IAEA chief: Aukus could set precedent for pursuit of nuclear submarines

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The head of the UN nuclear watchdog said other states could follow Australia’s lead and seek to build nuclear-powered submarines, raising serious proliferation concerns and of a legal nature.

Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said during a visit to Washington that he had sent a task force to examine the security and legal implications of the partnership. Aukus announced last month, in which the US and UK will help Australia build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

If the plan is implemented, it would be the first time a non-nuclear-weapon state has acquired nuclear-powered submarines. It reflects a gray area in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows the removal of fissile material from IAEA safeguards for such purposes.

Procedures by which the agency would ensure that fuel, out of agency oversight, is not diverted to manufacture nuclear weapons have yet to be worked out.

“We have to have specific agreements to make sure that whatever they receive in terms of technology or material is subject to guarantees,” Grossi told reporters on Tuesday.

“There must 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 ruled out” that other countries use the Aukus precedent to pursue their own nuclear submarine plans.

Canada and South Korea have both considered building nuclear-powered submarines, which can stay underwater longer and are quieter than their conventional counterparts. Brazil also has an ongoing nuclear submarine project.

Grossi noted that Iran informed the IAEA in 2018 of its intention to launch a naval nuclear propulsion program. In a letter to the agency, the Iranian government said that during the first five years of the project, no nuclear facilities would be involved.

In meetings in New York at the UN general assembly last month, Iranian officials stressed that the Aukus deal was a precedent for advancing the country’s own nuclear submarine projects.

Grossi said a limiting factor for other countries seeking to emulate Australia was the technical challenges of building a nuclear-powered submarine.

“Having a nuclear reactor in a submarine in a safe operating ship is a very difficult thing to do,” he said.

The IAEA director general said it was the responsibility of the United States and the United Kingdom in the Aukus agreement to ensure that nuclear material and technology was transferred to Australia in a manner that does not increase the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. He said the issue was raised during his talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington this week.

“I think he’s fully aware of the implications, and we’re going to have a commitment, a formal commitment, soon in a tripartite way or whatever,” Grossi said. “I have already set up a taskforce within the inspectorate, made up of very experienced safeguards inspectors and lawyers to look into this issue. “

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