“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022
United Kingdom

How the Next UK Government Could Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War

December 2023
By Louis Reitmann

The next UK general election is due by January 2025, and for the first time in more than 10 years, a win by the Labour Party seems possible. Polling between 44 and 47 percent, Labour is as popular as the Conservative Party was when Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in 2019.1 Remarkably, 62 percent of members of Parliament believe that Labour will win the next election, as do most voters and 48 percent of Conservative voters.2

The administration of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party (L), seen here in 2020, stunned the world in 2021 by raising the limit on the country’s nuclear stockpile. The government of his Conservative Party successor, Rishi Sunak (R),  shows no interest in changing course. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)With a potential change in government on the horizon, the United Kingdom has an opportunity to rethink its nuclear weapons policy and return to a leadership role on nuclear risk reduction and disarmament among the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). After decades of reductions, the Johnson government stunned the world in 2021 by raising the limit on the UK nuclear stockpile from 180 warheads to 260 warheads and by reducing arsenal transparency.3 With this decision, the UK lost political leverage over other nuclear powers, further polarized the global disarmament debate, and contributed to growing nuclear risk. The present government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has shown no interest in changing course.

Although Labour has criticized Conservative nuclear weapons policy, it is far from united on the issue. The party seems stuck in a cyclical debate about whether to appear tough on defense or pursue nuclear disarmament, but there is a clear path by which a Labour government could take meaningful yet realistic action to reduce nuclear risk and make progress toward disarmament without unilaterally surrendering the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Giving Perspective to a Disillusioned Party

The issue of the UK’s nuclear weapons has been thorny for Labour. Its vocal pro-disarmament wing has exposed the party to questions about its commitment to national defense and nuclear deterrence. Credibility issues intensified under Jeremy Corbyn, the previous party leader and a lifelong disarmament advocate who said that he would never use nuclear weapons if elected prime minister.

The current leader, Keir Starmer, has tried to silence the critics by cementing Labour’s commitment to the UK’s nuclear weapons as “non-negotiable” and by underlining support for the ongoing modernization program.4 More recently, Starmer abolished the Office of Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, held by a lawmaker who campaigned for the country to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).5 In terms of electoral strategy, this seems smart; voters currently prefer Labour policies in all areas except defense, where the Conservatives have an 18-point lead.6 To win the next election, Labour must appeal to more center-right voters, the majority of whom support the UK having nuclear weapons.7

At the same time, Starmer’s Labour Party has condemned the Johnson government for breaking its goal of gradually reducing the stockpile, criticized the Dreadnought-class submarine program’s spiraling cost as wasteful, and pledged to “lead efforts to secure multilateral disarmament.”8 There is a clear desire to differentiate Labour from the Conservative approach without appearing “weak” on defense.

To do so, Labour has to move beyond the limits of its internal debate, which has long been defined by an imagined binary choice between maintaining the arsenal as it is and complete nuclear disarmament, when in reality there are many options in between. If Labour wants to restore UK leadership in the global nuclear order, it should take a long, hard look at them.

Taking Meaningful, Realistic Action

A future Labour government’s nuclear weapons policy should be based on several broad objectives: countering the trend toward nuclear armament, reducing the risk of nuclear war, and easing the tension between the five nuclear-weapon states and TPNW states-parties that undermines a collaborative pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Implementing the following policy options would help achieve these objectives.

The lowest hanging fruit for a Labour government would be to declare a moratorium on increases to the nuclear weapons stockpile enabled by the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. This would leave open the option of growing the stockpile in the future while acknowledging the questionable strategic necessity of a larger stockpile at this moment.

Defense officials at the time said that the cap increase was “driven by a desire to be more assertive and ‘not apologize’ for the UK’s position as a nuclear state,” rather than by strategic thinking.9 Not only was the decision unforeseen by the expert community, it also contained very little detail about the capabilities of adversaries that made a stockpile increase necessary and why alternatives, such as increasing the operational part of the stockpile, arming the patrolling submarine with more than 40 warheads, or enhancing submarine stealth or missile reentry for greater arsenal survivability, were not viable options. Going a step further, a Labour government could reinstate the previous limit of 180 warheads and resume work toward this goal to be completed in the mid-2030s.

Reversing a second decision announced in the 2021 Integrated Review, a Labour government could enhance transparency by resuming publication of the number of deployed UK missiles and warheads, and the size of the operational stockpile. The decision to pursue strategic ambiguity was meant to complicate the decision-making of adversaries during crises, but critics note that there is little evidence that ambiguity about capabilities strengthens deterrence. Indeed, the principal lesson from the Soviet-U.S. arms control experience was that mutual transparency increased both sides’ confidence that credible deterrence was possible even with fewer nuclear weapons.10 Strategic ambiguity raises the risk of miscalculation, which is why governments, such as those involved in the Stockholm Initiative, a cross-regional group of 14 countries committed to advancing nuclear disarmament, have been calling for enhanced information exchanges, dialogue, and transparency to reduce nuclear risk.11

Strategic ambiguity is inconsistent with the UK’s practice of lobbying for transparency and national reporting under the NPT and undermines its ability to credibly criticize Chinese and Russian nuclear secrecy. It also may increase distrust within the P5 process, a consultative mechanism initiated in 2009 to facilitate cooperation among the NPT’s five nuclear-weapon states that the UK inaugurated and shepherds. As former UK Defense Secretary Desmond Browne concluded, “There is really no good explanation for ending this transparency.”12

Adopting a Sole-Purpose Policy

By adopting a sole-purpose policy, the UK would declare that its nuclear weapons are only intended to deter an attack with nuclear weapons, not with any other weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, or cyberweapons. This change would reflect the broad consensus in the UK nuclear community that it is unthinkable that London would ever use nuclear weapons first and that the arsenal is too small to deliver a preemptive strike against its main adversaries, Russia and China. There also is no majority support among the UK public for a first-use policy.13

A sole-purpose declaration would be a positive step toward risk reduction, helping to prevent miscalculations by adversaries that could trigger a nuclear first strike against the UK. The argument that retaining a first-use option deters conventional war ignores the fact that even a lower-yield nuclear response to a conventional attack easily could escalate into full-blown nuclear war.

Adopting a sole-purpose policy would require coordination with allies to ensure complementarity with NATO’s nuclear posture. There is potential for the UK and the United States to act jointly on this in the future since the Biden administration was viewed as likely to adopt a sole-purpose policy prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Another option is for a Labour-led Parliament to adopt legislation linking future nuclear weapons modernization to further reductions in the stockpile or nuclear posture, affecting updates to the arsenal after the Dreadnought-class submarines now under construction leave service in the 2070s. This would be a long overdue response to criticism that the nuclear-weapon states are not making concrete plans for disarmament in the spirit of the NPT while still giving the UK another 40 years to prepare for reductions.

Although politically difficult, this option must be considered seriously, not least because each modernization bears a considerable risk that the update cannot be delivered on time, at the expected capability, or at all. Currently, concerns are emerging that the Dreadnought program will not be completed; several components are already severely behind schedule and billions over budget.14 Regarding the development of a new reactor to power the submarines, the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority has concluded that the “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.”15 Facing many challenges from economic security to public health, the UK may not want or be able to take on an immense financial risk like this again.

As for alternatives to the current UK posture with at least one nuclear-armed submarine always at sea, a 2013 governmental review gave concrete options, for example, coordinating deployment schedules more closely with France and the United States to ensure that the UK is protected by NATO capabilities when not deploying its own submarines.16 Reductions in the stockpile or nuclear posture could be combined with a UK Ministry of Defence program to investigate how the state could bolster its conventional capabilities with the savings that accrue from a smaller nuclear arsenal.

Attending a TPNW Meeting

A Labour government could make history if the UK becomes the first nuclear-weapon state to attend a TPNW meeting of states-parties as an observer. This could be a step toward a broader change in the UK approach to the treaty if it no longer works to undermine the TPNW, discourages states from joining it, or asserts the treaty’s incompatibility with the NPT.

