, briefing for nongovernmental experts via zoom, Washington, March 10, 2023.

6. The White House, “Trilateral Australia-UK-US Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” March 13, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/fact-sheet-trilateral-australia-uk-us-partnership-on-nuclear-powered-submarines/.

7. Mary Beth Nikitin and Bruce Vaughn, “U.S.-Australia Civilian Nuclear Cooperation: Issues for Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, R41312, January 18, 2011; Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1997, https://www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/npr/walsh51.pdf.

8. John Gower, “AUKUS After San Diego: The Real Challenges and Nuclear Risks,” APLN Policy Brief, March 2023, https://cms.apln.network/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/PB-99-Gower.pdf.

9. “Russia's Actions in Ukraine and Belarus,” The New York Times, March 26, 2023.

10. Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000); Christine M. Leah and Crispin Rovere, “Chasing Mirages: Australia and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella in the Asia-Pacific,” NPIHP Issue Brief, No. 1 (March 2013).

11. Reynolds, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb.

12. Walsh, “Surprise Down Under.”

13. Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, “There's a Part of the US-Australia Alliance We Rarely Talk About: Nuclear Weapons," United States Studies Centre, February 27, 2019, https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/theres-a-part-of-the-us-australia-alliance-we-rarely-talk-about-nuclear-weapons.

14. Andrew Greene, "Defence Won't Confirm If US Bombers Carry Nuclear Weapons," ABC News Australia, February 15, 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-15/defence-wont-confirm-if-us-bombers-carry-nuclear-weapons/101978596.

15. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Nuclear Naval Propulsion: Working Paper Submitted by Indonesia,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.67, July 25, 2022.

16. Choe Sang-Hun, “In a First, South Korea Declares Nuclear Weapons a Policy Option,”
The New York Times, January 12, 2023.

17. Francois Murphy, “Brazil Initiates Talks With IAEA on Fuel for Planned Nuclear Submarine,” Reuters, June 6, 2022.

18. Nuclear Suppliers Group, “Guidelines for Transfers of Nuclear-Related Dual-Use Equipment, Materials, Software, and Related Technology,” INFCIRC/254/Rev.12/Part 2, n.d.

19. U.S. congressional authorization would be required for the return of spent fuel from an SSN AUKUS submarine to the United States. See James M. Acton, “How to the Solve the AUKUS Nuclear Submarine Deal’s Spent Fuel Problem,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 13, 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/06/13/how-to-solve-aukus-nuclear-submarine-deal-s-nuclear-fuel-problem-pub-89958.

20. See Edward Wong, Vivian Nereim, and Kate Kelly, “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Global Push for Nuclear Power,” The New York Times, April 1, 2023.


Toby Dalton is a senior fellow and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Ariel Levite is a nonresident senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program and the Technology and International Affairs Program at CEIP.

Although the geopolitical rationale for the arrangement is understandable, the parties have failed to come to terms with its core problems. 

Russia Stops Sharing New START Data

Russia confirmed a month after it suspended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) that it has cut off transmitting treaty-required data on Russian strategic nuclear forces to the United States. “All forms of notifications, all data exchange, all inspection activities, in general, all types of work under the treaty are suspended,” stated Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov March 29. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintained March 28 that Moscow will continue to adhere to New START’s central limits of no more than 1,550 strategic warheads deployed on 700...

AUKUS Plans Announced

April 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced plans for Australia to purchase at least three nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and work with the UK on a new submarine design to meet Australian security needs.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) delivers remarks on the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defense partnership along with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego in March. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The March 13 announcement by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joseph Biden, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak comes 18 months after London and Washington revealed their intentions to provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines under the terms of the so-called AUKUS deal. (See ACT, October 2021.)

After meeting with Albanese and Sunak in San Diego, Biden said the “overriding objective” of the AUKUS initiative is to “enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics.” Albanese described the initiative as the “biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability” and said it will strengthen “national security and stability in our region.”

According to a fact sheet released by the three countries, Australia will purchase three U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines beginning in 2030s, with congressional approval, to meet its defense requirements while it works with the UK on a new submarine design and builds up its industrial base for domestic production. Prior to that, Australian naval personnel will train with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy. Beginning in 2027, both countries will forward-deploy nuclear submarines to Australian bases.

