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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

Aukus ‘expensive’ and not ‘easy to replicate’, Australian officials told foreign diplomats

The national flags of the US, Australia and Great Britain in front of the USS Asheville, a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered submarine.
Aukus is the first time a provision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime has been used to transfer naval nuclear propulsion technology from a nuclear weapons state to a non-weapons state. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Australian officials have told foreign diplomats that the Aukus submarine plan is “expensive” and not “easy to replicate”, as part of an effort to play down concerns about the risks of other countries racing to do the same, a newly released tranche of documents reveals.

Officials also urged diplomats to be on guard for disinformation about the nuclear-powered submarine plan, the documents show.

Briefing notes obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws lay bare the arguments the government is using to defend and explain Aukus to foreign diplomats posted to Canberra.

At briefings held in the capital city in the days after the Aukus announcement in March, Australian officials reiterated that the submarines would not be armed with nuclear weapons.

They said the acquisition was “a sensible response to changing strategic circumstances, and would serve as a deterrent and contribution to regional equilibrium”.

Australia was “genuinely committed to transparency in its pursuit of this endeavour” whereas “others in our region were engaging in a much more rapid scale-up of military capabilities without transparency” – an apparent reference to China.

The documents show 62 embassies or high commissions sent representatives to briefings held by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) where they were able to ask questions about the plan.

“Disinformation was also a key focus of our advocacy, with speakers encouraging those in attendance to engage with counterparts here and with Australian representatives in capitals to ensure the accuracy of information they were receiving,” said an internal note circulated within Dfat.

The document did not specify examples of such disinformation, but the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has previously said some of China’s public statements about Aukus are “not grounded in fact”.

China’s mission to the UN said in March that “two nuclear weapons states who claim to uphold the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard” – the US and the UK – “are transferring tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state”.

The new documents show that many of the answers given by Australian officials at the Aukus briefings aimed to reassure countries about nuclear non-proliferation issues.

The first assistant secretary of Dfat’s Aukus taskforce, Sarah deZoeten, told those in attendance that Australia would retain control of operational waste and spent fuel.

“Spent fuel would not have a chemical composition that could be turned into nuclear weapons without additional chemical processing, which would require facilities that Australia did not have and would not seek,” she said, according to the official notes.

Australia’s ambassador for arms control and counter-proliferation, Ian Biggs, said the government was working with the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Any attempt to build those facilities would be very obvious to the IAEA.”

Aukus is novel because it will be the first time a provision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime has been used to transfer naval nuclear propulsion technology from a nuclear weapons state to a non-weapons state.

But the documents show Biggs rejected concerns there could be a “breakout” of a nuclear weapons capability.

“Regarding proliferation concerns, Biggs noted that Australia’s acquisition of NPS [nuclear-powered submarines] would be difficult and expensive; it would not constitute a ‘breakout’ because this was not a process that would be easy to replicate,” the documents say.

“Australia was committed to setting the highest possible non-proliferation and safety standards, which other states bearing legitimate ambitions to acquire NPS would similarly have to meet,” Biggs was recorded as saying.

Biggs argued these standards “would apply to all states in the region, such that if replicated by others, their acquisition of NPS would not present a non-proliferation concern to us”.

Guardian Australia has previously revealed that a Chinese embassy official asked Australian officials at one of the briefings whether the Aukus submarines were intended for “sightseeing”.

The documents released by Dfat did not include the wording of the questions asked by foreign diplomats at the events, on the grounds that disclosing those details could harm international relations.

But the answers addressed similar themes. In one case, deZoeten replied that “these would be military assets, not civilian – but unlike the NPS being used by others in the region, Australia’s NPS would not carry nuclear weapons”.

Australia plans to buy between three and five Virginia class submarines from the US in the 2030s, before the Adelaide-built “SSN Aukus” – based on a British design – enters into service from the 2040s.

At the briefings, Australian officials said US Congress would need to approve the Virginia class purchase, but the government was “heartened” by the level of bipartisan support.

“Australia would continue to engage with the US on the matter of new versus re-used Virginia class submarines, but in all scenarios these boats would have the highest standards of quality and safety,” deZoeten said.

Australia is expected to buy a mix of new and used Virginia class submarines.

Officials said the submarines would be “under Australia’s complete sovereign control”, an issue that has been a topic of considerable pushback from former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull.

US and UK nationals may join Australian crew on board the new submarines but such a presence would not be a “prerequisite” for operating them, the officials said.

Biggs said Australia’s crews “would have no reason to access the reactor cores” but there would still need to be “maintenance of the reactors throughout the NPS lifecycle … so crew members needed nuclear qualifications to understand what they would be looking after”.

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