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"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
United Kingdom

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.

A Small Step Toward an ASAT Ban


December 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Last month, the UN General Assembly First Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space. If key countries, including the United States, provide leadership, the initiative could help advance progress toward legally binding measures designed to prohibit counterspace activities that threaten international security, beginning with a ban on land-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

Launch of the SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193 on February 20, 2008. (Photo by U.S. Navy)A core rationale for the resolution, which was sponsored by the United Kingdom, is “that the creation of long-lived orbital debris arising from the deliberate destruction of space systems increases the risk of in-orbit collisions and the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations that could lead to conflict.”

As if to underscore the threat posed by ASAT weapons, on Nov. 15, Russia launched an interceptor from its Nudol ground-based ASAT system to destroy one of its own aging satellites in low Earth orbit. The collision created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris that will pose a threat to orbiting objects for years to come.

Russia is not the only nation to act in such an irresponsible manner. China, the United States, and India have also demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites with ground- or air-launched missiles. In 1985, the United States successfully tested an air-launched missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2007, China used a ground-based SC-19 ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2008, the United States used a modified ship-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor to destroy a failed U.S. intelligence satellite. In 2019, India used a ground-based Prithvi ballistic missile to destroy one of its own target satellites.

Each of these demonstrations of ASAT weapons capabilities is destabilizing. If these and other potentially hostile activities in space are not stopped, an acceleration of a space arms race is all but certain.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, but there are no restrictions on other types of weapons in that domain. Efforts to launch talks that might produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of space have been stymied for years.

China and Russia have long advocated for a treaty that only bars the placement of any weapons in space. Their proposal, called the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), defines a “space weapon” as an object placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. This means that the Russian Nudol system, which flies a suborbital trajectory, would not be a violation. But their proposed ban would restrict potential U.S. efforts to develop space-based missile defense interceptors while allowing suborbital ASAT capabilities.

For years, the United States has been wary of any legally binding restrictions on ASAT systems in part because they might restrict U.S. ground-based missile defense capabilities or a possible space-based kinetic anti-missile system that could involve a number of orbiting interceptors that provide a thin defense against intercontinental missiles.

But earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance stated that the United States “will lead in promoting shared norms on space.” The U.S. National Space Policy, issued in December 2020 by the Trump administration, said Washington shall consider “proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”

Curiously, although Beijing and Moscow voted “no” on the UK resolution for the working group on preventing an arms race in outer space, they refrained from pushing for discussions in a UN-sponsored forum for their PPWT proposal. This may be because the UK resolution allows for consideration by the new working group of legally binding measures of the kind that Russia and China have pursued, as well as voluntary rules designed to constrain threatening military activities.

The UK resolution, which was approved 163–8 with nine abstentions, is expected to win final approval by the UN General Assembly in December. It would authorize the working group to begin operating in 2022 with a final report due to the General Assembly in the fall of 2023. To its credit, the resolution also emphasized the need for verification of legally binding arms control regarding space systems.

The UK-led initiative is a small but much-needed breakthrough that creates the potential for positive results. As the process unfolds, the United States, Russia, China, and India could help build momentum and reduce tensions by declaring unilateral moratoriums on any further testing of their ASAT weapons that could create dangerous orbital debris and agree to participate in the working group next year.

Without commonsense rules of the road, a dangerous, destabilizing offensive-defensive space arms competition is on the way. It is past time for key states to engage in productive dialogue on space security, with a focus on halting ASAT weapons.

Last month, the UN First Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space.

Toward a Successful NPT Review


November 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Twenty-six years ago, as states-parties negotiated the terms for the extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the future of the treaty was not assured.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson opens the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York on April 27, 2015. (Photo: United Nations)Yet at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the world came together, committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons,” and endorsed specific disarmament actions that led to the indefinite extension of this bedrock agreement to reduce the nuclear danger. Additional commitments were made at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences to advance implementation and compliance with all three pillars of the treaty.

But since at least 2010, the nuclear disarmament process has stalled; and the five NPT nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) cannot credibly claim they are meeting their NPT Article VI disarmament obligations.

NPT states-parties at the 10th review conference, set for Jan. 2–28, will need to come together on many key issues, including strengthening nuclear safeguards and addressing regional proliferation issues. But the success of this pivotal meeting will hinge, more than anything, on whether and how they can develop an updated, disarmament action plan.

Tensions among the world’s nuclear-armed states are rising, the risk of nuclear use is growing, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent to replace and upgrade nuclear arsenals. To varying degrees, the nuclear-armed states are engaged in a qualitative arms race.

In February, at the last moment, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) through 2025. In July, they relaunched a dialogue that could evolve into nuclear disarmament talks. But if they fail to promptly conclude new agreements that limit offensive nuclear weapons and strategic missile interceptors, there will be no legally binding constraints on the world’s two largest arsenals.

Meanwhile, China, France, and the UK are not part of any serious nuclear disarmament discussion; and there is growing evidence that China is preparing to double or triple its long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missile force.

Due to the growing nuclear disarmament deficit, the NPT regime is once again at a crossroads.

All states need to approach the next NPT review conference with a sense of urgency, a spirit of cooperation, and a determination to produce meaningful results that transcend old fault lines.

Some NPT nuclear-armed states may bemoan the fact that the environment for disarmament progress is “challenging.” We can expect they will continue to claim that many past NPT commitments on disarmament have been overtaken by events. Disarmament progress has never been simple or easy, but such deflections are irresponsible.

Instead, the five nuclear-armed NPT states should acknowledge their past disarmament commitments, work with other states-parties on a pragmatic action plan that sets new benchmarks and deadlines, and pledge to act with the urgency that the grave nuclear weapons threat demands.

To create a more constructive atmosphere, these five states must refrain from further specious attacks against the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and its many supporters. They should acknowledge that the TPNW exists and that supporters consider it to be a contribution to meeting NPT Article VI obligations.

Notwithstanding the different views on how to fulfill those obligations, nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states should cooperate on a serious disarmament action plan that could include the key elements below.

  • A call for the United States and Russia to conclude talks on New START follow-on agreements that achieve further cuts in nuclear warheads and delivery systems no later than 2025.
  • A pledge by the five NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals and by all states to halt the production of fissile material for military purposes.
  • A call for NPT states to begin disarmament talks in a bilateral or a multilateral format no later than 2025.
  • A call for the remaining holdout states to initiate their respective processes to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by 2025.
  • A call for all states to forswear the introduction of nuclear-armed cruise and hypersonic missiles.
  • A recognition that any use of nuclear weapons would produce catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

In the absence of coherent and constructive leadership from the nuclear-weapon states, other responsible NPT states-parties need to fill the void to achieve a good NPT conference outcome.