The new class of Australian-UK submarine, referenced as the SSN AUKUS, will incorporate U.S. components. Prior to this agreement, the United States had shared technology pertaining to nuclear submarine development only with the UK. The first of the SSN AUKUS submarines will be built in the UK and delivered to Australia in the late 2030s. Australia will aim to build up its capacity to produce SSN AUKUS submarines domestically by the 2040s. The submarines built in Australia will receive nuclear power reactor units that are welded shut, making it more difficult for the weapons-grade fuel to be removed, according to the fact sheet.

Although all three leaders reiterated their commitments to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, the decision to provide Australia with submarine reactors fueled by weapons-grade uranium and to jointly develop SSN AUKUS-class submarines raises concerns about proliferation and the precedent this deal will set.

Australia, as a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons. But Australia can possess weapons-grade materials. Under Article 14 of a country’s NPT-required comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a country can remove nuclear materials from a A version of the Virginia-class submarine that Australia plans to purchase in the 2030s from the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Congress, under the new AUKUS defense partnership. Meanwhile, Australia will work with the United Kingdom on a new submarine and build up its industrial base for domestic production. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)safeguarded, peaceful program for military purposes that do not involve the development of nuclear weapons, such as naval propulsion.

In a March 14 letter, Australia notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi of its intent to “commence negotiation” on an arrangement pursuant to Article 14. The letter said it was Australia’s intent to “include a robust package of safeguards and verification measures” that will enable the IAEA to confirm the “non-diversion of nuclear material, the non-misuse of nuclear facilities, and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.”

Biden and Albanese also reiterated their commitments to maintaining nonproliferation standards. Biden said the deal sets the “highest standards” for verification and transparency with the IAEA.

But there is no precedent for a state utilizing Article 14 for naval propulsion and how a state must “make it clear” that the material removed from safeguards will not be used for weapons purposes.

In a March 14 statement, Grossi said he would “ensure a transparent process” and that the agency must “ensure that no proliferation risks emanate from this project.” He said the Article 14 agreement will be submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors “for appropriate action.”

Other states, most notably China, have objected to the AUKUS deal on nonproliferation grounds. Although there are legitimate proliferation concerns, Beijing’s mixed record on supporting nonproliferation objectives raises questions about the sincerity of its opposition.

In a March 14 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the decision will “exacerbate” the arms race, “undermine the international nuclear nonproliferation regime,” and destabilize the region. He said the three AUKUS countries are motivated by “geopolitical interests” and are going down the “wrong and dangerous path.”

He said this arrangement “violates the purpose and object of the NPT” and the safeguards implications affect all IAEA members. He said the AUKUS deal should not proceed until IAEA member states reach consensus regarding the safeguards issues.

The next day, Wang said there is no way to effectively safeguard the nuclear material and ensure it will not be diverted to build nuclear weapons. He also said there are differences over how to interpret Article 14 of a safeguards agreement. It remains unclear whether the Biden administration has the support in Congress to push through the AUKUS deal, which has bipartisan critics.

In a December letter to Biden, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) raised concerns about the capacity of the United States to sell submarines to Australia and still meet U.S. security needs. They warned about “stressing the U.S. submarine industrial base to the breaking point.” They urged Biden to ensure that “sovereign U.S. national security capabilities will not be diminished” because of the AUKUS deal.

But Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), founder of the bipartisan AUKUS Congressional Working Group, described the March 13 announcement as a “seminal moment” and said it “lays out a clear path” to enhance the Australian Navy and achieve U.S. national security goals in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia also faces domestic criticism that could challenge the AUKUS project. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating who, like Albanese is in the Labor party, described it as the “worst deal in all history” and argued that Australia was overreacting to the threat posed by China.

Former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull from the opposition Liberal Party welcomed the announcement of U.S. and UK submarines rotating through the country, but said Australia would have been better off to continue working with France to buy cheaper nuclear submarines that use low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used for weapons. Paris was taken by surprise with the AUKUS announcement in September 2021.

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States agreed that Australia would purchase at least three U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. 

