Australia urged to prove it is a safe nuclear custodian as Aukus comes under scrutiny at UN

Australia needs to step up in the fight to stop nuclear conflict, and to prove to the world it is a safe nuclear custodian, a new report argues.

The report by the Australia Institute comes ahead of a major global conference that starts on Monday in New York, where Australia’s Aukus submarine deal will come under scrutiny.

The report argues it is time to revive the UN non-proliferation treaty, which was struck after the Cuban missile crisis and in the midst of the cold war, and aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and to achieve complete disarmament.

Allan Behm, the Australia Institute’s director of international and security affairs, said the treaty was “in trouble”. It was not just the “nuclear pariah states” and the nuclear threats from theRussian president, Vladimir Putin, in the context of the war in Ukraine, he said, but also the threat of a domino effect if the mainstream nuclear powers see no option but to follow other countries in nuclear expansion.

Australia should “play a truly constructive role in highly uncertain times”, Behm argued, and work with other countries on “verifiable disarmament”.

Separately, the UN has set up a taskforce to ensure Australia’s plan to buy nuclear powered submarines from either the US or the UK will not breach the treaty.

Aukus was formed in part to counter China’s rise in the region, and China has been fiercely critical of it. Now, two thinktanks linked to the Chinese government have accused Australia of harbouring a desire for nuclear weapons, and declared Aukus will trigger a nuclear arms race and violate the treaty because it will likely use weapons-grade uranium to power the boats.

A Dangerous Conspiracy: The nuclear proliferation risk of the nuclear-powered submarines collaboration in the context of Aukus was released by the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and the China Institute of Nuclear Industry Strategy.

“The Aukus nuclear-powered submarines collaboration is a serious violation of the object and purpose of the NPT, sets a dangerous precedent for the illegal transfer of weapons-grade nuclear materials from nuclear-weapon states to a non-nuclear-weapon state, and thus constitutes a blatant act of nuclear proliferation,” the report states.

China will attend the UN’s Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons alongside a 16-strong Australian delegation.

In disrupted times, with the treaty under pressure, a shoring up of the rules-based order is needed to avoid chaos, Behm said.

“This is nowhere truer than in the domain of nuclear arms control and disarmament, where the existential threat of humanity’s nuclear annihilation runs in parallel with the threats from global warming and pandemics,” he said.

“And in the case of nuclear disarmament and global warming, the major treaty that underpins global efforts has been undermined by the constant shift of the ‘middle ground’ away from high aspiration towards the lowest common denominator as key players erode the substance of earlier agreements.”

Australia is a non-nuclear state, but will acquire a fleet of submarines with nuclear reactors on board. The very nature of a reactor on a military vehicle makes it harder to monitor. The monitoring of all nuclear assets is critical to ensure enriched uranium is not diverted to weapons manufacturing.

If Australia gets the green light, other nations could use that precedent to argue for their own hard-to-monitor nuclear reactors (Iran already has).

This is why Australia’s handling of the situation will have to be “impeccable”, Behm said.

Australia has to let its diplomats function effectively and set policy targets to “regain the momentum on arms control and disarmament diplomacy that Australia displayed in previous decades”, he said.

“If it proceeds, Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the auspices of the [Aukus] will require impeccable non-proliferation credentials on Australia’s part.”

Australia can help work towards disarmament via the comprehensive test ban treaty (which bans all nuclear weapons testing), a fissile material cut-off treaty (to reduce national stockpiles of enriched uranium or plutonium), a no first use declaration (don’t be first to pull the trigger) and negotiations to reduce arsenals and delivery systems.

Sixteen Australian officials will take part in the treaty conference, led by the Labor senator Tim Ayres. Australia’s arms control and counter-proliferation ambassador, Ian Biggs, will also be there, and it is understood that the test ban and fissile material treaties will be priorities.

“Australia’s delegation to the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will work over the four weeks of the meeting to address pressing nuclear proliferation challenges and advocate for practical steps towards nuclear disarmament,” a spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.