Will AUKUS weaken the non-proliferation regime?

April 25, 2023

Originally presented on the 6th Timerbaev Nuclear Debates on the topic «Will AUKUS Weaken the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime?», April 17, 2023.

I feel honored to participate in this commemoration of the launching of the anthology of articles by Ambassador Roland Timerbaev, whom I knew personally in Geneva in the mid 1980’s.

I thank PIR Center for inviting me to participate in the debate on the impact of AUKUS on the non-proliferation regime. I am particularly happy to greet Tariq Rauf, Vladimir Orlov and Bill Potter. May I thank Yelena Karnaukhova for her help. My greetings also go to Sarah Bidgood and Yekaterina Mikhailenko.

I wish to make clear at the outset that I have been retired from the Brazilian Foreign Service for almost twenty years now and that I speak here in my private capacity. My remarks and opinions should not be taken as the official policies and views of the Brazilian government.

As we know, the regime instituted by the NPT in 1970 has been very successful in curbing proliferation: none of the non-nuclear parties have acquired nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, however, its credibility has been undermined by the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament. Although the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world has been dramatically reduced, in the last couple of decades the arms race among the nuclear weapon states accelerated. The speed, explosive power and lethality of arsenals increased exponentially, in what amounts to a veritable technological proliferation. Recently, the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific and Indian Oceans has raised fresh concerns about the possibility of horizontal proliferation in that region.

I was a junior member of the Brazilian delegation during the discussions on the NPT at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) from 1966 to 1970. I have no recollection of the issue of nuclear naval propulsion being discussed then. Most certainly some prospective parties to the treaty, particularly nuclear-weapon states, already had an interest in future applications of atomic energy. In the late 1960’s they were the only countries with suficient industrial and technological development to envisage the construction of nuclear-powered sea vessels. At the same time, placing too many restrictions on nuclear technological development could discourage wider adherence to the Treaty. It came to be understood that the use of nuclear materials in reactors for the specific purpose of naval propulsion should not be proscribed under the future NPT. Several commentators pointed out at the time and later that lack of safeguards would be a serious loophole, because during unsafeguarded periods the nuclear material in a ship’s reactor could be diverted to prohibited purposes.

Over the years, all five NPT nuclear weapon States built and now operate nuclear-powered submarines. India, also possesses such a warship. North Korea is reportedly trying to acquire a nuclear submarine.

 Brazil and Australia are the only non-nuclear states currently engaged in nuclear submarine projects. There are a few similarities between them. Both the Brazilian and the AUKUS submarine will be armed with conventional weapons. Both countries are committed to non-proliferation and to international verification standards, in accordance with the obligations accepted by each of them as good-faith parties to the NPT. Australia is bound by an agreement with the IAEA under Article III of the NPT and a voluntary Additional Protocol to that agreement. For its part, Brazil has a full scope safeguards agreement with the IAEA and has also established a successful accounting and control verification regime with Argentina, the IAEA and the bi-national agency ABACC.

There are some important differences too. The Brazilian nuclear submarine program dates back from the 1980’s but experienced a number of technical, financial and political difficulties. In 2008 a partnership with France was established to build four conventional, diesel-electric conventional submarines, two of which have already been commissioned by the Brazilian Navy. The agreement also provides for French technological assistance to build the hull of one nuclear powered submarine. The hull is currently nearing completion at a shipyard not far from Rio de Janeiro. The nuclear components, including the reactor, are being developed entirely in Brazil with domestic technology. It is hoped that the submarine will be launched in the early 2030’s. Fuel for its reactor will be low enriched uranium produced at a Brazilian industrial facility that has been in operation for a number of years. That facility is under IAEA safeguards and currently provides about 65% of the fuel for the two nuclear electric power plants operating in the country. Brazil has no reprocessing plants and no plans to acquire one.

