Since the United States and the United Kingdom announced they will help Australia acquire nuclear submarines last year, their alleged "security" cooperation under the AUKUS framework has triggered international concerns over nuclear proliferation.
Conscious of what they are doing, the three countries, all signatory states to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, have jumped the gun by kick-starting their nuclear cooperation before obtaining the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency. They know that what has been done cannot be undone and that if Australia has nuclear-powered submarines it will be a fait accompli.
Although the IAEA said in a report on Friday that it is "satisfied" with AUKUS' level of engagement with it, the fact that the IAEA Board of Governors has decided by consensus to set up a formal agenda item on "Transfer of nuclear materials in the context of AUKUS and its safeguards in all aspects under the NPT" for its quarterly board meeting starting on Monday in Vienna, for the fourth time in a row, drives home the point that there are still questions to be answered.
The report quoted Australia as stating to the IAEA: Australia would be provided with complete, welded power units. These power units are designed so that removal of any nuclear material would be extremely difficult and would render the power unit, and the submarine, inoperable, and that material would also be in a form that cannot be used in nuclear weapons without chemical processing, "requiring facilities that Australia does not have and will not seek".
But is that all that is being delivered? Is the opaque deal purely about nuclear submarines? And why, since it had already struck a deal with France for conventional diesel-powered submarines, did Australia suddenly decide it needed nuclear-powered submarines? What other aspects to the deal are there? Is the US being allowed to base nuclear weapons in Australia? Will the Australian submarines carry US or UK nuclear missiles? The deal is less than transparent.
And the three countries cannot deny that to transport the reactors halfway around the world to the South Pacific, and for Australia to have the nuclear material are at their core a process of nuclear proliferation, nor that Australia having nuclear-powered submarines that are to be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region is acting against the regional consensus that Southeast Asia be a nuclear weapons-free zone.
As predicted, the three countries have chosen to ignore the AUKUS-related discussions at the IAEA board meetings and in relevant intergovernmental processes and tried to set up a separate agenda item on the issue, aiming to create divisions within the agency. Given this, the IAEA must remain neutral and continue to provide the platform for addressing the proliferation risks of AUKUS' move.
The IAEA member states should focus on the illicit transfer of nuclear materials or weapons under the framework of AUKUS, and oppose any attempts by the three countries to hinder the IAEA in the performance of its duties.