Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2021-2022
President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian PM Scott Morrison declared September 15 that they would rename their three-way military alliance “AUKUS” and then announced that they had wrested the multi-billion dollar contract to build at least eight Australian nuclear-powered submarines from French warship builders following secret negotiations.
The shocking announcement came as a sucker punch to France’s submarine industry, cancelling without warning a $90 billion agreement signed in 2016 to build diesel-powered subs for Australia. The head of the French military contractor Naval Group, Pierre Eric Pommellet, spoke of “astonishment and stupefaction” at being told the nearly $90 billion dollar submarine contract with Australia was being torn up, the Guardian reported October 7.
Reacting to what appears to be a case of industrial sabotage among fierce global rivals — France reportedly already spent $2 billion on the diesel- powered attack submarines — Paris recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the United States, and its foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the cancellation betrayed “the letter and spirit” of cooperation between France and Australia.
Australia has not built a submarine for 20 years and because of the plan’s immense complexities, its exorbitant industrial and technical hurdles “could be insurmountable,” the New York Times reported November 9. “I don’t think this is a done deal in any way, shape or form,” said Marcus Hellyer, an expert on naval policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Hinting at the deadly disasters that haunt nuclear submarines, Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said during an October 19 visit to Washington, DC, “To have a nuclear reactor in a submarine operating safely is a very difficult thing to do,” the Guardian noted.
Grossi said the onus is on the US and the UK to ensure that radioactive material and technology is transferred to Australia in a way that does not risk nuclear weapons proliferation. But proliferation risks can only be compounded by Australia’s embrace of military reactors, because US and British nuclear submarines run only on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel, and HEU can be made into nuclear weapons. For the Australian submarines, a new low-enriched uranium fuel system must be developed, or Australia will gain access to weapons-grade material.
The Aussie’s decision to promote nuclear militarism — when the country has no nuclear power expertise, no reactor industry or uranium fuel production program, no radioactive waste control system, and no infrastructure for radiological disaster response — is shockingly counter-intuitive.
Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone in the November 9 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted that building, maintaining, and operating reactor-propelled submarines depends on “expensive access to specific skills, supply chains, regulatory and design capabilities, educational and research institutions, and waste management and security infrastructures.” All Australia has now are uranium mines.
“Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” PM Morrison said September 15. But Friends of the Earth Australia’s spokesperson Jim Green told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the country’s “nuclear power lobby” had “been quick off the mark,” and was already using the submarine announcement to push for further involvement with the uranium fuel cycle, including nuclear reactors and radioactive waste storage.
“No country in the world has got a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste, and the only repository in the world to dispose of intermediate-level nuclear waste, which is in the United States [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico], was shut for three years from 2014 to 2017 because of a chemical explosion.”
In the face of a dozen severe, urgent, and daunting global crises — climate change, sea-level rise, increasingly extreme weather events, deforestation, desertification, over-fishing, mass migration, disease control and prevention, and resource depletion among others — Australia’s decision to throw $90 billion into the black hole of uranium, reactor and waste production for nuclear-powered warships could not be more bewildering.
Australia could still reverse its blindingly expensive, dirty, and risk-intensive decision before adding to the naval parade of sunken billions and wasted lives. It should reject this deal with the nuclear devil and refuse to deliberately generate radioactive waste materials that will permanently pollute our shared environment, the oceanic commons. – John LaForge