Germany, Kazakhstan, Sweden, and others have made strides toward a common framework on the next steps on nuclear disarmament. Leaders of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the Non-Aligned Movement also have a role to play.

Now is the time to bolster the NPT's disarmament pillar.

Twenty-six years ago, at the 1995 review conference on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the future of the treaty was not asssured. But the states-parties committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons” and endorsed specific disarmament actions that led to the indefinite extension of this treaty. But since at least 2010, the nuclear disarmament process has stalled, and the NPT regime is once again at a crossroads.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Not Necessarily a Sure or a Good Thing


November 2021
By Trevor Findlay

In June 1987, Canada announced that it intended to build 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines, based on a French or UK design and fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly of Canadian origin. Faced with insurmountable strategic, political, financial, logistical, and nonproliferation obstacles, the idea sank without trace within two years.1 Although the Australian nuclear-powered submarine proposal, announced 34 years later on September 16, is different in several respects, it faces equally strong headwinds that may deliver the same result.

A Royal Australian Navy diesel and electric-powered Collins Class submarine sits in Sydney Harbour in 2016. That naval weapon is to be replaced by nuclear-powered submarines that the United Kingdom and the United States recently agreed to provide Australia as part of the new AUKUS defense cooperation announcement. (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)Much about the Australian project is speculative. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson simply released a one-page statement launching “an enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS aimed at fostering “deeper integration of…security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.”2 The headline-grabbing item was the announcement of a trilateral effort to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, beginning with an 18-month study to seek “an optimal pathway to deliver this capability.” No numbers were announced, no likely design was suggested, and no nuclear fuel type or acquisition plan was outlined. Although all three partners committed themselves to “the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety and security of nuclear material and technology,” the length of this list alone suggests that complex and profound questions arise not just for the three governments, but for the international community, particularly the global regime governing the use of nuclear energy.

Knowns and Unknowns

At this stage, the unknowns of the project are Rumsfeld-esque in their tortuousness and interrelatedness. Yet, there are some knowns or likely knowns to guide preliminary analysis.

First, for parochial political reasons, the submarines must be built in Australia for the most part, specifically in Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. Australia’s conventionally powered submarines have been built there for decades, resulting in a skilled, specialized workforce. One of the smallest and economically challenged of Australia’s states but electorally important, South Australia has relied on government-funded projects to boost employment and capacity in its industrial sector. The joint project with France to produce conventionally powered submarines that was unceremoniously cancelled seemingly minutes before the AUKUS announcement, required 50 percent Australian “content,” down from the originally expected 75 percent. Australia’s purchase of U.S. or UK submarines off the shelf, as some have suggested, would seem politically untenable.

A second known factor is that Australia cannot produce enriched uranium itself whether low-enriched or highly enriched, for submarine propulsion or any other purpose, despite having among the largest deposits of uranium in the world. It does not have the industrial, technical, or financial capacity or political license to build and operate a standard gas-centrifuge plant. Australia sold off its domestically invented SILEX laser-enrichment technology to the United States two decades ago.3 In any case, Australian federal law prohibits uranium enrichment in the country. Enriched uranium for submarines would need to be imported.

A third certainty is that Australia does not have any current or likely future capacity to build a nuclear reactor, especially for submarine propulsion. Unlike Canada, which developed and operates CANDU reactors, Australia has no experience with nuclear reactors beyond research units based at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The latest model, devoted largely to producing medical radioisotopes, was imported from Argentina. Therefore, Australia would need to buy the reactor and its fuel from the United Kingdom or the United States. If HEU is chosen, the reactors will contain “lifetime cores,” which will operate for around 30 years and require no refueling, a much prized characteristic of HEU-powered vessels. The sealed reactors would presumably be transported by ship to Adelaide to be encased in the submarine hulls and returned to the provider at the end of the submarines’ lifetime for dismantlement and disposition of the spent fuel.

A final important area of clarity is that Australia is seeking to arm its submarines with conventional weapons, presumably sea-launched cruise missiles, not nuclear weapons. For decades, Australia has been a dedicated supporter of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and more recently of the global nuclear security architecture. After initial reservations, Australia signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in February 1970, just before it entered into force, and ratified it in 1973. It has subsequently become one of the strongest champions of the treaty and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards system.

Australia not only has a comprehensive safeguards agreement as required by the NPT, but also imposes bilateral safeguards on Australian-origin uranium exports. It was the first country to sign an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and was the first to receive the so-called broader conclusion, indicating that it has accounted for all nuclear material subject to safeguards in its territory. Australia was instrumental in negotiations on the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga, which created a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific. It is also an active member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control arrangements.

In the nuclear security realm, Australia’s track record is also impressive. It is party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment, along with all other nuclear governance conventions. It has consistently been rated number one by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the annual Nuclear Security Index and has enthusiastically contributed to continuing efforts to strengthen nuclear security resulting from the four nuclear security summits between 2010 and 2016.

One might imagine, then, that if any country were to become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, Australia’s would be the safest pair of hands. Indeed, some have argued that Australia could use its submarine acquisition plan to strengthen global nuclear governance. Better Canberra than Brasilia or, at worst, Tehran. Even so, the implications for the nonproliferation regime are far-reaching, overlapping, and complex.

Disturbing the Nonproliferation Zeitgeist

The NPT and the collection of other treaties, arrangements, and organizations that compose the nonproliferation regime do not exist in a vacuum, but are profoundly affected by states’ attitudes, perceptions, and actions. As a nonproliferation “white knight,” Australia’s announcement that it is considering acquiring nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with two nuclear-weapon states portends a further roiling of the political atmosphere around a regime that is already being buffeted by numerous gales. The worst of those include the ongoing noncompliance cases of Iran and North Korea; the absence of India, Israel, and Pakistan from the NPT; the continuing nonfulfillment of undertakings by the nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT to achieve nuclear disarmament; the modernization and expansion programs of almost all of the states with nuclear weapons; the decades-long lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament, especially in negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty; and the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The AUKUS submarine proposal will undoubtedly be added to this litany of woes at the 10th NPT review conference, originally scheduled for 2020 but now deferred to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is not that anyone suspects Australia of seeking nuclear weapons through the backdoor of nuclear submarine propulsion, but rather that the idea reeks of the hypocrisy that has always plagued a regime built on the premise of a more or less eternal divide between nuclear haves and have-nots. Unlike the IAEA Statute, which envisaged no military use of nuclear material, the NPT carved out an exception for non-explosive military use, apparently at the suggestion of Italy, with U.S. and Soviet acquiescence.

The United States nonetheless has consistently refused to provide nuclear-propulsion technology to non-nuclear-weapon states, including to allies such as Canada, South Korea, and reportedly Japan, due to proliferation concerns. It has now made an exception for Australia as an exclusive member of the “Anglosphere,” whatever that means for three increasingly multicultural societies. Australia itself carved out an exception to its policy of not supplying uranium to non-NPT parties by doing a deal with India, a state with nuclear weapons that from the outset sought to undermine the treaty. The constant chipping away at the fundamentals of the nonproliferation regime, especially by erstwhile champions, can only increase cynicism and undermine confidence in its longevity.

Setting Unsettling Precedents

If the AUKUS project is realized and assuming that Brazil, which is building its own nuclear-powered submarines, does not get there first, Australia will become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. The precedent will be set, paving the way for other states to demand similar capability, either as a legitimate defense asset or as cover for more alarming nuclear ambitions, such as nuclear weapons development. Unlike Australia, some of the states that have expressed interest in nuclear-powered submarines, including Brazil and South Korea, also wish to enrich their own fuel. Exhibit A on this list is Iran, which has long argued implausibly that it needs to enrich its own uranium for peaceful purposes, notably its Tehran Research Reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant, currently supplied by Russia, but has now added nuclear-powered submarines to its list.

Australia would set another precedent by becoming the first state to take advantage of the “loophole” in comprehensive safeguards agreements that permits nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose to be removed from safeguards for the duration of that use. If Australia chooses the military-to-military option whereby the reactor and its HEU fuel are supplied by the U.S. or UK navies and returned to their control when the submarine is decommissioned, it might be assumed that there will be no requirement for removal or reapplication of safeguards because the material will originate from, remain in, and return to military use. Yet, allowing a non-nuclear-weapon state to import HEU outside of safeguards in this manner would make a mockery of the entire nonproliferation regime.

Fortunately, Australia’s safeguards agreement, like all others, requires that it notify the IAEA of its intention to acquire nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose and help devise suitable verification arrangements with the IAEA to ensure that the material is not diverted to nuclear weapons. In working with the IAEA on this challenging task, Australia would be setting a precedent, for good or ill, that other states will be able to exploit. The sensitivity of the technology and the inaccessibility of the reactor to inspectors preclude a traditional approach. Instead, new approaches and methods will have to be devised to satisfy the IAEA that no diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes takes place, while protecting confidential, proliferation-sensitive information .

Australia has already notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi of its intentions and signaled its willingness to work with the agency, presumably along with the United States and the UK, to craft suitable arrangements. Grossi has responded publicly by noting that verification will be “very tricky.”4 For Australia itself, the situation may become even trickier. Under the strengthened safeguards system that Australia has long championed, the IAEA accords a state the broader conclusion when it is able to certify that, based on the information available to it, it has accounted for all nuclear material within the state. Just how this conclusion could be reached after Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines have begun operating, especially at sea, is unknown. Australia has insisted that the IAEA should not automatically reissue the broader conclusion for states without reassessing their current circumstances, as occurred for Libya when civil war prevented the agency from ensuring the continuity of safeguards in its territory. Australian officials will undoubtedly work in good faith with the IAEA to craft an effective arrangement to ensure verifiability to the extent possible, but there is an element of moral hazard for Australia. It may succeed in making the world “safe” for the proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines in the hands of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (fourth from left), French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) and other officials visit the Australian submarine HMAS Waller in Sydney in May 2018 when France was still planning to sell submarines to Australia. That deal has now been upended by the AUKUS arrangement. (Photo by Brendan Esposito - Pool/Getty Images)A final precedent relates to nuclear security. The Australian project would see the acquisition of HEU by a non-nuclear-weapon state at a time when the United States and others, including Australia, are attempting to minimize global holdings of HEU, including by converting reactors to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and repatriating HEU to the United States or Russia for disposition. Although the nuclear material in submarine reactors is relatively secure, albeit nonstationary, the use of HEU for naval propulsion by a country that has been HEU free goes against the grain of the impressive efforts in recent years to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorists or other nonstate actors. Some observers have suggested that Australia use LEU for its submarines, perhaps in collaboration with France, which uses such fuel. This may assuage French fury at the cancellation of its contract to build Australia’s conventional submarines, whose design paradoxically was to be based on French nuclear-powered submarines at Canberra’s insistence. IAEA verification, however, would become more challenging because LEU-fueled submarines, at least those using existing technology, require periodic refueling.

Going Quietly Into the Deep?

Despite an opinion poll indicating immediate domestic support for the AUKUS announcement, there remains significant public skepticism in Australia about the use of nuclear energy for any purpose. It remains to be seen whether this will shift as the 18-month study proceeds, details emerge, and the political, diplomatic, military, economic, nonproliferation, security, and opportunity costs become clearer. Although the opposition Labor Party has felt it politically expedient to support the AUKUS announcement, this is conditional on nonproliferation concerns being assuaged. A general election is due within a year. The Australian nuclear-powered submarines could be destined to go the way of Canada’s. In the meantime, the AUKUS partners need to explain how they propose to deliver the gold standard safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures they have promised.

 

ENDNOTES

1. See Tariq Rauf and Marie-France Desjardins, “Opening Pandora’s Box? Nuclear Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” Aurora Papers, no. 8 (1988).

2. “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” Prime Minister of Australia, September 10, 2021, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/joint-leaders-statement-aukus.

3. “Message to the Congress Transmitting the Australia-United States Peaceful Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, William J. Clinton, 1999, Vol. 2 (Washington: U.S. Office of the Federal Register, 1999), pp. 1963–1965.

4. See John Carlson, “IAEA Safeguards, the Naval ‘Loophole’ and the AUKUS Proposal,” Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, October 8, 2021, https://vcdnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Safeguards-and-naval-fuel-JC-211008.pdf; Laura Rockwood, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion and IAEA Safeguards,” Federation of American Scientists Issue Brief, August 2017, https://uploads.fas.org/media/Naval-Nuclear-Propulsion-and-IAEA-Safeguards.pdf. Francois Murphy, “AUKUS Submarine Deal ‘Very Tricky’ for Nuclear Inspectors—IAEA Chief,” Reuters, September 28, 2021.