The AUKUS nuclear submarine project is younger and more ambitious. The partnership between US, UK and Australia announced in 2021 envisages its implementation over the next three decades, including training and capacity building, as well as the acquisition of a fleet of complete, conventionally armed nuclear submarines. It is not clear from the statement which parts of the submarines will be built in Australia, but they will include technology from the three nations. The reactors aboard the ships and their fuel will be provided by the other two partners and will use highly enriched uranium. Although Australia possesses uranium deposits, it has declared that it does not intend to pursue uranium enrichment or reprocessing and that it has no plans to produce its own nuclear fuel as part of the AUKUS project.

I would like to call attention briefly to two aspects of this matter: first, the relevance of existing projects to the non-proliferation regime and second, their relationship with the security of the respective regions and the world at large.

With regard to the proliferation aspect I recall that both the AUKUS partners and Brazil are bound by their commitments under Articles I and II of the NPT. Australia and Brazil have requested consultations with the Agency on the arrangements to be made pursuant to their obligations regarding to the application of safeguards to the nuclear materials to be used to power the reactors of their submarines. As far as I know, such consultations are underway between the Agency and the interested parties.

 According to the Quadripartite agreement I mentioned above, Brazil is also consulting with ABACC since June last year. The agreement provides for the application of special procedures in case a state party to it decides to use, for nuclear propulsion of submarines and prototypes, material that must be placed under safeguards in order to ensure that there will be no diversion for proscribed activities. The Quadripartite agreement is in force since 1991 and is generally considered a shining example of the determination of the two countries to promote civilian applications of nuclear energy and at the same time prevent proliferation.

After the AUKUS announcement China has expressed concern over the possibility of proliferation and proposed to discuss at he IAEA the implications of nuclear propelled submarines in the Pacific and Indian Ocean area, but as far as I know no debates at the Board of Governors have yet place on that suggestion.

 The Diretor-general of IAEA has said that he intends to submit a report to the forthcoming regular session of the Board of Governors, scheduled for next June. We will then have reliable information on the progress of the consultations of both Australia and Brazil with the Agency, and not before.

May I now turn to the impact of the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines on the security of the respective regions. Enhancing the security of the oceans in their vicinity is a paramount concern of both Brazil and Australia. It should be noted that nuclear powered submarines belonging to the six existing nuclear-weapon States, all of which are armed with nuclear-tipped missiles, already roam all oceans of the whole planet round the clock, 365 days a year.

According to the statement issued by the three partners, AUKUS is conceived as “a new security partnership that will promote a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Ensuring freedom of navigation has been a foremost concern for the international community. The Pacific Ocean is a region of confrontation, particularly in the South China Sea and around Taiwan and elsewhere. Some territorial claims have not been settled. Eight nuclear-weapon states are located in Asia or have shores on the Indian or the Pacific Oceans. There are many military bases in the area. In the last couple of decades China has been increasing the size and power of its navy and building fortifications on some islands in the southern seas.

The South Atlantic region is of great economic importance for all coastal states in Africa and South America. The Atlantic coast of Brazil is over 7.000 km long, and other South American states, such as Argentina and Uruguay, also have Atlantic shores. Unlike the Indo-Pacific, however, there is no military confrontation or unsettled issues among the states in the region. As a matter of fact, our part of the world has been free of internal wars for over century and a half now. A few bilateral disputes were resolved by arbitration or negotiations. Through a Brazilian initiative a zone of Peace and Cooperation in the South Atlantic was created in 1986. 24 States from the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa are party to the zone. It grew from the original objective to help prevent the tensions and rivalries of the Cold War from affecting the political and economic relations in our region and for the past 37 years has been an important asset for the security of the South Atlantic. I also recall that since 1967 Latin America and the Caribbean have set a pioneer example in establishing the first nuclear weapon free zone in the world through the Treaty of Tlatelolco.

I hope my remarks have been useful to you. May I close by saying that the military buildup in the Pacific and Indian oceans is a source of alarm and disquiet for the whole world. The absence of submarines armed with nuclear weapons in all oceans would certainly strengthen peace and security for every nation.

Key words: Arms Control; NPT; AUKUS