In an interview on his return from Washington, Defence Minister Richard Marles details how non-proliferation is an essential condition of the trilateral agreement on nuclear-powered submarines. By Karen Middleton.
Exclusive: Richard Marles on AUKUS nuclear safeguards
When Defence Minister Richard Marles met International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi in Canberra this month, he told a story about the prime minister and the atomic bomb.
More precisely, it was about Anthony Albanese’s mentor and father figure, the late Whitlam and Hawke government minister Tom Uren, who was a prisoner of war in Japan at the end of World War II and watched the sky turn crimson the day Nagasaki was bombed.
The story of Uren’s subsequent devotion to the anti-nuclear movement, and Albanese’s ongoing devotion to Uren’s legacy, was more than just a meander through history. It was told to illustrate the depth of determination within the new Labor government – especially at the top – that the plan it has inherited from its Coalition predecessors to acquire nuclear-powered submarines must not undermine efforts to stop nuclear weapons proliferation.
“Non-proliferation was a condition of our support for AUKUS from the outset, when we were in opposition,” Marles says in an interview with The Saturday Paper, on his return from Washington, DC, this week.
While there, he discussed progress on the trilateral nuclear technology transfer agreement between Australia, Britain and the United States.
Whether on the global or domestic political stage, neither government can afford to do anything that might see Australia’s arrangement for acquiring vessels powered by enriched uranium become a precedent for countries inclined to divert it into weapons manufacturing.
The first non-nuclear country to seek nuclear-powered submarines, Australia will be required to sign a special International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement. The document is likely to run to hundreds of pages, specifying in minute detail how the material will be handled – accounting for every gram – and with the tightest restrictions on its use. Amid some concern among international law specialists about exploiting existing treaty language around “peaceful use”, the wording will be designed to leave no wiggle room for more malign countries wanting to follow suit.
The greatest potential legal obstacles lie in the fact that the nuclear material is for use on a military platform. Australia’s lack of a nuclear power industry could be a reassurance, reducing the risk. Every aspect of the use and management of the enriched uranium – including in the event of an emergency – will need to be codified.
Marles says Labor’s party room will demand further assurances before consenting to move to the agreement’s next stage, which will involve the choice of future submarine design and how to resolve any capability gap in the meantime. He is confident the concerns can be addressed.
“I think there is a widely felt understanding of the need for the capability,” Marles says of his Labor colleagues. “But non-proliferation is a core tenet of the Labor Party and I think the party room will rightly hold the government to the highest standard on non-proliferation issues. And that’s as it should be.”
Navigating the non-proliferation safeguards with the IAEA is just one of the challenges for the new government in seeking to enact the monumental security agreement it has inherited.
Marles will not say if a Labor government would have taken the same decision as then prime minister Scott Morrison and his Defence minister Peter Dutton to dump the multibillion-dollar French contract for conventional submarines and switch to an American or British nuclear-powered option instead.
“We have been very critical of the former government and its handling of the relationship with the French,” Marles says instead, noting that repairing it has been a priority.
“We have been supportive of the AUKUS agreement when it was announced, and we are supportive now.”
It’s clear that it wouldn’t have happened the same way, not least because of Labor’s volatile internal politics around nuclear energy.
In senior levels of the new government, there is a view that this is part of what motivated Morrison in pushing for the nuclear option to be sealed and announced with such haste. Some are convinced he believed it would wedge Labor on nuclear energy, an intergenerationally contentious issue within the party and particularly in Albanese’s Left faction.
Faced with this potentially divisive issue as AUKUS emerged in September last year, Albanese and his colleagues set about convincing their party room not to take the bait. The Labor leadership insisted that supporting AUKUS would not undermine obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) or the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. The issue was settled within 24 hours.
But in Labor’s upper ranks, suspicion about Morrison’s motivation raised further questions about the then prime minister’s attitude to national security.
Now in government, Labor is focused on bringing the wickedly complex submarine acquisition to completion and ensuring national security is not compromised any further along the way.
There’s a high pile of issues to be resolved before Australia has nuclear-powered submarines in the water. With the contract to buy up to 12 Attack-class submarines from France now scrapped in favour of the AUKUS agreement, the government has to decide whether to opt for the American Virginia-class boat or the British Astute-class alternative. While it hopes to get the first of whichever it chooses by the late 2030s, Marles has warned it could be the early 2040s.
That means filling the gap in the meantime.
With the existing six Collins-class submarines already extended from their initial retirement date of 2026 into the 2030s, there is a growing view in government that they will have to be extended again. What else may be required – in the form of some other possible stopgap purchase – is still unclear.
In an apparent bid to force Marles to clarify options, Peter Dutton wrote last month that he had planned to buy two American submarines to plug the capability gap. He said he had “formed a judgment that the Americans would have facilitated exactly that”.
The Saturday Paper understands that Dutton’s public commentary angered Britain, because of its presumption that Australia would choose the American option.
The US had already been unimpressed at the way the cancellation of the French contract had been handled. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, accused Morrison of lying.
Dutton and Morrison argued at the time that persistent delays in the French contract meant an alternative had to be found and defended as essential to the secrecy around the decision.
Just back from US consultations, Marles dismisses outright Dutton’s assertion about planning to buy two early American boats.
“Peter Dutton’s comments are not consistent with any briefing I’ve had since becoming minister,” Marles says. “And once again, this is the Coalition intent on playing politics with national security. The reality here is the former government, having wasted the better part of nine years in developing a future submarine, have given rise to a really difficult situation.”
On how to ensure Australia is not left short, he says the government is “going to work overtime to plug any capability gap that arises”.
“I think there is goodwill in America to help with that,” he says, without elaboration.
