Both houses of the U.S. Congress recently approved a comprehensive annual funding bill for FY2022 including $20 million for development of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for the nuclear reactors that propel naval submarines and aircraft carriers – a proliferation-resistant alternative to the weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel currently used by the U.S. Navy. If developed successfully, the LEU fuel also would be suitable for Australia’s future submarines under the September 2021 AUKUS agreement. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law, providing a seventh consecutive year of funding for development of the less risky naval LEU fuel.
Australia aims to be the first country lacking nuclear weapons to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, setting an important precedent. If Australia chooses HEU fuel, its eight planned submarines would require import of a total of about 4 tons of weapons-grade uranium, sufficient for at least 160 nuclear weapons. Other countries, including Iran, would likely respond by demanding equivalent rights to import or produce HEU for their own prospective nuclear navies, creating grave proliferation concerns.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Australia’s choice of fuel for its nuclear submarines may help determine whether nuclear weapons spread rapidly or not in decades ahead,” said Alan Kuperman, coordinator for the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP), who is visiting Australia for a week of lectures and meetings on reducing the proliferation risks of AUKUS.
The U.S. R&D program aims to develop LEU fuel providing identical power and lifetime as existing HEU fuel in naval reactors, thereby reducing proliferation risks while avoiding refuelling. France and China already fuel their naval reactors with LEU but choose to refuel rapidly during routine maintenance of their vessels.