Normalizing the UK relationship with the TPNW would be a smart choice. It would acknowledge that the campaign by the nuclear-weapon states against the treaty has backfired by antagonizing many non-nuclear-weapon states and strengthening support for the TPNW. At the same time, a less hostile approach would not prevent the UK from continuing to assert that the treaty has no political or legal effect on itself or other states that are not party to it.

It is worth remembering that the UK previously has changed course in a similar way. After abstaining from the first two conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, in Oslo and Nayarit, the UK and the United States attended the third conference, held in Vienna in 2014, and were the only nuclear-weapon states to do so.

Finally, a Labour government could fund assistance for victims of UK nuclear testing and for restoration of the ecosystems that UK tests have destroyed in Australia, the Pacific region, and Nevada. Assistance could be given directly to the affected communities or via a trust fund that TPNW states-parties are discussing.17

Emphasizing humanitarian and environmental concerns would align well with Labour’s ambitions to carve out a new, progressive role for the UK on the world stage. It also would help address the country’s colonialist legacy as nearly all 45 of its nuclear tests were conducted on or near indigenous land. The UK pays pensions to veterans who worked on the tests, and Labour has promised each veteran a ₤50,000 lump sum.18 Yet, the UK has never extended apologies or support to indigenous peoples who for generations have suffered the trauma and health consequences of nuclear testing. In Kiribati alone, 189 families have been afflicted by illness due to UK tests.19 Despite persistent lobbying, including at the 2023 UN General Assembly, calls for compensation have been ignored.

From an opportunistic perspective, providing such support could further the UK’s self-perception as a responsible nuclear-weapon state. Along with France and the United States, the UK has used this term to differentiate itself from China and Russia, which have embarked on modernization and expansion programs for their nuclear arsenals with minimal transparency.

The UK could even fund assistance to people and places affected by Soviet testing, for example, in Kazakhstan, thus demonstrating the difference between Russian and UK conduct as nuclear powers. TPNW states-parties reject the idea that any state with nuclear weapons could be considered responsible, but expanding the concept to include victims assistance and environmental remediation could strengthen the UK case that there are more responsible ways of maintaining nuclear weapons.

An Opportunity to Be Seized

If elected, Labour must move past its self-sabotaging internal struggle between unconditional commitment to the status quo and unilateral disarmament toward a balanced and results-oriented approach to the country’s nuclear arsenal. Labour’s pursuit of a “safe-choice-for-defense” image should not prevent it from seizing this unique opportunity to restore the UK’s international leadership regarding nuclear risk reduction and disarmament. There are plenty of policy options on the table, from low-hanging fruit to ambitious initiatives.



1. Ipsos, “Latest UK Opinion Polls: Government Approval Recent Changes,” October 4, 2023; YouGov, “YouGov/The Times Survey Results,” n.d., p. 1, https://d3nkl3psvxxpe9.cloudfront.net/documents/TheTimes_VI_231018_W.pdf.

2. Matthew Smith, “Half of Tory MPs Say the Conservatives Are Going to Win the Next Election,” YouGov, July 14, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/45901-half-tory-mps-say-conservatives-are-going-win-next.

3. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile,” Arms Control Today, April 2021, pp. 18-19.

4. Helen Catt, “Labour Renews Vow to Keep Nuclear Weapons,” BBC News, February 26, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-56198972.

5. Labour Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “Starmer Removes Peace and Disarmament Role From Shadow Team,” September 8, 2023, https://www.labourcnd.org.uk/2023/09/starmer-removes-peace-and-disarmament-role-from-shadow-team/; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “Parliamentarians Supporting the TPNW,” January 7, 2021, https://cnduk.org/parliamentarians-supporting-the-tpnw/.

6. Gideon Skinner et al., “British Public Think Labour Have the Best Policies on Key Issues but Are Often Unsure How They Would Tackle Them,” Ipsos, June 27, 2023, https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/british-public-think-labour-have-best-policies-on-key-issues.

