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“As long as any state has nuclear weapons, there will be others, state or sub-state actors, who will seek to acquire them.” — Canberra Commission final report, August 1996, p. 58.

The advent of nuclear weapons in 1945 changed the landscape of international relations to a great extent. The development of the atomic bomb is considered as a revolutionary occurrence.. Presently, there are nine nuclear states. All these states in many ways are considered powerful. States having these weapons enjoy advantages in international politics They are  beneficial for political purposes. However, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki show weapons of mass destruction have massively risked the safety of the world.

History of non-proliferation

Many non-nuclear states have tried to acquire these weapons over the last seven decades. Nuclear terrorism, soon after USSR’s disintegration was also introduced. Work on non-proliferation had started in early 1950s under the leadership of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Soon after this International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog was formed. In 1968, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into being to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Presently 191 countries have pledged adherence to it. The unique nature of the agreement makes it significant.

Five decades of history does not present a perfect record as many countries have cheated and backed down from the provisions. They have covertly pursued their nuclear ambitions. When caught some weak states have paid the heavy price of the biased nature of international politics. Some have been let loose and allowed- the stronger ones – Israel in case. The rule makers of the world order have used this treaty to provide legitimacy to measure the criteria of non-proliferation and actions to enforce it according to their norms.


AUKUS, a trilateral strategic partnership poses a threat to NPT. The deal unveiled by the Biden administration on 15 September, 2021 is a security alliance between Australia, UK and USA. It will provide Australia with nuclear propelled conventionally-armed submarines. The pact also includes the joint working in the Indo-Pacific region to contain the rise of China, US and UK’s approach shows that it wants to expand its Asian security presence.  It will enable countries to share advanced defense technologies and information in various areas like cyber, quantum, naval and artificial intelligence[1].

Significance of AUKUS

The deal is of momentous importance due to numerous reasons but at the heart of it lies the nuclear-powered submarines. Australia, a non-nuclear state( NNWS) will be provided with at least 8 nuclear powered submarines that will be operated by the usage of Highly Enriched Uranium(HEU).

The Indo-Pacific version of NATO highlights the Anglo- Saxon ancestry. Strategically, the geopolitical shift from North Atlantic to Pacific shows the strong commitment of US and UK to have a free and inclusive access to the Indian Ocean.

Nuclear submarines have enormous “deterrent capabilities” and therefore ramifications in the region.[2] There are only six countries in the world with nuclear-powered submarines that are US, UK, China, Russia, India and France.  Many countries in the past have tried to build their nuclear propulsion technology but failed.

This is also the first time US is sharing nuclear technology with another foreign country since the 1958 mutual defense agreement with Britain and since NPT came into force in 1970.

Benefits of Nuclear Submarines

The nuclear submarines are the most dangerous and revolutionary underwater weapons that provide a range of operational benefits. They are absolute assets for a country. Biggest advantage of nuclear-powered submarines is their endurance to stay submerged underwater for indefinite periods of time. Their fuel can last for several months with resurfacing for food or crew requirements only. The nuclear reactor enables them to move by generating high amount of power that propels them at a speed faster with relatively little noise made. This provides major advantage in stealth attack and detection. They have a cruising speed is 38-47 kmph. On the other hand, the diesel-powered electric motor submarines have to regularly resurface to charge their batteries and to take oxygen which makes it easier for them to be spotted. The diesel electric submarines which are smaller in size have a cruising speed of 10-27 kmph and cheaper to run and maintain.[3]

The features of nuclear submarines are highly appealing but such technology is complex to develop. They are very expensive and require  more specialist workforce for the whole procedure of constructing them.  High output of energy is necessary in a limited area under challenging circumstances at sea. So, countries possessing nuclear propelled technology function using weapons-grade HEU for provision of sufficient energy.


