At the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference on August 4, a US nonproliferation expert condemned the US and UK’s plan to transfer submarines fueled with nuclear weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Australia under the so-called AUKUS partnership, as “a profound error made by a small circle of officials ignorant of their countries’ longstanding nonproliferation policies to minimize HEU commerce.” Australia is a non-nuclear weapons state (NNWS) under the treaty.
According to Prof. Alan J. Kuperman, head of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas, “For many decades until September 2021, all three AUKUS countries – Australia, United States, and the United Kingdom – opposed expansion and advocated minimization of HEU commerce, including as reactor fuel, on grounds that it undermined the NPT goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.”
He characterized as “misleading” the AUKUS countries’ recent claim that the submarine fuel “would not be in a form that can be directly used in nuclear weapons without further chemical processing.” In reality, he said, “HEU in submarine fuel has a form like that in research reactors and pharmaceutical factories, which have been required to convert to LEU” – low-enriched uranium, which is unsuitable for atomic weapons – “precisely because their HEU could be converted quickly and easily to metal for nuclear bombs, in small and undetectable facilities that even terrorists could build and operate.”
“Considering that the world has deemed it too dangerous to allow even a few kilograms of HEU in a research reactor or pharmaceutical facility on dry land that can be monitored constantly,” he said, “it would be catastrophically irresponsible to allow a NNWS to have tons of HEU for a submarine program that cannot be inspected frequently.”
Under the AUKUS precedent, he warned, “other countries could demand the same right to import or produce massive quantities of HEU for nuclear submarines, creating unstoppable paths to nuclear weapons.… The international community could not effectively block [other] NPT signatories from pursuing such HEU submarine programs, by claiming the countries were less trustworthy than Australia because that would be seen as discriminatory … [so] the current AUKUS plan inevitably would foster the spread of nuclear weapons.”
Kuperman called on the trilateral partnership to announce a change in plans by the August 26 closing of the UN event: “Rather than continue implementation of this ill-informed decision that threatens to vitiate the NPT, all three countries should declare by the end of this review conference that any nuclear submarines transferred or built under AUKUS would use LEU fuel.” By switching to LEU submarines, he said, Australia “would set a positive precedent, demonstrating how a country could obtain nuclear naval propulsion without fostering proliferation.”