As Australia’s new government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, considers how to implement his predecessor’s landmark 2021 AUKUS agreement, the U.S. Congress has voiced continued support for eliminating weapons-grade uranium fuel in nuclear submarines.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved the FY 2023 defence bill, including an authorisation that, “Provides $20 million in funding for the continued research and development of advanced naval nuclear fuel systems based on low-enriched uranium [LEU].” Earlier a House committee had approved an FY 2023 appropriation for the same amount, “to develop high-density, low-enriched fuels that could replace highly enriched uranium [HEU] for naval applications.”
These provisions would continue the preceding year’s funding level; the U.S. Senate has yet to release its versions of the bills. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, making nuclear weapons is possible with HEU but not LEU.
Australia’s Defence Minister, Richard Marles, in a speech during his recent visit to Washington, DC, discussed AUKUS’s implementation, saying that, “In determining the optimal pathway forward, the Australian Government is acutely aware of the obligations of nuclear stewardship…and ensuring this initiative sets the strongest possible non-proliferation standards.”
The coordinator for the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, Alan Kuperman, noted that current non-proliferation standards, which Australia strongly has supported, prohibit the export of even a few kilograms of HEU to new land-based nuclear reactors that can be inspected regularly. He added, “This makes obvious that the ‘strongest possible non-proliferation standards’ do not permit export of thousands of kilograms of HEU for submarine-based nuclear reactors that cannot be inspected regularly due to their stealthy underwater deployment – especially if an alternative, LEU fuel is feasible.”