Trevor Findlay is a principal fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His next book, Transforming IAEA Safeguards Culture: The IAEA, Iraq, and the Future of Nonproliferation, will be published in early 2022.

From an Australian perspective, there are lots of questions to be answered about the Australia-UK-U.S. submarine deal.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Mitigating Proliferation Concerns


November 2021
By Frank N. von Hippel

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden joined UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to announce an Australian-UK-U.S. security pact (AUKUS) under which the United States and the United Kingdom will assist Australia in building at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. The purpose is to strengthen the alliance trying to contain a growing Chinese navy. The first submarine is
not expected to be operational before 2040.

Brazil, a non-nuclear-weapon state with a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines, plans to power its first submarine with LEU fuel but has not forgone the right to use HEU. Photo from 2019 shows ceremony in Rio de Janeiro celebrating Brazil's French-designed, Brazilian-built Humaita submarine, which runs on diesel-electric propulsion. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)The AUKUS countries said that it would take 18 months to work out the specifics of the deal, but obvious candidates for the submarine designs to be provided to Australia are the U.S. Virginia-class attack submarine and the UK Astute-class submarine, in production since 1999 and 2001, respectively.

Both submarine classes are fueled with U.S. weapons-grade uranium enriched to more than 90 percent uranium-235 that was declared excess to weapons needs following the drastic downsizing of the U.S. Cold War nuclear warhead stockpile. Both submarine types have life-of-ship cores, which means they should not have to be refueled during their design lives of approximately three decades.

The deal replaces one that Australia reached with France in 2016 under which Australia would have received 12 French Suffren-class submarines equipped with conventional propulsion rather than the nuclear propulsion used by France. In 2016, Australia did not wish to develop the infrastructure required to supply fuel for a nuclear-powered ship.1 France refuels its nuclear submarines every 10 years.

Life-of-ship cores could enable Australia to avoid having to produce its own nuclear fuel, refuel its submarine reactors, and dispose of the spent fuel. The United States or UK could simply sell Australia the reactor cores and then take them back for disposal when the submarines are decommissioned.

A Troublesome Precedent

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan, however, would set an important precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel makes the AUKUS precedent especially troublesome from a nonproliferation perspective.

HEU can be used directly by nations to make nuclear weapons. It also could be used by terrorists to make a simple gun-type nuclear weapon like the Hiroshima bomb.

Because HEU is so easily weaponized, the United States has spent $2 billion since the September 11 terrorist attacks to eliminate it as a research reactor fuel and replace it with low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, containing less than 20 percent U-235, which cannot be used to make a nuclear explosive.2 As part of this effort, the United States has converted most of its own research reactors to LEU use and has cleared HEU from 33 of 55 countries down to a level of less than one kilogram, a small fraction of the amount required to make a nuclear weapon.3

At the same time, U.S. and UK naval reactors are the world’s largest consumers of HEU. Annually, about three tons of weapons-grade uranium, enough for more than 100 nuclear weapons, are being fed into their naval reactors. In contrast, Chinese and French submarines are fueled with LEU, while India and Russia are believed to use HEU enriched to 21–45 percent U-235.4 HEU in this enrichment range is considered weapons usable, but has a critical mass much larger than weapons-grade uranium.

The United States and UK should be designing their future naval reactors to use LEU fuel. They certainly should not be setting the precedent of spreading HEU-fueled naval reactors to non-nuclear-weapon states such as Australia, especially when Iran and a few other non-nuclear-weapon countries are considering fielding their own nuclear-fueled submarines. Whether to fuel research reactors or naval reactors, expanding the use of HEU increases the risk of this material being diverted to nuclear weapons use.

Nuclear Submarines and Non-Nuclear-Weapon States

Nuclear-powered attack submarines have been of interest to non-nuclear-weapon states for some time. In the late 1980s, Canada explored buying some from France or the UK to reinforce its sovereignty in its northern waters, but with the end of the Cold War, abandoned the project as too costly.5

Brazil has a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines that dates to the 1970s.6 It is learning from France how to build conventional submarines and is assembling a land-based prototype reactor inside a mockup of a hull section of a future nuclear submarine. The Brazilian navy developed and controls Brazil’s uranium-enrichment plants. This was a major proliferation concern for the United States when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship in 1964–1985 and before it entered a nuclear transparency agreement with Argentina in 1991 and joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998. Brazil plans to fuel its first submarine with LEU, but has not forgone the right to use HEU fuel if that proves advantageous.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in and his administration have expressed a sustained interest in developing nuclear-powered submarines.7 The United States has refused to change the two countries’ nuclear cooperation agreement to allow South Korea to enrich uranium. Therefore, South Korea may look to Russia, which has offered Seoul an icebreaker propulsion reactor design that can be fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched LEU.8 Russia’s existing nuclear agreement with South Korea covers only “peaceful uses of atomic energy.”9 If the United States can change its agreement with Australia,10 however, Russia can change its agreement with South Korea.

In the past, Japan has not expressed an interest in nuclear submarines. After the AUKUS deal was announced, however, two of the four candidates for prime minister declared their interest,11 although not Fumio Kishida, who won the Liberal Democratic Party’s support and was sworn in as prime minister in October.

There is also the case of Iran. In 2013, during the hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran suggested Tehran might require uranium enriched to 45–56 percent U-235 for a nuclear submarine program.12 In April, as U.S.-Iranian negotiations stalled on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran began producing 60 percent-enriched HEU.13

After the AUKUS deal was announced, two journalists from The New York Times interviewed aides accompanying Iran’s new hard-line foreign minister to the United Nations and reported that the aides noted that HEU “could be used in naval reactors, suggesting they might want to use it for that purpose. And they cited Mr. Biden’s new deal with Australia, which calls for [the United States and the UK] to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-propelled submarines,” which use HEU.14

HEU and Naval Fuel

The United States and UK are creating a dangerous precedent by proposing to export HEU naval fuel to a non-nuclear-weapon state. Other countries are likely to see the deal as creating a more permissive environment to acquire their own HEU-fueled nuclear submarines and, in the absence of a willing supplier, make HEU fuel themselves as Iran threatens to do. The world does not need HEU in more places and more being produced in more countries.

