The Albanese government has requested formal talks with the global nuclear watchdog to allay any concerns Aukus could lead to undeclared nuclear activities in Australia or the diversion of enriched uranium.
The government has also invited senior officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit Australia this year, attempting to head off a fresh campaign from China, which urged the body not to fall for “high-sounding rhetoric”.
The Aukus submarine arrangement is novel because it will be the first time a provision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been used to transfer naval nuclear propulsion technology from a nuclear weapons state to a non-weapons state.
Some analysts are concerned about the precedent this may set for other countries to follow. But the Australian government is believed to disagree with this being characterised as a “loophole” and has promised not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel as part of the nuclear-powered submarine program.
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, wrote to the head of the IAEA after the Aukus announcement this week to ask to begin formal negotiations on a safeguards arrangement.
She promised that Australia would offer “a robust package of safeguards and verification measures” so the watchdog could be satisfied of “the non-diversion of nuclear material, the non-misuse of nuclear facilities and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in Australia”.
It is understood Australia wants to discuss options to verify nuclear material has remained in the nuclear-powered submarines, including the potential use of sensors or seals.
The option of physical inspections is also on the table, although this is sensitive given the desire to protect classified information. There have already been intensive technical discussions in Vienna.
China – a nuclear-weapons state – has put nuclear non-proliferation concerns at the centre of its international campaign against Aukus, knowing that these issues have resonance in south-east Asia and the Pacific.
The Chinese government has demanded that the IAEA “not have consultation with the three countries on the so-called safeguards arrangements for their nuclear submarine cooperation”.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the Aukus countries were trying to “coerce the IAEA secretariat into making safeguards exemption arrangements, which would seriously undermine the authority of the body”.
The argument was amplified by state-run outlets, including the China Daily, which suggested Australia could not credibly ask Iran or North Korea to give up their nuclear ambitions.
The new letters from Wong and the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, emphasised that Australia is not seeking nuclear weapons, but instead is acquiring “conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines”.
Albanese assured the IAEA’s director general, Rafael Grossi, that Australia would “meet our safeguards obligations and nuclear non-proliferation commitments at all times”.
“Australia understands this initiative is a serious undertaking: we will be responsible stewards of naval nuclear propulsion technology,” the prime minister wrote.
“I would welcome a visit to Australia by senior IAEA representatives in 2023 to continue consultations with Australian officials.”
Albanese said he also hoped to welcome Grossi back to Australia “at a mutually convenient time”.
Grossi met Albanese during his visit to Australia in July and said at the time he was “absolutely confident” about the country’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
But Grossi also described Aukus as “a technologically challenging project that will require very specific arrangements between us and Australia”.
The planned negotiations boil down to a single article in a longstanding deal between the IAEA and Australia, known as the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. In a statement acknowledging the letters, Grossi explained that article 14 allowed Australia to use material for “a nuclear activity, such as nuclear propulsion for submarines, provided that Australia makes an arrangement with the agency in this regard”.
Grossi vowed to navigate the serious legal and complex technical matters “in an independent, impartial, and professional manner” and said the IAEA “must ensure that no proliferation risks will emanate from this project”.
The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office has also written to the IAEA with “preliminary design information”.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said it expected Australia to “develop with the IAEA a verification mechanism that is effective, transparent and non-discriminatory”.
The Coalition’s defence spokesperson, Andrew Hastie, said China should not “lecture us” on Aukus. He said China was pursuing “the biggest peacetime military expansion since the second world war, which includes nuclear weapons”.
“There’s a lot of disinformation out there and we have made a modest investment into our military capability relative to theirs,” Hastie said.
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