7. Milan Dinic, “YouGov Study of War: Nuclear Weapons and War,” YouGov, September 21, 2022, https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/43812-part-three-nuclear-weapons-and-war.

8. Dan Sabbagh and Jessica Elgot, “Keir Starmer Accuses PM of Breaking Policy on Nuclear Disarmament,” The Guardian, March 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/16/keir-starmer-accuses-pm-of-breaking-policy-on-nuclear-disarmament; Dan Taylor, “Row as Labour Criticises ‘Significant Issues’ With Dreadnought Programme,” The Mail, September 7, 2022, https://www.nwemail.co.uk/news/20988403.row-labour-criticises-significant-issueswith-dreadnought-programme/; Helen Catt, “Labour Renews Vow to Keep Nuclear Weapons,” BBC News, February 26, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-56198972.

9. David Cullen, “Extreme Circumstances: The UK’s New Nuclear Warhead in Context,” Nuclear Information Service (NIS), August 2022, p. 36, https://www.nuclearinfo.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Extreme-Circumstances-print-version.pdf.

10. Pavel Podvig, “Transparency in Nuclear Disarmament,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, March 2012, p. 6, https://unidir.org/files/publication/pdfs/transparency-in-nuclear-disarmament-390.pdf.

11. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “A Nuclear Risk Reduction Package: Working Paper Submitted by the Stockholm Initiative, Supported by Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.9, May 14, 2021, p. 3.

12. James McKeon, “Q&A: Des Browne on the UK’s Decision to Increase the Cap on Nuclear Warheads,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, April 14, 2021, https://www.nti.org/atomic-pulse/qa-des-browne-on-the-uks-decision-to-increase-the-cap-on-nuclear-warheads/.

13. Tim Street, Harry Spencer, and Shane Ward, “The British Government Doesn’t Want to Talk About Its Nuclear Weapons. The British Public Does,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 6, 2023, https://thebulletin.org/2023/04/the-british-government-doesnt-want-to-talk-about-its-nuclear-weapons-the-british-public-does/.

14. NIS, “Trouble Ahead Update - Winter 2022/23,” YouTube, December 20, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLRP8Q70LA0.

15. NIS, “Increasing Risk of Problems in Derby Delaying Dreadnought Schedule,” August 7, 2023, https://www.nuclearinfo.org/article/increasing-risk-of-problems-in-derby-delaying-dreadnought-schedule/.

16. Government of the United Kingdom, “Trident Alternatives Review,” July 16, 2013, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a7c65b1e5274a7ee2567320/20130716_Trident_Alternatives_Study.pdf.

17. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, “Designing a Trust Fund for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Precedents and Proposals,” January 2023, https://humanrightsclinic.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/011323_Trust-Fund-Report-Combined.pdf.

18. UK Labour Party, “It’s Time for Real Change: The Labour Party Manifesto 2019,” November 2019, p. 101, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Real-Change-Labour-Manifesto-2019.pdf.

19. Becky Alexis-Martin, “Veterans Join Pacific Islanders in Bid for Nuclear Testing Compensation,” The Telegraph, October 19, 2023, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/terror-and-security/britain-nuclear-testing-programme-kiribati-compensation/.

Louis Reitmann is a research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, focusing on nuclear disarmament, export controls, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the nuclear field.

With a potential change in government on the horizon, the United Kingdom has an opportunity to rethink its nuclear weapons policy and return to a leadership role.

ACA Warns Against Calls for Buildup of the Already Massive U.S. Nuclear Arsenal in Race with Russia, China 



Preliminary Assessment of the Report of the
Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States

For Immediate Release: October 12, 2023

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

Following more than a decade of deteriorating relations and uncertainty on disarmament diplomacy, the three states with the larget nuclear arsenals—Russia, the United States, and China—are on the precipice of a unconstrained era of dangerous nuclear competition.

