Australia Tuesday concluded a deal with the US and UK that will extend nuclear powered submarines to the Australian Navy. The deal is a key part of the AUKUS security agreement between the three countries. However, concerns over the disposal of nuclear waste generated by the submarines and possible violations of Australia’s commitments to anti-nuclear treaties have been raised.
The AUKUS deal requires the Australian government to dispose off the nuclear waste produced by the submarines. The potential waste includes low-level radioactive material generated by normal use and high-level waste incurred during nuclear reactor decommission. The 2018 Australian Radioactive Waste Management Framework details the country’s ability to process and handle the different levels of radioactive waste. Currently, facilities exist to store low through intermediate-level waste. No facilities capable of the decades or centuries-long storage requirements of high-level waste exist. However, the decommissioning of reactors will not occur for many decades.
The future storage of decommissioned reactors and presence of nuclear technology in Australia has raised significant concerns. The concerns center on two possible treaty violations. Article 2 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) does not allow current non-nuclear states to “receive nuclear explosive devices or seek their manufacture.” A White House Fact Sheet states that as part of the deal, Australia will not be involved in uranium enrichment or reactor production. Additionally, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reaffirmed the county’s commitment to the non-proliferation treaty. He stated that the country will work in “close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” This will include the inspection of nuclear sites.
The other possible violation comes from the Treaty of Rarotonga, also known as the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. The treaty does not allow signatories to “acquire, possess, or have control over any nuclear explosive device.” However, the treaty allows for reservations in Article 14. Reservations, as defined by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, allows a state to exclude the application of certain provisions. Consequently, Article 14 creates a loophole for the Australian government’s ability to store nuclear reactors on its land.
US nuclear submarines will commence visits to Australia this year with UK submarines expected by 2026. Full nuclear capability is expected in the early 2030s with the delivery of the US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines. Nuclear energy and weapons remain a controversial topic in the South Pacific. The area was used by US, UK and France for extensive testing of nuclear weapons. In addition, numerous countries in the region have expressed concern over radioactive wastewater released from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan.