On Sep 15, 2021, Australia, United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) signed a trilateral security partnership dubbed AUKUS. A new security partnership that would cooperate in multiple areas including share artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region including the sale of jointly built nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. AUKUS also violated the norms of the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime (NPR). The trade of nuclear-powered submarines to a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) has set a new trend which could lead other countries to engage similar activities for their own interest consequently weakening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Under the NPR, it is prohibited to sale nuclear related technologies and material to the NNWS. The US and UK’s commitments towards nuclear nonproliferation norms has raised the question regarding the rationality of NPR.
Australia is non-nuclear weapon state and the signatory to the NPT. Despite having one of the world’s largest uranium reserves it has for now refrained from building nuclear weapons and has reiterated its commitment to adhere to the international standards of safety and security of nuclear materials and honor its obligations as a NNWS. The nuclear-powered submarines being acquired by Australia are different from nuclear-capable ballistic missile carrying submarines, but also it does carry considerable proliferation perils.
Whether it operates on Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) based power reactors. If Australia is allowed to build its own nuclear fuel cycle service to fuel its submarines, there could also be a temptation to acquire nuclear weapons in the future. This may encourage other US allies to demand similar concessions and build their covert nuclear capacity.
Although Australia has committed that it would continue to follow “to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measure.” But these assurances, there are hazards associated with maintaining, operating nuclear-powered submarines by a country that is not Nuclear State and does not have sufficient expertise in the nuclear fuel cycle services.