IrFour torpedo tubes in the bow of a Suffren-class nuclear attack submarine, under construction in north-western France in 2017, during a visit by French Defence Minister Florence Parly and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Australia would have bought 12 Suffrens equipped with conventional propulsion from France under a deal Australia abrogated in favor of buying nuclear submarines from the United Kingdom and the United States. (Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Imges)onically, the nuclear version of France’s Suffren-class attack submarine, which Australian leadership insisted in 2016 should be converted to diesel-electric power, is fueled with LEU containing an average of only 6 percent U-235.15

To make LEU weapons usable, a country would have to run it through an enrichment plant to produce HEU. In a non-nuclear-weapon state, especially one that has an additional protocol to its safeguard agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would have a good chance of detecting such an activity. Therefore, if non-nuclear-weapon states feel they need nuclear submarines and to have their own enrichment plants to fuel them, the fuel should be LEU.

 

Congressional Interest in LEU Fuel

Since 1994, reducing the risk of proliferation of naval HEU fuel has been the primary driver behind efforts by some members of Congress to require the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Naval Reactors to develop LEU fuel for future U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion reactors.

As the office has made clear, however, its priority has been to achieve life-of-ship cores. In fact, it believes it has done so for the Virginia-class attack submarine, which began production in 1999, and for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the first of which began construction in 2020. The design lives of these submarines are 33 and 42 years, respectively. This means that, after the older classes of U.S. submarines have had their midlife refueling, there will be no need for routine refueling of submarines. Refueling equipment and capabilities will be retained only on a standby basis for core repair or replacement following potential fuel-element failure.

The Office of Naval Reactors’ first report in response to Congressional interest in LEU fuel was in 1995.16 It stated that because the U-235 chain reaction provides almost all of the fission energy from the fuel, if the U-235 were diluted to just below 20 percent U-235, which is the top of the LEU enrichment range, it would be necessary to increase the volume of the core threefold to achieve the same core life. This would require a larger, heavier pressure vessel and a bigger hull.

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN-783), shown under construction in 2012, is among the class of submarine that could be sold to Australia. (U.S. Navy Photo)For Virginia-class submarines, the Office of Naval Reactors found that a life-of-ship core would require the diameter of the submarine to be increased from 10 to 11 meters. The office did not expect a significant impact on the sizes of the larger ballistic missile submarine and aircraft carrier. If, as reported,17 the SSN(X) next-generation U.S. attack submarines are to have hull diameters significantly larger than the Virginia-class, they too could accommodate larger LEU cores.

In 2012, Congress asked for an update and this time, the response was more encouraging. The Office of Naval Reactors reported it was developing a new higher uranium-density fuel that might not require as large a core volume increase for an LEU life-of-ship core.18 Yet, it was testing the new fuel design with weapons-grade uranium to pack more U-235 into the core and to increase U.S. submarines’ lifetime energy budgets for higher-speed transits across the Pacific Ocean and other uses. The energy requirement for potential LEU cores was therefore a moving target.

Congress asked for a research and development plan for developing and testing the new fuel design with LEU.

The Office of Naval Reactors delivered the outline of a plan in July 2016. The report emphasized that the R&D would cost about $1 billion and take “at least 15 years” and that “success is not assured.” It also said that providing LEU cores for aircraft carriers would cost an additional “several billion dollars,” including the cost of a land-based prototype aircraft carrier propulsion reactor.19 This would be comparable to the cost of an additional nuclear-powered submarine.

The Office of Naval Reactors also asked JASON, an elite technical group of mostly academic consultants for the Department of Defense, the NNSA, and other agencies, to review its proposed program for developing LEU fuel. The JASON report, which was partially declassified three years later was supportive. It emphasized, however, that there is only a limited opportunity to make sure that the follow-on to the Virginia-class submarine, the not-yet-named SSN(X) that is scheduled to be procured starting in the early 2030s,20 will be able to accommodate an LEU core. “If the reactor compartment is not designed to accommodate a life-of-ship LEU core, and if later re-design to accommodate such an LEU core is impractical, then HEU cores will be required for all [SSN(X)s], the last of which will launch in the 2060s. On the other hand, if design parameters and fuel development allow an LEU reactor…then it is possible that the Navy's final HEU core will be built in the 2040s.”21

Unfortunately, the Navy came to oppose even conducting that R&D. The simplest explanation is that the Navy does not view minimizing HEU use as its responsibility. Members of Congress sympathetic to this perspective inserted into the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the requirement that “the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of the Navy shall jointly submit to the congressional defense committees the determination of the Secretaries as to whether the United States should continue to pursue research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium.”

At the beginning of 2018, the Trump administration responded that it saw no benefits to the Navy incurring the cost of shifting to LEU fuel use.22

Despite this opposition, Congress has appropriated funding for Navy LEU fuel development every year since fiscal year 2016, starting at $5 million and rising to $20 million in fiscal year 2021.23 Given the Office of Naval Reactors’ resistance, congressional advocates of LEU fuel for naval reactors shifted the funding for LEU fuel development to the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.

The executive branch, however, has never requested funding for this program. For fiscal year 2022, the House of Representatives voted to appropriate another $20 million, but the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended in the 2022 NDAA a provision that would “prohibit the obligation or expenditure of any fiscal year 2022 funds [by the NNSA] to conduct research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium unless the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Navy communicate certain determinations to the congressional defense committees.”24

What Is Next

Recently, a group of nonproliferation experts, including the author, wrote to the Biden administration stressing the importance of designing future U.S. naval reactors to use LEU fuel.25 The AUKUS deal highlights the fact that the United States and UK are undermining the nuclear nonproliferation and anti-terrorism regimes by fueling their naval reactors with weapons-grade uranium. Now they propose to export these reactors to a non-nuclear-weapon state.

If the United States does not switch to using LEU naval fuel by about 2060, when its excess stock of weapons-grade uranium is projected to run out, it will have to restart production of weapons-grade uranium for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and UK should instead exploit the opportunity created by the furor over the AUKUS deal to commit to design their future naval propulsion reactors to use LEU fuel. They also should use the planned 18-month period of study and evaluation of the technical and policy details of the proposed AUKUS submarine deal to do their utmost to design any submarines built by or leased to Australia to use LEU-fueled propulsion reactors rather than the more problematic HEU-fueled option. Otherwise, the three AUKUS countries, long-time leaders in efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, may well find themselves on a path that would undermine global nonproliferation norms and long-standing nonproliferation objectives.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Malcolm Turnbull, “Address to the National Press Club,” 29 September 2021, https://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/address-to-the-national-press-club-september-2021.

2. U.S. Department of Energy, “Budget & Performance,” https://www.energy.gov/budget-performance (accessed October 22, 2021).

3. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “NNSA Removes All Highly Enriched Uranium From Nigeria,” December 7, 2018, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-removes-all-highly-enriched-uranium-nigeria.

4. Frank von Hippel, “Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium,” International Panel on Fissile Materials Research Report, no. 15 (March 2016), https://fissilematerials.org/library/rr15.pdf.

5. Adam Lajeunesse, “Sovereignty, Security and the Canadian Nuclear Submarine Program,” Canadian Military Journal, Winter 2007–2008, pp. 74–82.

6. Andrea de Sá, “Brazil’s Nuclear Submarine Program: A Historical Perspective,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2015): 3.

7. Jun Ji-hye, “South Korea Moving to Build Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” The Korea Times, September 5, 2017.

8. “Russia May Help South Korea to Build Nuclear Reactor for Maritime Vessels,” Sputnik International, August 7, 2018; Atomenergomash JSC, “Solutions for the Shipbuilding Industry,” n.d., https://aem-group.ru/static/images/buklety/2020/Booklet_sudostroenie_en.pdf.

9. Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, May 28, 1999, 2396 U.N.T.S. 43273.

10. Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Australia Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, May 4, 2010, T.I.A.S. no. 10-1222, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/10-1222-Australia-Atomic-Energy-Peaceful-Uses.pdf.

11. Steven Stashwick, “Japan’s Kono Says He Supports Building Nuclear Submarines,” The Diplomat, September 28, 2021.

12. “Iran May Need Highly Enriched Uranium in Future, Official Says,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.

13. International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” GOV/2021/39, September 7, 2021, p. 6.

14. David Sanger, Michael Crowley, and Rick Gladstone, “Rebuking Biden, Iran’s Chief Diplomat Demands More Sanctions Relief,” The New York Times, September 24, 2021.

15. Sébastien Philippe and Frank von Hippel, “The Feasibility of Ending HEU Fuel Use in the U.S. Navy,” Arms Control Today, November 2016, p. 15.

16. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, U.S. Navy, “Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion,” June 1995, https://fissilematerials.org/library/onnp95.pdf.

17. Sam LaGrone, “BWXT CEO: Navy’s Next-Generation SSN(X) Attack Boat Will Build Off Columbia Class,” USNI News, November 2, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/11/02/bwxt-ceo-navys-next-generation-ssnx-attack-boat-will-build-off-columbia-class.

18. Office of Naval Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores: Report to Congress,” January 2014.

19. NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel: Report to Congress,” July 2016.

20. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service In Focus, IF11826, September 15, 2021.

21. JASON, “Low-Enriched Uranium for Potential Naval Nuclear Propulsion Applications,” JSR-16-Task-013 (November 2016), https://irp.fas.org/agency/dod/jason/leu-naval.pdf (declassified portions).

22. Richard V. Spencer and Rick Perry to Deb Fischer, March 25, 2018, https://fissilematerials.org/library/usn18b.pdf. The same letter went out to the ranking Democratic senator and to the chair and ranking member of the counterpart House of Representatives subcommittee.

23. “Navy LEU Fuel R&D,” Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, January 2, 2021, https://sites.utexas.edu/nppp/files/2021/02/Navy-LEU-Fuel-RD-2021-Jan-2.pdf.

24. Senate Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, S. Rep. No. 117–39 at 354.

25. Joe Biden from Robert Gallucci et al., “Mitigate the Proliferation Impact of Offering Submarines Fueled With Weapon-Grade-Uranium to a Non-Nuclear-Weapon State by Committing to Design Future US Naval Reactors to Use Low-Enriched-Uranium Fuel,” October 6, 2021, https://sgs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/2021-10/AUKUS-Letter-2021.pdf.


Frank N. von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan would set a precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel is especially troublesome.

U.S., UK Pledge Nuclear Submarines for Australia


October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Australia could become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to field a nuclear-powered submarine as part of a new trilateral security partnership with the United States and United Kingdom known as AUKUS. The initiative was unveiled at a joint virtual press conference held Sept. 15.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the latter arrives at the Pentagon on September 22. The meeting took place a week after the two countries and the United Kingdom announced the  AUKUS security pact to help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines and pursue other military cooperation.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) All three nations emphasized that Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons and that they will uphold their commitment to global nonproliferation standards. Even so, the decision by the United States and the UK to equip Australia with nuclear submarines has heightened proliferation concerns because the U.S. and UK submarines are powered by on-board reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The objective of the new trilateral alliance is to ensure “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific [region] over the long term,” U.S. President Joe Biden said during the joint appearance unveiling the initiative alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on video monitors.

“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it will evolve because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific, enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” Biden added.

The United States has shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology only with the UK, a product of a series of Cold War agreements aimed to counter Soviet influence in Europe.

The UK Royal Navy operates three nuclear-powered submarine systems: the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine and the Astute- and Trafalgar-class attack submarines. Johnson said the AUKUS partnership will provide “a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise.”

Morrison said that Australia will work with Washington and London over the next 18 months “to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve” a conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine fleet. He also said that the submarines will be constructed “in Australia in close cooperation” with the UK and the United States. The submarines will reportedly be finished in time to be fielded in the 2040s. Early reports suggest Australia may lease U.S. or UK nuclear-powered submarines in the meantime, but the details remain unclear.

At a press conference in Canberra on Sept. 16, Morrison noted that “[n]ext-generation nuclear-powered submarines will use reactors that do not need refueling during the life of the boat. A civil nuclear power capability here in Australia is not required to pursue this new capability.”

A senior Biden administration official appeared to confirm on Sept. 20 that the vessels will be powered with HEU, as UK and U.S. submarines are, when they commented on Australia’s fitness for “stewardship of the HEU.” It remains unclear who would supply Australia with the fissile material necessary to fuel the submarines or whether the nuclear-powered submarines might be provided through a leasing arrangement.

Another unknown is whether the submarine design will be based on existing U.S. or UK attack submarines or an entirely new design. One of the reasons that Australia may lease U.S. or UK vessels in the near term is to “provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, [to] provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton told reporters Sept. 19, suggesting the new submarines may share a similar design.

The AUKUS initiative is not limited to the new submarine project. It will also facilitate the sharing of information in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and quantum, cyber-, and long-range strike capabilities. Morrison said Australia will also enhance its long-range strike capabilities through the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles.