Biden, G-7 Must Deliver on Disarmament at Hiroshima

March 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

In the midst of Russian nuclear threats in its war on Ukraine and an accelerating global nuclear arms competition, U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized states will convene for their 2023 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

In this photo taken on August 6, 2021, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, as it was known before 1945, and now called the Atomic Bomb Dome, is seen through the cenotaph at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima as the city marks the 76th anniversary of the world's first atomic bomb attack. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)The May 19–21 gathering creates a crucial opportunity for Biden and his counterparts to recognize the horrors of nuclear war and reaffirm the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons while pledging concrete steps to halt the arms race, guard against nuclear weapons use, and advance nuclear disarmament. Anything less would be a failure of leadership at a time of nuclear peril.

To his credit, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida chose Hiroshima, his home city, as the summit venue “to deepen discussions so that we can release a strong message toward realizing a world free of nuclear weapons.” In addition to the usual G-7 communique, Japan is proposing a separate joint statement on nuclear matters. Kishida told French President Emmanuel Macron in January that the leaders must “demonstrate a firm commitment to absolutely reject the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”

To do so, the G-7 statement should not only reaffirm that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” but also reiterate the powerful Nov. 16 statement by the Group of 20 countries that nuclear weapons use and threats of nuclear use are “inadmissible.” Agreement on such a statement may not be easy because all G-7 states, including host Japan, cling to nuclear deterrence strategies that depend on the threat of nuclear weapons use.

To be credible, the G-7 leaders also should pledge to follow through on their countries’ own, largely unrealized nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Article VI-related disarmament commitments, including to reduce the role, salience, and number of nuclear weapons. NPT obligations and commitments cannot be voided or delayed indefinitely.

In fact, pursuing disarmament is vital to preventing the international security environment from deteriorating further. With the last remaining Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control agreement expiring in 2026, the G-7 must urge the prompt resumption of talks to restore inspections under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and a new nuclear arms control framework.

To more effectively encourage China to exercise nuclear restraint, Biden and the rest of the G-7 should pledge not to support the development of new types of nuclear weapons, including U.S. sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missiles that Biden opposes but some U.S. and Japanese politicians claim are needed to counter China. Biden also should recognize China’s important role in strengthening the fragile nuclear order and invite President Xi Jinping to explore how the two nations can partner to address common nuclear nonproliferation challenges, including North Korea, and disarmament responsibilities.

In response to appeals from the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to engage their local communities to understand the reality of nuclear war, Japanese government sources say arrangements are being made for the G-7 leaders to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which U.S. President Barack Obama toured in 2016.

Any U.S. presidential visit to Hiroshima is symbolically and politically important. Serious reflection and engagement with atomic bombing and testing survivors should be a job requirement for the leader of any nuclear-armed state. The G-7 would be smart to acknowledge the harm of the U.S. atomic bombings in 1945, as well as the environmental damage created by the nuclear weapons production and testing activities by all nuclear-weapon states, and to reaffirm their obligation to fully address these devastating impacts.

Biden, who pledged in 2020 to “restore American leadership on arms control and nonproliferation…and work to bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons,” must provide even bolder leadership. In addition to supporting the strongest possible G-7 statement, joining other leaders at the museum, and laying a wreath in honor of those who perished from the atomic bombings, Biden should make a separate address in Hiroshima or Nagasaki outlining his own vision for a new global nuclear restraint and disarmament dialogue.

Biden could use such a speech to reiterate his invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold serious talks designed to maintain commonsense limits on or, ideally, further reduce Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles and to elaborate on why such an approach is essential for U.S., allied, and global security. Biden could remind other nuclear-armed states, particularly China, France, India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, that they need to be part of the solution and urge them to freeze the overall size of their nuclear weapons stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia continue to reduce theirs.

At a time of unprecedented nuclear danger, Japan’s decision to bring G-7 leaders to Hiroshima is an obvious yet bold choice. To be successful, Kishida and Biden must make the Hiroshima summit more than a symbolic backdrop. It must be a catalyst for bold, effective disarmament action to ensure that no country suffers the horrors of nuclear war ever again.

In the midst of Russian nuclear threats in its war on Ukraine and an accelerating global nuclear arms competition, U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized states will convene for their 2023 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

U.S. Cites Russian Noncompliance with New START Inspections

Russia has failed to fully comply with the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) because of its refusal to allow on-site inspections and to reschedule a meeting to discuss treaty concerns, according to a U.S. assessment released in January. Senior Russian officials have accused the United States of “politicizing nuclear arms control,” saying that Washington “would have to adjust its policy towards Russia to move to a constructive arms control agenda.” In August, Moscow prohibited U.S. on-site inspections of its nuclear weapons-related facilities subject to the treaty over...