The last remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), will expire in February 2026; the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty no longer exists; the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is history; and Russia is moving to "de-ratify" the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At the same time, China is expanding and diversifying its relatively smaller nuclear arsenal so it can maintain a retaliatory capacity that its leaders believe is sufficient to withstand potential U.S. nuclear or conventional strikes and U.S. missile defenses.

The experience of the Cold War teaches us that an unconstrained arms race has no winners, only losers. Leaders in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington need to seize the opportunity to engage in nuclear risk reduction talks, negotiate sensible and verifiable reductions of their arsenals, and refrain from building new destabilizing types of weapons, rather than proceed down a "lose-lose" path of nuclear competition.

Regrettably, the final report of the bipartisan Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, issued today, suggests that in response to Russia’s nuclear and military behavior and the anticipated growth of China's strategic nuclear arsenal, the United States must be prepared to add more capability and flexibility to the U.S. strategic deterrent to counter two "near-peer" nuclear adversaries. Moreover, as the risk of military conflict with Russia and China grows, the report also advises that the United States must be prepared to fight and “win” two simultaneous wars, by enhancing its missile defense capabilities, and if necessary, bolstering its nuclear weapons capabilities, including new theater-range capabilities.

If there is a military conflict between nuclear-armed states, deterrence will have failed and, in the ensuing conflict, there will be no “winners.” 

Once nuclear weapons are used in a war between the United States and Russia or between the United States and China, there is no guarantee a nuclear war could be “limited.” According to independent estimates, a large-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia would kill and injure more than 90 million people in the first few hours, and many more in the days and weeks afterward.

Some commissioners, in their individual capacities, have argued in separate papers (see Project Atom, pages 38-48) that “deterring China and Russia simultaneously [requires] an increased level of U.S. strategic warheads” and enhancing U.S. sub-strategic nuclear capabilities. We disagree.

As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted in remarks Dec. 9, 2022, at StratCom Headquarters: “Nuclear deterrence isn't just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.”

In the current context, any decision to increase the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons above New START levels could trigger a dangerous action-reaction cycle. It would not enhance deterrence in the face of China’s growing nuclear capabilities or Russia's existing capabilities. It would more likely encourage China to deploy more nuclear weapons on an even wider array of delivery systems over the coming decade and prompt Russia to match any increases in the U.S. strategic force.

Under New START, the United States (and Russia) can now deploy as many as 1550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 missiles and bombers. Each has additional non-strategic nuclear weapons. China’s total nuclear force is estimated to include just over 400 nuclear warheads of all types.

Increasing the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons or adding new types of nuclear war-fighting weapons to the the arsenal would not only be counterproductive, but prohibitively expensive. A July 2023 Congressional Budget Office report estimates that, if carried out, the current plans for nuclear forces delineated in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) fiscal year 2023 budget requests would amount to a staggering $756 billion over the 2023–2032 period, or an average of over $75 billion a year.

Despite reckless behavior on the part of Russia and China in pursuing a more diverse array of nuclear weapons, the scale and diversity of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal still exceeds what is necessary to hold a sufficient number of adversary targets at risk so as to deter enemy nuclear attack.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in his address on June 2, 2023, reiterated that "the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors to effectively deter them."

While the Commission’s final report does recognize the value and importance of continued U.S. efforts to engage Russia and China in the nuclear arms control enterprise, it underplays the importance of stronger U.S. leadership on arms control in preventing an unconstrained nuclear arms race. 

For more than 50 years, U.S. presidents of both parties have recognized the value of nuclear arms control to constrain adversary capabilities that can threaten the United States, its allies, and the world.

This is why the Biden administration's 2022 Nuclear Posture Review states that “Mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and prevent their use.” The President's National Security Advisor said June 2, 2023, 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.”

Rather than take actions that might accelerate dangerous nuclear competition, the United States must exercise prudent nuclear restraint and energetically pursue effective arms control and disarmament diplomacy with Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed states inside and outside of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

As Sullivan emphasized June 2, with respect to Russia: "It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces—and we’re prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does. And 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."