US and UK use HEU up to 93-97 percent in their naval reactors. Utilising above 90 percent[4] of it, comes under ‘weapons-grade’ category which is potentially dangerous. Nuclear powered is not synonymous with nuclear warheads. Nonetheless, the sensitivity of the technology can’t be ignored as it has the potential to fall in the wrong hands with the usage of a high percentage of enriched uranium in its reactors. They are termed by many as “floating Chernobyl’s[5].” The naval propeller reactors have been criticised as a flaw in NPT and IAEA. This is because the materials of them could be exploited by the wrong people. The components could be used by non-nuclear states for their weapons productions. The military deal may spark regional arms race of nuclear naval propulsion as well. NNWS may set Australia’s deal as a precedent for reaping their own strategic interests.

Implications for Australia

Much better performance with greater stealth, speed and range are not overstated but the lethal weapons provide a threat to Australia’s nuclear policy and its nuclear “grand bargain” is questioned as well.

Australia’s history of influence within the nuclear regime is rich and not new. It is world’s largest uranium exporter and has one-third of earth’s uranium. Australia became part of IAEA in 1974 and in 1970s under the leadership of PM Malcom Fraser “Grand bargain” was also established. This enabled the highly uranium enriched country to meet its obligations, part of NPT as a NNWS by restrained nuclear proliferation and only exporting uranium to IAEA safeguards to ensure economic and strategic benefits.


The agreement displays Australia’s closer alliance and more military cooperative integration with the US and UK and its enhanced role in Asian security with respect to the Sino-US cold war.  As for US, this is a win, it allows more American presence in the Indio-Pacific region. The pact symbolizes a shift in the global order. For its protection, conventional submarines would also do good to the country. America’s foreign stature has been to maintain rules-based order and AUKUS seeks that. For UK, this deal relocates post-Brexit universal ambitions of “Global Britain” in the Indo-pacific region that renews its focus there.


The pact will strongly impact China- Australia relationship who have been trade partners. The political relations took a hit recently when Australia backed a global investigation into the origin and sources of the coronavirus and the island nation’s willingness to bar overseas Huawei operations from 5G contracts. China also has recently placed sanctions upon Australian products.  Acquirement of nuclear-fueled submarines changes the power equilibrium in South-China Sea. China has always denounced such alliances as anti-China cliques and a “Cold War mentality”.

Another outcry of disdain was by France. The trilateral partnership has created fissures within Western bloc. Canberra had a $66 billion deal[6] with Paris for conventional submarines, but it pulled out of the agreement. The deal was an important factor for increased influence and involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. The European country has called this as a stab in the back and expressed its rage by calling its ambassadors from Australia and America back home for “consultations”. European Union’s reaction reflects that of France. A rift between Europe and America has more chances of growing deeper.


Adherence to non-proliferation has always been a tricky task for its safeguards and watchdogs. In addition, the prejudiced behaviour of the rule makers of international system have made it more complicated to accomplish it. Naval nuclear propulsion technology has been seen as a loophole to IAEA and NPT. The nuclear-propelled submarines have only been acquired by nuclear states and AUKUS has challenged this with Australia, a non-nuclear state set to become the seventh country to have these lethal weapons. The signatories to the deal have their own interests. Naval reactors though extremely advantageous, pose numerous dangers .

All this illustrates the battered nature of the proliferation regime and poses a threat to the world peace in the long run.

[1] Karbassi, Shayan. “Legal Mechanisms of AUKUS Explained.” Lawfare, 24 Sept. 2021,

[2] Tewari, Suranjana. “Aukus: UK, US and Australia Pact Signals Asia-Pacific Power Shift.”

[3] Mitchell, A. J. “How Nuclear-Powered Submarines Actually Work.” Business Insider, 22.

[4] Zhu, Melissa. “What Is the Aukus Alliance, and What Does It Have to Do with China?” 10 Oct. 2021.

[5] “AUKUS and Australia’s Nuclear Submarines.”

[6] Karbassi, Shayan. “Legal Mechanisms of AUKUS Explained.” Lawfare, 24 Sept. 2021,


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