The three leaders were careful not to attribute the new trilateral security initiative as a response to concerns about expanding Chinese military capabilities. In February, as part of a growing U.S. emphasis on prioritizing competition with Beijing, Biden announced a new Defense Department task force charged with assessing U.S. military strategy toward China.

Nevertheless, Chinese officials were quick to condemn the AUKUS initiative. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Sept. 16 that “the nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., UK, and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international nonproliferation efforts.”

China also expressed concerns about the proliferation risks posed by the initiative. Lijian warned that “the international community, including Australia’s neighboring countries, has full reason to question whether Australia is serious about fulfilling its nuclear nonproliferation commitments.”

Australian, UK, and U.S. officials have endeavored to assure the international community that the initiative does not pose a heightened proliferation risk. A senior Biden administration official said on Sept. 15 that “Australia, again, does not seek and will not seek nuclear weapons. This is about nuclear-powered submarines.” But they noted the novelty of the circumstance, adding, “[T]his is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects.”

Aidan Liddle, the UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, told Arms Control Today in an email Sept. 21 that “[a]ll three parties involved are absolutely committed to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] and have a long track record of working to uphold and strengthen the global counter-proliferation regime.”

“We have spoken to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Director[-]General about this, and we will keep in close touch with the IAEA as we investigate the safeguards implications of the programme during the next phase of work,” said Liddle. He added, “[W]e will ensure that we are fulfilling our international obligations and giving absolute confidence that no HEU will be diverted for weapons purposes.”

Most nonproliferation experts, however, say the concern is not necessarily with Australia’s intentions but the precedent that the nuclear-powered submarine-sharing scheme would set. Although Australia’s new submarines would be conventionally armed, they clearly would be deployed for military use and will reportedly utilize HEU, which can also be used for nuclear weapons.

Washington has reached nuclear cooperation agreements for the exchange and transfer of civil nuclear material, equipment, and technology for peaceful purposes with many non-nuclear-weapon states. But military-relevant naval nuclear technology transfers are not covered under these agreements, including the U.S.-Australian agreement for nuclear cooperation that was signed in 2010.

In a Sept. 21 letter to the editor published in The New York Times, Rose Gottemoeller, former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, criticized the proposal to share HEU-fueled submarines with Australia. The proposal, she wrote, “has blown apart 60 years of U.S. policy” designed to minimize HEU use. “Such uranium makes nuclear bombs, and we never wanted it in the hands of nonnuclear-weapon states, no matter how squeaky clean,” she said.

As recently as May 2021, the UK and United States declared that they wanted to “reinvigorate” efforts to minimize the use of HEU, according to the official statement laying out the goals for the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (See ACT, June 2021.) Reducing the production and use of HEU “enjoys broad support but requires more solid political support,” the statement said.

Senior Biden administration officials have called the decision concerning Australia “a one-off,” implying that similar arrangements would not be made with other U.S. allies.

Despite support for the new initiative among the three capitals, the AUKUS partnership risks undermining U.S. and UK relations with allies, particularly France. Australia signed on to the nuclear submarine acquisition scheme after abandoning a $66 billion deal with France for the construction of 12 conventionally powered submarines. Negotiations to establish the AUKUS initiative took place in secret for six months, and the French were not privy to those discussions.

In her Sept. 21 letter to the editor, Gottemoeller criticized the submarine deal’s lack of “strategic imagination” and noted that “what we needed was a three-cornered billiard shot—pivot to Asia, yes, but keep our European allies on board.”

“I suggest bringing the French to the table,” Gottemoeller, who was also NATO’s deputy secretary-general from 2016 until 2019, concluded. The French utilize low-enriched fuel for their naval propulsion, which, if shared with Australia, would pose a dramatically lower proliferation risk than HEU, she wrote.

Following the AUKUS announcement, Paris recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain and Defense Minister Florence Parley said in a joint statement that “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”

Paris also cancelled a French-UK defense minister’s summit scheduled for the week of Sept. 20.

The controversial deal is designed to counter a more assertive China but many worry it could also weaken nonproliferation norms.

The UK’s Nuclear U-Turn


April 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

In recent years, the United Kingdom has touted itself as one of the most transparent of the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and its leaders leaned heavily on the fact that it was reducing the size of its nuclear force.

The HMS Vengeance returning to its homeport on the River Clyde in Scotland in 2007. Vengeance is one of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines operated by the British Royal Navy. Photo: Tam McDonald/MODBut in a major reversal that will complicate efforts to strengthen the NPT and exacerbate tensions with other nuclear-armed states, the UK announced on March 16 that it will move to increase its total nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling by 44 percent, to 260, and reduce transparency about its nuclear arsenal.

At the 2010 and 2015 NPT review conferences, UK officials said they would reduce their force to no more than 180 warheads on their four Vanguard-class strategic missile submarines. Open source estimates put the current size of the UK arsenal at 195 warheads. They described this decision as a contribution toward Article VI of the treaty, to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

So, why the change? Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy attributes increasing the warhead ceiling to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.”

But the review fails explain how adding 80 warheads to the arsenal will enhance deterrence against these ill-defined threats, nor can UK diplomats explain how the increase strengthens the NPT. The UK now joins China and perhaps Russia as NPT-recognized nuclear-armed states planning to increase the size of their warhead stockpiles.

Tensions between the major powers are certainly high, but it is irresponsible to react by engaging in nuclear arms racing. Truly “responsible” nuclear-armed states seek to reduce tensions and increase stability by advancing serious arms control, risk reduction, and disarmament measures based on the principles of transparency and restraint.

Making matters worse, the UK also announced that it will “no longer give public figures for [its] operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers.”

Like the United States, the past UK commitment to transparency about its nuclear forces has set it apart from other nuclear-armed states. Both have rightly criticized China for its excessive nuclear secrecy. Such opacity is irresponsible and unworthy of a democracy.

The new UK policy direction not only violates its NPT disarmament obligations, but it is completely out of step with U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in U.S. national security strategy. Biden has also recently said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons.”

The UK government is headed in the opposite direction on new nuclear weapons too. The government, which claims it has an “independent” nuclear arsenal even though it depends heavily on U.S. support for its nuclear weapons program, is lobbying the U.S. Congress to appropriate U.S. taxpayer funds for a newly designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead, dubbed the W93.

This warhead, which the Trump administration proposed as a third type of SLBM warhead, is not only costly but unnecessary, given that the United States already has two SLBM warheads and has recently invested billions on refurbishment programs to extend their service lives. The W93 warhead is also unnecessary for the British nuclear force, which does not need a newly designed U.S. warhead to maintain its sea-based nuclear force.

