The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog has said other states could follow Australia’s example and seek to build nuclear-powered submarines, raising serious proliferation and legal concerns.
Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said during a visit to Washington that he had set up a special team to look into the nuclear safeguards and legal implications of the Aukus partnership announced last month, in which the US and UK will help Australia build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
If the plan is carried through, it would be the first time a non-nuclear weapons state has acquired nuclear-powered submarines. It reflects a grey area in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows fissile material to be removed from IAEA safeguards for such purposes.
The procedures by which the agency would ensure that the fuel, removed from agency oversight, is not diverted to making nuclear weapons have yet to be worked out.
“We have to have specific agreements to make sure that whatever they receive technology-wise or material-wise, is under safeguards,” Grossi told reporters on Tuesday.
“There has to be a specific arrangement with the IAEA,” he said. “Now we have to dot the Is and cross the Ts, which has never been done before, and it’s a very, very demanding process.”
Grossi said it “cannot be excluded” that other countries would use the Aukus precedent to pursue their own nuclear submarine plans.
Canada and South Korea have both contemplated building nuclear-powered submarines, which can stay underwater longer and are quieter than their conventional counterparts. Brazil too has an ongoing nuclear submarine project.
Grossi noted that Iran informed the IAEA in 2018 of its intention to start a naval nuclear propulsion program. In a letter to the agency, the Iranian government said that for the first five years of the project, no nuclear facility would be involved.
In meetings in New York during the UN general assembly last month, Iranian officials pointed to the Aukus deal as a precedent to move the country’s own nuclear submarine plans forward.
Grossi said a limiting factor for other nations seeking to emulate Australia was the technical challenges in building a nuclear-propelled submarine.
“To have a nuclear reactor in a submarine in a vessel operating safely is a very difficult thing to do,” he said.
The IAEA director general said that the onus on US and the UK in the Aukus deal was to ensure that the nuclear material and technology was transferred to Australia in a safe way that did not raise risks of nuclear weapon proliferation. He said the issue had been raised in his talks with US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Washington this week.
“I think he’s fully aware of the implications, and we are going to have an engagement, formal engagement, soon in a tripartite way or otherwise,” Grossi said. “I already set up a taskforce within the inspectorate, composed of very experienced safeguards inspectors and legal experts to look into this.”