Australian news, and some related international items

Australian Conservation Foundation comments to Parliamentary Committee on nuclear submarine agreement.

Australian Conservation Foundation comment on the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties review of the Agreement between the Government of Australia, the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Government of the United States of America for the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information (ENNPIA)

November 2021

  • Unreasonable time frame

ACF maintains that the focus of the proposed Treaty action – the planned acquisition of nuclear powered submarines – has profound security, diplomatic, environmental and economic implications. The plan has been described by the RAN’s Head of Navy as one that “will shape the direction of our navy forevermore, and will no doubt change the shape of our nation”.

In this context the scarcity of time given to the consideration of this proposed action is neither justified nor acceptable.

To provide less than one working week for invited comment is not consistent with the credible and comprehensive consideration of the many and complex issues.

This truncated approach undermines community confidence and procedural credibility. There is a risk JSCOT be perceived not as a respected and effective review mechanism, but rather an eviscerated rubber stamp.

ACF seeks to formally record our concern and disappointment that the first piece of policy architecture being used to advance such a significant change has been approached in this fashion.

If part of the rationale for the planned action is to ensure “Australia is a responsible and reliable steward of this technology” this cavalier approach is a counter-productive one.

  • Limited consultation

The consultation process for the proposed Treaty action mirrors the compressed timeline as it both unnecessarily restrictive and limited.

Only federal government agencies – DFAT, PMC and AGs – were consulted.

There has been no consultation with wider nuclear related agencies including the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency or any environmental experts.

State governments and state agencies were not consulted, despite these jurisdictions being the host sites for activities directly related to the Treaty action.

The comment that no public consultation was undertaken “as the ENNPIA relates to national security and operational capability matters” ignores the fact that there is a legitimate and high level of community interest and concern with the wider AUKUS proposal and further undermines community confidence in these politicised decision making processes.

In light of this, ACF would welcome clarification through the JSCOT review of the nature of the proposed “18 month consultation period” Who is going to be consulted? Will there be a public or wider stakeholder aspect to these consultations? Are they genuine consultations or top-down information updates?

ACF also notes that the NIA (in particular NIA point 5) contains assumptions on the benefits of nuclear submarines that underpin the wider AUKUS plan that have not been openly tested. The clear focus of this process is to advance a pathway to operationalise a decision that has already been made, rather than have an open examination of the issues to inform evidence-based decision making.

  • Non-proliferation concerns

Should AUKUS be advanced, Australia would be the only non Nuclear Weapon State to have nuclear powered submarines. This unhelpful exercise in Australian exceptionalism and the proposed use of weapons grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) has clear proliferation sensitivities and has understandably been the focus of deep concern from nations in the region.

This has also attracted attention and concern from the International Atomic Energy Agency which has stated that “with Australia, with the United States and with the United Kingdom, we have to enter into a very complex, technical negotiation to see to it that as a result of this there is no weakening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

The current approach to fast-track this Treaty action utterly fails to recognise or reflect the complexity and significance of the non-proliferation concerns related to the AUKUS plan.

The proposed use of a designated non-explosive military use, facilitated by direct military transfer, in order to place weapons grade HEU outside of IAEA safeguards is a disturbing development that could increase pressure on the already strained global non-proliferation framework. It raises the likelihood of other nations seeking similar exceptions and HEU safeguard exemptions.

ACF notes and welcomes that the “ENNPIA does not authorise and will not support the sharing or transfer of any information related to nuclear weapons”. ACF further notes that a comparable commitment that AUKUS does not involve nuclear weapons was made by the Prime Minister when the plan was announced in mid-September.

This pivotal commitment needs to be given a firmer basis than a political assurance. ACF has called on the PM and federal government to send an unequivocal signal that Australia will not countenance or consider nuclear weapons by moving to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

  • Nuclearisation by stealth

ACF has previously expressed concern that the AUKUS nuclear submarine plan could lead to increased pressure for a domestic nuclear industry: and

ACF notes and welcomes that both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader have explicitly ruled out a domestic nuclear power industry and stated that the AUKUS plan is not a forerunner to any such activity.

ACF notes that the NIA (12) limits the scope of the planned action to naval nuclear propulsion and states that the ENNPIA “does not support the transfer of any equipment or technology, nor does it support the sharing or transfer of any information on civil nuclear matters”. This is a welcome but insufficient specification.

Since the mid-September AUKUS announcement a range of voices, including within the federal government, have made calls for Australia to embrace domestic nuclear power. The Prime Minister needs to act decisively to give effect to his clear statements that AUKUS is not linked to and will not propel any domestic nuclear industry by explicitly referencing and re-affirming the two key legislative prohibitions on nuclear power in the EPBC and ARPANS Acts.

ACF notes with concern the potential for opaque expansion of the proposed Treaty action, including in Article 2 which states that parties will “provide support to facilitate such communication or exchange, to the extent and by such means as may be mutually agreed”.

This provides considerable latitude and given the AUKUS process to date has been characterised by surprise announcements, non-inclusion and fast-tracking there is no basis for community confidence that mutual agreement might see an expanded set of activities. Could UK or US nuclear submarines be hosted routinely or permanently in Australia as part of this critical skills and information exchange?

In a similar vein, the approach taken with this ENNIPA process reinforces community unease over the nature and speed of AUKUS related decision making and the risk that this approach will become the standard. In relation to further Treaty actions ACF notes that the “agreement can be changed subject to all party agreement and subject to Australia’s domestic treaty-making requirements”. Given the current truncated approach there is no assurance in this statement and no confidence that any future changes will be openly and robustly scrutinised.

  • Recommendations:
  • JSCOT not recommend advancing the current Treaty in the absence of sufficient time to credibly review key aspects of the proposed action, especially in relation to the “very complex, technical negotiation” needed to ensure there is no weakening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
  • JSCOT recommends Australia sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) both as a regional assurance mechanism and to give effect to PM Morrison’s clear statements that AUKUS is not related to any Australian ambition to acquire a nuclear weapons capability
  • That greater detail on the proposed AUKUS submarine plan be presented to the Australian Parliament and people, including but not limited to issues around cost, rationale, the 18 month “consultation” process and emergency and waste management concerns.
  • That the Prime Minister give effect to his repeated commitment that naval nuclear propulsion will not lead to increased moves for an Australian nuclear power industry by explicitly referencing and re-affirming the two key legislative prohibitions on domestic nuclear power in the EPBC and ARPANS Acts.

To discuss or clarify any aspect of this submission please contact Dave Sweeney, ACF nuclear policy analyst via or 0408 317 812

November 27, 2021 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, politics international, weapons and war

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: