Former officials ask AUKUS submarines to use low enriched uranium – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense


President Joe Biden appears with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) to announce the new AUKUS deal. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON: In a new letter, a group of former US officials and non-proliferation experts urge President Joe Biden to urge the United States to design future submarines using low-enriched uranium, a material capable of powering naval propulsion without the risk of being used to create a nuclear weapon.

This is the latest salute in a newly fueled debate over what type of uranium should be used to power military submarines, a debate that has come back to life since Biden announced Australia would receive submarines nuclear as part of a new defense pact in September, called AUKUS. At the heart of this debate is whether the world’s superpowers should switch from using highly enriched uranium to LEU to reduce the chances that a hostile actor could acquire a nuclear weapon.

The AUKUS deal, which also includes the UK, has raised concerns both among longtime experts on the subject and among world leaders, such as former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who told Breaking Defense this week that he would encourage the use of LEU only. for the new Australian submarine.

“Australia is a non-nuclear weapon state and has a considerable commitment and interest in complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” said Turnbull, who is not a party to the new letter and is not. had not seen. “When you look at it from a non-proliferation perspective, or from a management perspective or from an environmental perspective, UFE is a much better proposition. “

A copy of the letter can be seen at the bottom of this story. The seven signatories of the new letter are:

  • Robert L. Gallucci, professor emeritus, Georgetown Univ .; Former Goodwill Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs
  • Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
  • Alan J. Kuperman, Assoc. Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Coordinator, Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, Univ. from Texas to Austin; former Congress staff
  • George M. Moore, Scientist in Residence, Middlebury Inst. of international studies in Monterey
  • Thomas Shea, Former Principal Investigator, IAEA Safeguards Division and Head, Defense Nuclear Non-Proliferation Programs, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Sharon Squassoni, research professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University; former non-proliferation specialist at the US State Department
  • Frank von Hippel, Emeritus Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; former Deputy Director for National Security, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

“[T]UKUS agreement to supply Australia with military grade uranium-fueled nuclear-powered attack submarines could have serious negative impacts on the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and therefore on security National Security Council, ”the group wrote in its letter to Biden, as well as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and National Nuclear Security Administrator Jill Hruby.

RELATED: The US Navy’s Nuclear Proliferation Problem

Under UKUS, the US and UK plan to share the information and support Australia needs to launch a nuclear-powered submarine program. On a related note, Australia also canceled its pre-existing submarine construction contract with France, triggering international headlines following a diplomatic row between French President Emmanuel Macron and the three AUKUS nations.

Details of the submarine deal are still unknown, as the deal includes an 18-month period during which the three countries will work together to determine the best way forward. But most observers believe it is inevitable that Australia will acquire a HEU-based design, as the US and UK both depend on HEU.

The experts behind the letter write that they are not concerned that Australia will produce a nuclear weapon, but that the country acquiring HEU could set a dangerous precedent.

Laws developed by the IAEA require non-nuclear-weapon states, such as Australia, to allow international inspectors to enter their nuclear facilities. (The country currently lacks significant nuclear infrastructure, with the exception of a reactor used for medical purposes.) However, the law contains an important loophole, but never used before: Materials intended for naval propulsion can be exempted. inspection.

RELATED: Australia’s New Nuclear Subcontracting Agreement Raises Big Questions, A Hard Road To Travel

The fact that no country has invoked this loophole is in part due to international pressure that the United States, China and other countries are putting on their allies not to shake the boat. But some experts fear that if the United States and the United Kingdom allow an ally to claim the exemption, it is inevitable that an adversary will try to do the same.

“If Iran announced that it was removing highly enriched uranium from safeguards for naval propulsion, we would move forward,” James Acton, a prominent non-proliferation expert who did did not go to the letter. September. “And we should. It would be outrageous for Iran to go ahead and do it.

This is precisely the scenario the letter presents to the White House, citing comments from Iranian officials who last month during a UN meeting used AUKUS as a ground for claiming that Iran might want to search for military grade uranium.

Concerns about alliances

In an interview, Turnbull, the former Australian Prime Minister, criticized the deal both for the precedent it will set and for the way current Prime Minister Scott Morrison informed the French, calling it Morrison’s actions of “misleading”.

Turnbull said the Australian government should have been upfront with France about its concerns and called for the contract to be changed, rather than making a deal with the US and UK in private. Turnbull predicted that if Australia had made its desire for nuclear-powered submarines clear, the French might have been “disappointed” but would not have felt disrespectful or humiliated.

He acknowledged that AUKUS was initially received positively in Australia, but said public perception started to fluctuate after seeing the reaction from the French government. He predicted that whoever succeeds the current Prime Minister will have to repair barriers at the international level.

“He is [Morrison’s successor] somehow has to say, ‘Look, that was him. It wasn’t us. We are not like that. It was just him. Much the same way the US government will do every day vis-à-vis Trump, ”Turnbull said.

RELATED: What AUKUS Means For Australia: More Than Nuclear Submarines

The letter also notes that AUKUS can trigger problematic discussions with allies. South Korea asked the Trump administration for help in acquiring nuclear attack submarines, but was rejected.

“Russia has offered to share UFE-powered reactor technology with South Korea for civilian maritime use, but could be encouraged by the US example to come up with HEU-powered designs,” the letter said. .

Currently the US, UK, Russia, and India all rely on HEU, while France and China use UFE. The UK is dependent on the United States, while India is dependent on Russia.

The debate on HEU or UFE has also been ongoing at the national level within the US Navy for several years.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., Recently proposed an amendment to the upcoming Defense Policy Bill that would require the National Nuclear Security Administration to assess the viability of using LEU in nuclear-powered reactors. and what impact it would have on the SSN (X), the Navy’s next-generation attack submarine. (The amendment was submitted to the House Rules Committee but was not passed in order, and therefore will not be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.)

“We urge the Biden administration to – at the very least – initiate an effort in this direction,” the non-proliferation experts wrote.

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