U.S., Russia Agree to Call for Negotiating New START Successor

The United States and Russia committed to a statement expressing the need for the world’s two largest nuclear-weapon states to negotiate a follow-on arms control arrangement to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), which expires in under four years. This commitment came during the monthlong 10 th review conference for the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ( NPT ) held in August, at which U.S. President Joe Biden stated that his administration stands prepared to begin such arms control talks. “The Russian Federation and the United States commit to the full...

AUKUS to Collaborate on Hypersonics

May 2022
By Shannon Bugos

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have agreed to collaborate on accelerating the development of advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities in an expansion of the initial scope of their trilateral security partnership.

An artist’s rendering of the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept system, which the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said in mid-March had been successfully tested. (Illustration by DARPA)This partnership, known as AUKUS, “committed today to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defense innovation,” according to a joint statement by U.S. President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Johnson on April 5.

AUKUS was launched in September 2021 with a pledge by Washington and London to equip Canberra with conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. (See ACT, November and October 2021.) The three countries also agreed to work together in four areas of advanced capabilities—cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities—in recognition of their “deep defense ties,” according to the joint statement first announcing the AUKUS partnership last year.

The inaugural meetings of the two trilateral joint steering groups were held in December 2021, during which the group on advanced capabilities “discussed other additional capabilities and agreed to identify potential opportunities for collaboration” in addition to the four existing areas. The April announcement marked the first disclosure of how the three countries plan to expand their partnership on new, emerging, and advanced capabilities and technologies.

The partnership emerged with a stated objective to “ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Biden said in September. Thus far, the three members have been careful in not directly attributing the new partnership to shared concerns regarding China, but the connection is widely accepted. Beijing has sharply criticized the initiative from the outset and repeated its criticisms following the April announcement.

The AUKUS partnership “not only increases nuclear proliferation risks and brings shocks to the international nonproliferation system, but also intensifies the arms race and undermines peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on April 6. “Countries in the region should be on a higher alert.”

The AUKUS pledge to collaborate on hypersonic technology came on the same day as the revelation by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of a second successful test of the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) in mid-March. The agency kept news of the test quiet for about two weeks in order to avoid escalating tensions as Biden traveled to Europe for meetings with NATO, the European Union, and the Group of Seven concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine, a U.S. defense official told CNN.

The second HAWC free flight test featured the Lockheed Martin version of the system, as opposed to the Raytheon version successfully tested in September. (See ACT, November 2021.)

During the March test, the HAWC vehicle was released from a B-52 bomber off the West Coast and was accelerated by a booster engine before the air-breathing scramjet ignited and allowed the vehicle to cruise at speeds higher than Mach 5 for an extended period of time.

This test “successfully demonstrated a second design that will allow our war-fighters to competitively select the right capabilities to dominate the battlefield,” said Andrew Knoedler, HAWC program manager for DARPA.

The forward momentum with the HAWC hypersonic program was contrasted with a major delay in the schedule for the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) system, which was slated to be the first deployed U.S. hypersonic weapon, with an initial operational date of fiscal year 2022.

An Air Force statement provided to Bloomberg News on April 6 stated that the new operational date has been moved to sometime in the next fiscal year.

The ARRW system failed three flight booster tests, in April, July, and December 2021. The system must successfully complete booster and all-up-round test flights before a contract is awarded to Lockheed Martin to kick-start production.

The Air Force statement noted that, “due to recent flight test anomalies,” the first all-up-round test has been rescheduled to take place between October 1 and December 30 with additional tests later in fiscal year 2023. A January report by the Pentagon’s testing and evaluation office also found that the schedule for the ARRW system “could be delayed due to the limited number and availability of hypersonic flight corridors, target areas, and test support assets.” (See ACT, March 2022.)

The flood of news regarding the development of U.S. hypersonic weapons followed the confirmed Russian use of hypersonic weapons for the first time in combat and the resultant calls by some U.S. officials for the Pentagon to speed up its efforts.

Russia claimed in mid-March that it used Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles to destroy an ammunition warehouse in western Ukraine and a fuel depot in southern Ukraine. (See ACT, April 2022.) U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, head of U.S. European Command, confirmed to the Senate Armed Service Committee at a March 29 hearing that Russian forces have fired “multiple” hypersonic missiles at military targets in Ukraine.

“I think it was to demonstrate the capability and attempt to put fear in the hearts of the enemy,” said Wolters. “I don’t think they were successful.”

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 5 featuring Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, asserted that the United States “is behind our adversaries” with regard to hypersonic weapons, referring to Russia and China.

But Austin cautioned that “we have to be careful” when it comes to claims that the Pentagon is falling behind in developing and deploying these capabilities. “Hypersonics is a capability, but it’s not the only capability,” he responded.

After Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) also claimed that Washington is falling behind in the hypersonic race, Austin questioned the basis for the assertion, asking, “What do you mean we are behind in hypersonics?”

The defense secretary and other Pentagon officials such as Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, have met with hypersonics industry executives at least twice this year in order to quicken the pace of hypersonic weapons systems development, which the department has prioritized as a critical technology.

Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are expanding the focus of their partnership to the development of advanced hypersonics.

On Nuclear Weapons, Actions Belie Reassuring Words

January/February 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

(Photo by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament/Henry Kenyon)The U.S., Chinese, French, Russian, and UK effort was designed in part to create a positive atmosphere for the 10th NPT review conference, which has been delayed again by the pandemic. It also clearly aims to address global concerns about the rising danger of nuclear conflict among states and signals a potential for further cooperation to address this existential threat.

The question now is, do they have the will and the skill to translate their laudable intentions into action before it is too late?

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price hailed the statement as “extraordinary.” A more sober reading shows that it falls woefully short of committing the five to the policies and actions necessary to prevent nuclear war. In fact, the statement illustrates how their blind faith in deterrence theories, which hinge on a credible threat of using nuclear weapons, perpetuates conditions that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.

The statement asserts that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” Yet, such broad language suggests they might use nuclear weapons to “defend” themselves against a wide range of threats, including non-nuclear threats. Given the indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use, such policies are dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable.

At the very least, if the leaders of these states are serious about averting nuclear war, they should formally adopt no-first-use policies or, as U.S. President Joe Biden promised in 2020, declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or possibly respond to a nuclear attack.

Even this approach perpetuates circumstances that could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. The only way to ensure nuclear weapons are never used is “to do away with them entirely,” as President Ronald Reagan argued in 1984, and sooner rather than later.

But on disarmament, the statement only expressed a “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” This vague, caveated promise rings hollow after years of stalled disarmament progress and an accelerating global nuclear arms race.

A year ago, Russia and the United States extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but they have not begun negotiations on a follow-on agreement. Meanwhile, both spend billions of dollars annually to maintain and upgrade their nuclear forces, which far exceed any rational concept of what it takes to deter a nuclear attack.

China is on pace to double or triple the size of its land-based strategic missile force in the coming years. Worse still, despite past promises “to engage in the process leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Chinese leaders are rebuffing calls to engage in arms control talks with the United States and others. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, announced last year it would increase its deployed strategic warhead ceiling.

Fresh statements by the five NPT nuclear-armed states reaffirming their “intention” to fulfill their NPT disarmament obligations are hardly credible in the absence of time-bound commitments to specific disarmament actions.

At the same time, the five, led by France, have criticized the good faith efforts by the majority of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to advance the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Contrary to claims by the nuclear-armed states, the TPNW reinforces the NPT and the norm against possessing, testing, and using nuclear weapons.

Rather than engage TPNW leaders on their substantive concerns, U.S. officials are pressuring influential states, including Sweden, Germany, and Japan, not to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as observers. Such bullying will only reinforce enthusiasm for the TPNW and undermine U.S. credibility on nuclear matters.

The leaders of the nuclear five, especially Biden, can and must do better. Before the NPT review conference later this year, Russia and the United States should commit to conclude by 2025 negotiations on further verifiable cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces and on constraints on long-range missile defenses. China, France, and the UK should agree to join nuclear arms control talks no later than 2025 and to freeze their stockpiles as Washington and Moscow negotiate deeper cuts in theirs.