Pursuit of the W93 also violates the Obama administration’s 2010 policy, which stated that the United States “will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities." Although a decade old, this remains the right policy for security and nonproliferation reasons.

The best way for the White House and members of Congress to support their allies in London is to remind them that nuclear buildups and new nuclear weapons are unnecessary strategically and unhealthy for international security and U.S.-UK relations.

The new UK nuclear policy will also complicate Biden administration efforts to pursue further bilateral arms control and reduction measures with Russia, which wants future arrangements to take into account the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states, especially the UK and France. One option should be for China, France, and the UK to agree to cap their arsenals and provide more transparency regarding their nuclear stockpiles and doctrines, as Washington and Moscow move forward on further nuclear cuts.

The approaching 10th NPT review conference was already going to be difficult without the UK adding itself to the list of states acting inconsistently with its treaty commitments. The United States, along with other responsible nations, will need to redouble efforts to secure consensus on a meaningful action plan that holds the UK and the other nuclear-weapon states, plus the other parties to the NPT, accountable to their disarmament and nonproliferation obligations.

In recent years, the United Kingdom has touted itself as one of the most transparent of the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and its leaders leaned heavily on the fact that it was reducing the size of its nuclear force.

UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile


April 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In a significant departure from an earlier pledge, the United Kingdom announced in March that it will raise the ceiling on its nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40 percent above its previous target and would no longer publish information about the number of warheads it maintains in an operational status.

The HMS Vengeance returning to its homeport on the River Clyde in Scotland in 2007. Vengeance is one of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines operated by the British Royal Navy. (Photo: Tam McDonald/MOD)The decision prompted concern around the world and raised questions about the UK’s commitment to its nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

London will raise the ceiling on its overall stockpile to 260 warheads by the middle of the decade, according to an integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy published March 16. The new ceiling is a 44 percent increase above the level of 180 warheads that was first announced in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and reiterated again in 2015. (See ACT, December 2015; November 2010.)

The UK currently has about 195 nuclear warheads, of which 120 are operational, according to an estimate by researchers at the Federation of American Scientists. The UK deploys its entire nuclear arsenal aboard four Vanguard-class submarines, each of which is armed with Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. At least one submarine is always at sea on deterrence patrol. London maintains that a submarine on patrol would require several days’ notice to launch a missile.

The integrated review attributed the change in the warhead stockpile to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats” and cited “risks to the UK from major nuclear armed states, emerging nuclear states, and state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” But the document did not provide further detail about these threats.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab justified the plan to increase the warhead stockpile as “the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states” in an interview with the BBC.

UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC on March 21 that the change is a response to what “the Russians and others have been up to in the last few years,” specifically citing Russian investments in ballistic missile defense and new offensive capabilities.

The integrated review also states that the UK will “no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers” as such “ambiguity complicates the calculations of potential aggressors, reduces the risk of deliberate nuclear use by those seeking a first-strike advantage, and contributes to strategic stability.”

The Johnson government’s decision to increase the warhead stockpile was controversial within the UK.

Keir Starmer, the head of the Labour Party, said the plan “breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile. It doesn’t explain, when, why, or for what strategic purpose.”

Foreign governments also criticized the new direction in policy.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on March 18 that “this move is at odds with London’s many statements about its commitment to obligations to promote nuclear disarmament under the NPT.”

“The British leadership’s decisions underscore the urgent need to directly involve U.S. nuclear allies in the efforts to reduce and limit nuclear weapons, which Russia never ends to point out,” she said.

Asked about the UK decision to grow its nuclear stockpile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “We don’t want nuclear weapons arsenals to grow. If you don’t want that to happen, you can’t expand them.”

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, raised similar concerns in a March 17 press briefing. “[W]e do express our concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT,” he said. “It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.”

But Dujarric walked his remarks back the next day, saying that “we’re not expressing a legal opinion” but rather the view that the UK “announcement is not consistent with the disarmament commitments…all nuclear-weapon states have undertaken.”

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on March 16 that the NPT “doesn’t require us to reduce the number of warheads. All of our actions are consistent with our nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.”

“The 260 figure is a ceiling, not a target,” the spokesperson added. “We will continue to keep this under review in the light of the international security environment and make adjustments as appropriate.”

But skeptics warned that London will need to do more to assuage concerns ahead of the NPT review conference, now scheduled to take place in August after being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (See ACT, November 2020.)

“The UK will need to clarify how it plans to contribute to and lead on nuclear disarmament amidst these changes in the stockpile number,” said Heather Williams, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lecturer at King’s College London.

The change in policy comes as London lobbies Washington to move forward with development of a newly designed, high-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, the W93.

The current warhead for the UK’s Trident ballistic missiles is believed to be based on the U.S. W76 warhead. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2020 that the UK has “a parallel replacement warhead program,” although London is responsible for the design and production of its warhead fleet.

The Guardian reported in August that Wallace sent a letter to Congress in April 2020 encouraging funding for the W93. “Congressional funding in [fiscal year 2021] for the W93 program will ensure that we continue to deepen the unique nuclear relationship between our two countries, enabling the United Kingdom to provide safe and assured continuous-at-sea deterrence for decades to come,” he wrote.

Congress in December appropriated the Trump administration’s request of $53 million in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate work on the W93, although not without controversy. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

A new defense policy review results in raising warhead ceiling by 44 percent.

UK Finalizes New Safeguards


April 2021

The United Kingdom’s new safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) entered into force in December, ensuring that certain nuclear activities and materials will remain subject to international monitoring.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors on March 1 that the UK’s new voluntary safeguards agreement and the more intrusive additional protocol entered into force Dec. 31. Grossi said that the prior safeguards agreement between the UK and Euratom and the IAEA was terminated.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi delivers his remarks at the opening of the Board of Governors Meeting held at the Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 1. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)As a recognized nuclear-weapon state under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the UK is not required to implement a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. But all five of the recognized nuclear-weapon states have voluntary safeguards arrangements and additional protocols in place for nonmilitary nuclear materials and facilities.

The UK’s voluntary safeguards were applied through its membership in Euratom, the European nuclear energy community that coordinates nuclear research, energy, and safeguards. The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union included an exit from Euratom, necessitating the negotiation a new arrangement with the IAEA. (See ACT, July/August 2017.)

The new agreement with the IAEA will allow the UK to continue certain civil-nuclear cooperation agreements that require agency safeguards.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

UK Finalizes New Safeguards

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