Nuclear issues escalate under AUKUS

AUKUS details indicate escalating nuclear challenges for Australia, including the local disposal of weapons grade waste and the weakening of a 50-year nuclear non-proliferation treaty. 

Australia’s commitment to manage high-level nuclear waste associated with the nuclear-powered submarines being acquired under the AUKUS agreement, was revealed as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met leaders of UK and US yesterday morning (Australian time). 

Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed disposing of the high-level radioactive waste – including spent nuclear fuel – would require a new waste facility to be built, to be located on “current or future” defence land.

Work to identify a site will begin this year, according to an AUKUS fact sheet published on the Defence Department’s website.

“Defence – working with relevant agencies including the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency – will undertake a review in 2023 to identify locations in the current or future Defence estate that could be suitable to store and dispose of intermediate-level waste and high level waste, including spent fuel,” the fact sheet states, also claiming Australia’s track record managing nuclear waste and conducting nuclear science is “unblemished”.

Australia has no experience managing waste from highly-enriched uranium and has struggled to find a site for disposing of lower level nuclear waste. 

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Traditional Owners are currently challenging a 2021 Australian Government decision to locate a nuclear waste site at Kimba in South Australia. This follows a three-decades-long search for a place to dispose of the low and intermediate level radioactive waste produced mainly from Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation at Lucas Heights, New South Wales. 

Radioactive waste isn’t the only nuclear issue arising from the tripartite military deal.

University of Queensland Associate Professor Dr Marianne Hanson is concerned Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines will weaken the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Hanson is an expert in international security and a Board Member of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons).

In January, marking 50 years since Australia ratified the Treaty, Foreign Minister Penny Wong argued AUKUS wouldn’t weaken Australia’s stance against nuclear weapons.

Yet according to Hanson, in acquiring the nuclear-powered submarines, Australia will be the first country to exploit a loophole in paragraph 14 of the Treaty enabling nuclear technology and material to be transferred to a non-nuclear weapons state. 

Under AUKUS, Australia would be the first non-nuclear state to acquire nuclear powered submarines. By doing so, Australia is setting a precedent making it easier for other countries to acquire highly-enriched, weapons grade uranium and nuclear material in this way, she says.

She holds grave concerns that this poses a proliferation risk.

Also revealed in the AUKUS details are plans for HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia to begin receiving more frequent visits from UK and US nuclear-powered submarines this year. There are plans for a “rotational presence” of those submarines from as early as 2027, with expectations it will ultimately house Australia’s US Virginia submarines from the 2030s.

Hanson says, in the event those US or UK submarines stationed for longer periods were carrying nuclear weapons, Australia would not be meeting its legal obligations under the Treaty.

“At the moment, Australia does not permit the stationing of any nuclear weapons in Australia. But it’s quite possible that submarines, US submarines will carry nuclear weapons – the US refuses to confirm or deny that that is the case. Now, if those submarines are transiting Australia, arguably that is permitted, but to be stationing is absolutely not permitted under our existing legal obligations,” she says.

She says the AUKUS agreement escalates a lot of nuclear issues which Australia has rejected in the past, and sees Australia becoming “more and more enmeshed in American military planning for war”. 

To allay concerns, she says the government should follow through on its promise to sign the United Nations Treaty on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

“That will give a strong signal to the region and to the world that even though Australia might be acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, we have absolutely no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. That would go some way towards mitigating what I think has been a really unwise and inappropriate policy.”

Other experts have flagged concerns about the lack of a skilled nuclear workforce and the need to update safety frameworks.

Professor Chennupati Jagadish, President of the Australian Academy of Science says, “nuclear science in Australia faces a skills crisis. We are significantly behind our peer nations in national nuclear and radiation science capability.

“Demand for nuclear scientists to meet existing workforce needs, let alone the national capacity to benefit from new developments in nuclear physics, is running well above supply and the capacity of existing universities to train sufficient scientists.  Australia is overly dependent on overseas trained workforce and lacks the capacity to train new nuclear scientists to meet our existing needs.”

Last year Dr Roger Allison, Chair of the Radiation Health and Safety Advisory Council wrote to Australia’s radiation safety agency about the urgent need for updated and robust regulatory frameworks to deal with the “actual and perceived health and safety risks of nuclear-powered submarines”.

The framework should have public safety and compliance with Australia’s non-proliferation commitments at the centre, Allison wrote.

“It is important that the framework does not allow ‘national security’ to mask inadequate radiation safety protection of the Australian public, weaken regulatory authority, or inhibit transparency on matters of Australian public safety,” Allison says.

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