Instead of belittling the TPNW, the five states need to get their own houses in order. Concrete action on disarmament is overdue. It will help create a more stable and peaceful international security environment and facilitate the transformative move from unsustainable and dangerous deterrence doctrines toward a world free of the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

AUKUS States Sign Information Exchange Deal

January/February 2022
By Julia Masterson

For the first time, the United Kingdom and the United States may now share sensitive naval nuclear propulsion information with Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state, as a result of a trilateral agreement signed on Nov. 22.

The HMS Vigilant, a UK Valiant-class submarine, in Scotland in 2019. The UK and the United States recently agreed to share sensitive naval nuclear propulsion information with Australia under a new security partnership known as AUKUS.  (Photo by James Glossop - WPA Pool/Getty Images)The Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement marks the latest step by the security partnership, known as AUKUS, to provide Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.

The multifaceted AUKUS initiative, announced Sept. 15, will also facilitate the sharing of information in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and long-range-strike, cyber-, and quantum capabilities. According to U.S. President Joe Biden on Sept. 15, the objective of the new trilateral alliance is “ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific [region] over the long term.”

Although the submarine project is in its early stages, the AUKUS pact could ultimately allow Australia to become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to field a nuclear submarine. (See ACT, October 2021.)

In a Nov. 22 press release, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton stressed that the agreement allows only for the sharing of information, not equipment or technology. The agreement is subject to consideration by the U.S. Congress under Section 123 of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, which regulates U.S. nuclear trade, and to a UK parliamentary review. Section 123 establishes conditions and outlines the process for major nuclear cooperation between the United States and other countries.

According to a Dec. 1 message from the White House to Congress, “The agreement would permit the three parties to communicate and exchange naval nuclear propulsion information and would provide authorization to share certain restricted data as may be needed during trilateral discussions, thereby enabling full and effective consultations.”

Dutton explained that the agreement will support an 18-month examination by the three countries into the steps necessary for Australia to acquire the submarines, including training and education to “safely and effectively build, operate, and support nuclear-powered submarines.” It remains unclear whether the vessels will be based on existing UK or U.S. attack submarines or on an entirely new design. In September, Dutton told reporters that Australia may lease vessels from its partners in the near term to “provide opportunities for us to train our sailors [and to] provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” suggesting that the submarines may share a similar design.

The AUKUS project already has skirted international norms regarding the sharing of nuclear information and technology between nuclear and non-nuclear states. Pending domestic legislative review in the UK and the United States, Australia will soon become the first non-nuclear-weapon state privy to the sensitive engineering and mechanics of U.S. and UK nuclear submarines, powered by onboard nuclear reactors. Even without the transfer of materials, the sharing of protected information on UK and U.S. naval nuclear propulsion design entrusts Australia with an immense responsibility as a steward of that sensitive technical knowledge.

Australia’s new submarines will likely run on highly enriched uranium. Australia is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and on Nov. 22, Dutton asserted that “Australia is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Irrespective of Canberra’s intentions, however, because only nuclear-weapon states currently field nuclear submarines, there is no precedent for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to safeguard naval nuclear propulsion technology or the fissile material used on board those vessels. As a non-nuclear-weapon NPT state, Australia is required to place all nuclear materials within its jurisdiction under nuclear safeguards. Mounting uncertainty over whether and how Australia’s vessels will be appropriately safeguarded is exacerbating concerns about potential nuclear proliferation and the precedent the new submarines could set.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Nov. 22 that nuclear submarine cooperation among Australia, the UK, and the United States “deliberately escalates regional tensions, stimulates [an] arms race, threatens regional peace and stability, and undermines international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”

In an Oct. 29 memo to the IAEA, China called for a special meeting of the agency’s members to consider the parameters of a regime to safeguard naval nuclear technology. Beijing urged that the AUKUS partners refrain from commencing their cooperation until a safeguards system is in place.

Although the November sharing arrangement pertains only to information, not nuclear materials, the Chinese spokesman criticized the nuclear submarine scheme as “clearly violat[ing] the object and purpose of the NPT and seriously impact[ing] the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.”

“It is extremely irresponsible for the three countries to forge the so-called agreement on the exchange of naval nuclear propulsion information [and] advance nuclear submarine cooperation in disregard of international rules and opposition of parties,” Zhao said.

In a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Nov. 24, Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that Australia, the UK, and the United States had not provided the agency with additional information on the project or its safeguards implications since announcing the agreement in September.

The United Kingdom and the United States may now share naval nuclear propulsion information with Australia.


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