Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2021-2022
A joint statement, excerpted, by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Medical Association for Prevention of War Australia, Medact UK, and Physicians for Social Responsibility USA, Sept. 21, 2021.
Physicians in the countries involved in the proposal announced on September 16 — for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with UK and US assistance — are concerned this plan will jeopardize global health and security. Under this proposal, Australia would become the seventh country to use nuclear propulsion for its military vessels, and the first state to do so which does not possess nuclear weapons, or nuclear power reactors. These submarines are to be armed with sophisticated long-range missiles including US Tomahawk cruise missiles. These submarines would increase tensions and militarization across Asia and the Pacific region, fuel an arms race, and risk deepening a new cold war involving China.
The wrong decision at the wrong time
Humanity is in the midst of a major pandemic, and facing twin existential threats of dire urgency — global heating and the growing danger of nuclear war….
If ever there was a time to build goodwill and focus on cooperation to complex global problems rather than escalate military confrontation, that time is now. Our [countries] should focus not on escalating a new arms race with China, but on building peaceful cooperation with the government of the world’s most populous to address urgent shared threats.
Instead, this plan will raise tensions, make cooperation more difficult, drive proliferation of ever more destructive weapons, divert vast resources needed to improve health and stabilize our climate, and increase the risks of … armed conflict between the world’s most heavily armed states, risking nuclear escalation in which there can be no winners.
Spreading nuclear bomb fuel
… All UK and US nuclear-powered submarines use HEU [highly-enriched uranium] as fuel, which is directly usable in nuclear weapons…. Indeed their current naval reactor fuel is enriched to 93% and was originally produced for use in nuclear warheads. They have resisted and delayed efforts to convert their naval reactors to much less proliferation-prone, low-enriched uranium fuel, as France and China have done….
Precisely because of the proliferation dangers of naval reactor fuel, the US has previously gone to considerable lengths to thwart the spread of naval reactors, such as in the 1980s blocking Canada from buying nuclear attack submarines from France and the UK….
The quantities of HEU involved are large. As Sebastien Philippe from Princeton University has estimated, a fleet of between 6 and 12 nuclear submarines as proposed, operated for about 30 years, will require between 3 and 6 tons of HEU. The International Atomic Energy Agency stipulates that [55 lbs] of HEU would enable a nuclear weapon, even though US nuclear weapons are known to contain an average of only 12 kg of HEU.
So HEU fuel for the proposed Australian submarines would involve 120 to 240 times the amount of HEU as the IAEA stipulates is sufficient to build a nuclear weapon, and it could be out of international safeguards for decades. Philippe has aptly characterized this as “a terrible decision for the non-proliferation regime.” It discredits all three nations’ claims to support a treaty curbing fissile materials, and would make such a treaty harder to verify. …
This proposal needs careful independent scrutiny and strong new safeguard provisions to ensure Australia fulfills its obligations under both the NPT and the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty….
The UK announcement in March of a planned 40% increase in its nuclear arsenal [violates] its NPT obligations, as the UN Secretary-General has stated. The UK and US are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, both in [violation] of their 51-year-old legally binding NPT commitment to disarm….
Proliferation of submarines … with lifespans of several decades that are fueled by weapons-grade HEU will encourage uranium enrichment, wider use and storage of HEU, and will set back and make more difficult control and elimination of fissile materials.
Nuclear reactors on ships and submarines have been involved in numerous accidents. The risks of accident or attack causing release of radioactive material, combined with the targeting by adversaries of such vessels, including while they are in port, are why many cities around the world sensibly [forbid] visits of such vessels to their harbors….
Australia’s lack of nuclear scientific, engineering, management and regulatory capacity and experience will inevitably mean that more is likely to go wrong building and operating nuclear submarines. If something does go wrong with one of its nuclear submarines, the likelihood of it being quickly and effectively managed is reduced, and the risk of radioactive release in a port city or into the marine or coastal environment is increased….
These contribute substantially to the already widespread radioactive pollution resulting from naval reactors. The most recently reported fatal accident was a fire in a Russian nuclear submarine in 2019, that killed 14 people.
The radioactive waste from reactors poses a difficult and expensive problem: to manage health and environmental hazards for geological time periods. The governments involved in this proposal have been silent about disposal of the high- and intermediate level waste that would be generated. Despite many flawed and failed attempts at interim storage, Australia has no current plan for disposal of the much smaller amount of its … radioactive waste.
A step toward reactors and nuclear weapons?
Already, in the wake of the announced plans, there are mounting calls in Australia, including from some government MPs, for Australia to embrace nuclear power as well. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Australia made active plans and preparations to acquire nuclear weapons. … Twenty nuclear weapons could be built from the amount of HEU fueling the nuclear reactor of each planned submarine.
The way forward
… Rather than escalating a nuclear-propelled new cold war, both the UK and US should make their people and the world truly safer by pursuing a verifiable and binding agreement with other nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. They should welcome and work towards joining the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which provides the only internationally agreed, treaty-codified framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Naval nuclear propulsion, especially with HEU, should be phased out.
…Contrary to its support for the treaties prohibiting all other major types of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons and weapons of mass destruction — biological and chemical weapons, landmines, and cluster munitions — Australia opposes the TPNW.
The best way for Australia to provide surety that any nuclear-powered submarines would not be a stepping stone towards acquiring nuclear weapons, nor have any role in the possible use of nuclear weapons, is to join the TPNW. If it continues to refuse to do so, such concerns will remain well justified.
If Australia proceeds to acquire nuclear submarines, it should insist on LEU fuel, implement stringent safeguards, the submarines should be configured so that they cannot carry nuclear weapons, and nothing about their construction or operation should impede Australia joining the TPNW.
— For the full joint statement with signatures, see: https://www.ippnw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/IPPNW-statement-Nuclear-Subs-letterhead-21.9.21.pdf.
— International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2007, MAPW and IPPNW launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.