Sydney, Australia, Mar 14 (EFE).- The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS security pact will not contravene international treaties against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Australian government said Tuesday amid criticism of the deal.
Defence Minister Richard Marles gave a press conference in Canberra after the announcement in San Diego of the agreement between the leaders of the alliance’s member states Australia, United Kingdom and the United States.
Under the agreement, Australia will purchase up to three Virginia-class submarines from the US during the early 2030s, with the option to purchase two more if necessary.
The multi-phase submarine development project, which is expected to cost Canberra up to $368 billion ($244 billion) over the next 30 years, will use UK submarine technology and design with American technology that will culminate in Australian production.
“A precondition of the whole program with AUKUS is to be making sure that everything we are doing is compliant with non-proliferation treaty obligations, and we are really confident that we are setting the highest bar in relation to our NPT obligations and we’ve been working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency in respect of this,” Marles said.
Marles also reiterated Australia’s commitment to its international obligations under the Rarotonga Treaty, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific.
The project will also see the US share the technology at the heart of its nuclear-powered submarines with another country for the first time in 65 years, allowing Australia to build its own.
The project will require a sealed nuclear reactor, which will be built on military land away from populated areas, Marles said, adding that the first disposal of nuclear material “will not happen until the 2050s.”
However, the deal has raised concerns about nuclear waste management and of raising tensions and starting a possible arms race in the Indo-Pacific.
Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear analyst Dave Sweeney stressed Tuesday in a statement that the deals “raises serious non-proliferation concerns relating to access to highly enriched weapons-grade uranium and sets a disturbing precedent for imitation and escalation.”
Sweeney expressed concern about the lack of clarity for a management plan for the high level nuclear waste for the thousands of years it remains radioactive, also warning of potential nuclear accidents in the ports and waters of the Oceanian country.
“The arrangement announced today will undoubtedly elevate regional tensions and increase risks for Australians and our neighbors,” he said.
The AUKUS submarine deal marks the first time that a loophole in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been used to transfer fissile material and nuclear technology from a state that possesses nuclear weapons to one that does not, and without requiring monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to The Guardian newspaper Tuesday.
“Australia would be the only nation without nuclear weapons but with nuclear submarines. It may embolden other nations to go down this path, increasing global nuclear risks,” said Sweeney.
The Green Party also released a statement saying “Australia’s push to join the nuclear submarine club is already causing unrest with our key regional allies and adds fire to a growing regional arms race.”
Winner of the 2017 Nobel peace prize, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons said Tuesday that Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines undermines its commitment to non-proliferation.
“Acquiring nuclear-powered submarines using highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is both a major proliferation risk and could be seen as a precursor to Australia acquiring nuclear weapons,” it said in a statement.
“The particular capability of the planned submarines is to support the US in a war in northeast Asia. Whether with China, North Korea or Russia, there is an alarming risk of any such war escalating to use of nuclear weapons.”
The acquisition will make Australia the seventh nation in the world with nuclear-powered submarines after the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and India. EFE