Josh Wilson’s welcome concern: AUKUS will cost the earthMar 23, 2023
Comment by Hon. Melissa Parke on AUKUS 22 March 2023.
I welcome the speech given by Josh Wilson MP, my successor in the federal seat of Fremantle, in the Australian parliament on 20 March in which he raised concerns regarding the AUKUS agreement. I also welcome the contributions from former Prime Minister Paul Keating last week (15/3) and former Foreign Ministers Bob Carr (17/3) and Gareth Evans in the Guardian (21/3). There ought to be a thorough debate in the parliament and in the community over this ‘deal’ that is set to cost the earth in more ways than one.
First, the agreement impinges on Australian sovereignty – how can it not, when it requires us to be deeply enmeshed with, and dependent upon, the technology and knowhow of the United States and the United Kingdom to design, build and operate the subs for decades into the future, with flow on impacts upon our foreign and defence positions. Considering the past debacles in Vietnam and Iraq that Australia followed the US into, and the current disturbing drum beat to war in the mainstream media, we need to be more conscious than ever to retain our independence and our reason in foreign and defence policy. This includes requiring parliamentary consent before committing the nation to war and careful consideration of the potential consequences of AUKUS-like collaborations.
Second, the opportunity cost in terms of alternative defence options (I leave it to expert others to comment on the usefulness of large long-range subs compared to defence systems closer to Australia), as well as broader community needs regarding health, aged care, disability, housing, education, arts and environmental spending is clear for all to see.
Third, the issue of how to dispose of the high-level radioactive waste from nuclear powered subs is not just another wicked problem to be kicked down the road for future generations to solve. As Josh Wilson pointed out, after 40 years Australia has still not been able to work out how to deal with its low-level radioactive waste. Nor have our partners the US and the UK found a solution for their own high-level radioactive waste. Even as waste, the highly-enriched uranium spent fuel is still highly-enriched, potentially useable for nuclear weapons.
This is highly dangerous material that needs to be safely and securely contained for hundreds of thousands of years to avoid massive environmental contamination. It is grossly irresponsible to proceed further without knowing how the waste will be dealt with.
Fourth, Australia’s strong record on non-proliferation will undoubtedly be compromised by this agreement, which would enable – for the first time – a non nuclear-weapon state to exploit a previously unused safeguards agreement loophole and take large amounts of weapons-grade nuclear material – 20 to 25 nuclear weapons worth per submarine – out of NPT safeguards. While this may not technically be a violation of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it certainly runs contrary to the spirit and purpose of the treaty. Worse, it sets a precedent that will likely be exploited by other non nuclear-weapon nations, such as Iran, to justify producing or receiving such materials. Indonesia submitted a paper to the UN Conference on the NPT last year concerning the proliferation risk posed by the AUKUS arrangement.
Countries such as Brazil and South Korea are pursuing nuclear powered subs using low-enriched uranium (LEU) precisely because of the proliferation risk posed by highly-enriched uranium. Professor Alan J Kuperman of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project has pointed out that the US Congress has been funding a program to develop LEU naval fuel since 2016. France and China already use LEU to power their nuclear-propelled submarines.
Insisting upon LEU naval fuel, particularly for the proposed new SSN-AUKUS subs that are decades away, is something the Australian government can still build into the AUKUS deal to mitigate the proliferation risk. Australia can most convincingly demonstrate its bona fides in this matter – as Labor’s national policy platform commendably commits – by signing and ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.