Sullivan noted that the type of limits the United States can agree to after the New START Treaty expires "will of course be impacted by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup" which is "why we’re also ready to engage China without preconditions—helping ensure that competition is managed, and that competition does not veer into conflict."

Considering that new bilateral nuclear arms control limits with Russia may be difficult to achieve so long as Russia's war on Ukraine rages on, the United States could seek an executive agreement or simply a reciprocal unilateral arrangement verified with national technical means of intelligence that commits Russia and the United States to respect New START’s central limits until a more permanent and comprehensive nuclear arms control arrangement is concluded.

At the same time, U.S. and other world leaders should urge China, France, and the United Kingdom to cap the size of their nuclear arsenals as long as Russia and the United States meet their fundamental nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, which involve participating in genuine negotiations to halt and reverse a potential nuclear arms race.


The Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States suggests that in response to Russia’s nuclear and military behavior and the anticipated growth of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal, the United States must be prepared to add more capability and flexibility to the U.S. strategic deterrent and enhance its missile defense capabilities.

UK May Host U.S. Nuclear Weapons Again

October 2023
By Shannon Bugos

The United Kingdom may host U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory for the first time since their complete withdrawal 15 years ago, a move that Russia stated would escalate already high nuclear tensions in Europe.

If the United States redeploys nuclear weapons to the United Kingdom for the first time in 15 years, they would be in addition to the 225 nuclear warheads that the UK has available for its submarine-launched ballistic missiles such as the Trident ballistic missile on this Vanguard class submarine. (Photo by Thomas McDonald courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence)U.S. Air Force budget documents for fiscal year 2024 revealed plans for the construction of a dormitory at Royal Air Force Lakenheath that will be needed to handle “the influx of airmen due to the arrival of the potential Surety mission,” according to an analysis by Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists on Aug. 28. The United States often employs the term “surety” when referring to the safety and security of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova denounced the potential move on Sept. 5, saying that “[i]f this step is ever taken, we will view it as escalation, as a step that would take things in a direction that is quite opposite to addressing the pressing issue of pulling all nuclear weapons out of European countries.” Meanwhile, Russia purportedly has been transferring tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

The UK nuclear arsenal consists of an estimated 225 nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The U.S. nuclear weapons that potentially are headed for the UK most likely would be B61-12 gravity bombs.

Currently, the United States is believed to deploy an estimated 100 B61gravity bombs across five other European countries—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey—under the NATO nuclear sharing mission. Washington withdrew an estimated 110 B61 bombs from Lakenheath in 2008.

A spokesperson for the UK Defense Ministry told The Guardian on Aug. 29 that “it remains a long-standing UK and NATO policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons at a given location.”

Kristensen and Korda offered a possible explanation for what looks like the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the UK, suggesting that perhaps “the United States is currently preparing the infrastructure at RAF Lakenheath to allow the base to potentially receive nuclear weapons in the future or in the midst of a crisis, without necessarily having already decided to permanently station them there or increase the number of weapons currently stored in Europe.”

Marion Messmer of Chatham House in the UK suggested another interpretation. “There has also been a fairly sensitive discussion since the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, and the long-running civil war in Syria, over whether the nuclear weapons which are assumed to be stationed in Turkey are safe there,” she told Arms Control Today on Sept. 19. “So, another potential explanation for this investment in Lakenheath might be that when the nuclear weapons are next going to be serviced, they won’t be replaced in Turkey, and will instead be stationed in the UK.”

Plans call for the dormitory construction to begin in June 2024 and finish in February 2026. The 2024 budget allotted $50 million for the project. Meanwhile, NATO is overseeing infrastructure and security upgrades at nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe, including Lakenheath, according to 2023 budget documents.

The activities at Lakenheath coincide with the anticipated arrival in Europe this year of new B61-12 bombs, which are replacing the B61-3/4 bombs, and amid the phased delivery of the nuclear-capable F-35A Lightning II jets to a U.S. Air Force squadron stationed at the UK base. The first aircraft of a planned 24 arrived in December 2021.

Russia said the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom for the first time in 15 years would escalate tensions.

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.

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