Beyond that, there are expensive decisions to be made with enormous consequences for Australia’s security.
By March next year, Marles wants to be able to announce which submarine he has chosen and when the first one will be in the water, quantify the capability gap and explain how it will be filled, outline the cost, describe industry arrangements for construction and detail the undertakings to be given to the IAEA to meet non-proliferation obligations. All this in the next eight months.
He has also vowed to produce a new force posture review in the wake of the 2020 Defence strategic update, which raised fresh questions about the strategic landscape in the region. The review will be designed to answer them, detailing what is required to respond.
Delivering submarines makes AUKUS central to that. There is much debate on what else the agreement is meant to be and whether it makes Australia more or less dependent on the US.
In the AUKUS paperwork that has gone before the parliament so far, the submarine deal is described as its “first initiative”.
“AUKUS is about much more than submarines,” says Asia Society Australia executive director Richard Maude, who was foreign policy and security adviser to prime minister Julia Gillard and chief author of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
“AUKUS is a central platform for more co-operation and sharing of technologies that the Australian Defence Force wants.”
Maude says the issue is the nature of the submarines, not AUKUS. “The risk in AUKUS stems not from the agreement itself but from the decision to jump from a conventional to a nuclear-powered submarine.”
He points to concerning reports from the US that the Virginia-class submarine program’s production time line and costs are blowing out, raising further questions about delivery of an American boat.
“So, it’s not just our capability,” Maude says. “It’s our partner’s capability.”
Australian National University emeritus professor of strategic studies Hugh White argues there are risks in making the AUKUS agreement at all.
In his new Quarterly Essay, Sleepwalk to War – Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America, White warns it takes the alliance too far in the strategic contest with China.
“AUKUS marks the point at which Australia’s commitment to support America in a war with China moved from the cautiously worded ambiguities of the ANZUS Treaty to something much simpler and plainer and more automatic,” White writes.
Unveiling AUKUS on September 16 last year, Morrison declared that it represented “forever partnerships”.
In response, White says: “There are no forever partnerships between countries. When the chips are down, allies always do what is in their interests and that changes with circumstances.”
His ANU colleague, professor of security and intelligence studies John Blaxland, agrees that AUKUS provides more guarantee than ANZUS of the US coming to Australia’s aid. He calls the ANZUS Treaty “an 800-word essay”. But Blaxland, an AUKUS supporter, argues AUKUS is about deterrence.
“The critics would say it’s all about supporting [the US] in Taiwan,” Blaxland says. “But that is missing the point. It is about not getting to the point of having to support them in Taiwan … It’s about avoiding us getting to the point where that is the predicament we face.”
Defence Minister Richard Marles downplays any broader binding role for AUKUS.
“AUKUS is not a security alliance. That’s not what it is,” he says. “Sharing capability and building technology – it doesn’t seek to be any more than that.”
Asked if it will mean an expansion of the US bases at Pine Gap or North West Cape, he would not comment.
“AUKUS is an agreement which stands on its own terms and will be pursued on its own terms,” he says. “And everything this government does, it will do from the perspective of Australia’s national interest and its national sovereignty.”
At the top of the decision pile for the “first initiative” is which submarine to buy. Neither the British nor the American version is exactly the right fit in size, crewing requirements or capability.
Whichever way they turn, the cost is horrendous at a time when the nation is a trillion dollars in debt.
From Australia’s point of view, a key benefit of the two options is that neither boat needs to be refuelled. Each comes with a ready-made, sealed nuclear reactor designed to last for the life of the vessel. This means that while Australia will need to upgrade its arrangements for managing a nuclear emergency – no small thing, given these are designed to be engaged in warfare and will be targets for attack – Australia does not need to develop its own nuclear enrichment processes or otherwise handle the nuclear material directly at all.
Had the previous government stuck with the French-designed Attack-class and reverted to its original nuclear-powered design, the boats would have had to be refuelled in Australia. That would open a whole other world of political, diplomatic and industrial problems.
Diplomatic challenges already exist without that.
All of Albanese’s early trips abroad featured mentions of AUKUS to a large or small degree. The entire trip to Paris was about repairing relations with France in the wake of the disastrous contract cancellation.
In Jakarta, there were assurances about respect, in the wake of Indonesian anger that it was not given an AUKUS heads-up. When AUKUS was announced last year, Indonesia said it intended at the next NPT review conference to seek to address what it calls the treaty’s “loophole” that would allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Dealing with nuclear weapons, proliferation and “peaceful use”, the NPT does not specifically go to the issue of nuclear-powered vessels. Rescheduled from January, the conference is in the US next month.
The new government has also had to reassure the nations of the Pacific.
At the recent Pacific Islands Forum, secretary-general Henry Puna, from Cook Islands, presented a report on the South Pacific nuclear treaty, known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, and “other nuclear issues”. The Saturday Paper asked the forum secretariat this week for a copy of the report but did not receive a response before time of press.
Ahead of the forum – and after a visit from Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong – Samoan Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa voiced the concerns of some Pacific countries that they were not consulted on AUKUS.
Dr Tess Newton Cain, project leader of the Pacific hub at Griffith University, says there is some unhappiness about a US pattern of using Australia as a diplomatic and defence conduit instead of approaching Pacific nations directly.
“Some of this reflects a belief in the US administration and the US policy community that a good way of understanding the Pacific is to listen to Australia and New Zealand,” Cain says. “From the Pacific side of things, that’s not necessarily how people would see it.”
Overlaying that, Pacific nations have a heightened sensitivity to nuclear matters. Having been the unhappy historical hosts of nuclear testing, they’ve had their own experience with the mushroom cloud.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Exclusive: Marles on AUKUS nuclear safeguards".
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