China to US: If Australia Can Have Highly-Enriched Uranium, Why Can’t Iran, North Korea?

By Patrick Goodenough | October 1, 2021 | 4:33am EDT
A U.S. Navy Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. (Photo by Christina M.Shaw/AFP via Getty Images)
A U.S. Navy Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. (Photo by Christina M.Shaw/AFP via Getty Images)

( – If the United States and Britain help Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines requiring highly-enriched uranium then how can they oppose Iran or North Korea having HEU, China’s foreign ministry asked on Thursday.

“If Australia, a non-nuclear weapon state [under the Non-Proliferation Treaty], can possess weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium, then for what reason [do] the U.S., the U.K. and Australia oppose DPRK, Iran and other countries in doing the same?” asked ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

“If the U.S. can flagrantly transfer highly sensitive nuclear materials and nuclear technologies to Australia in disregard of international rules and nuclear proliferation risks, then should it immediately stop unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdictions over others including the DPRK and Iran for developing nuclear technologies?” she asked.

The planned submarine initiative is the core of a new three-way, Indo-Pacific-focused security partnership called AUKUS, announced by the three governments on September 15.

The United States has only once before shared nuclear propulsion technology with another country – Britain, more than six decades ago.

Nuclear-powered submarines are able to remain submerged indefinitely and can travel at much higher speeds without running out of fuel, making them more suitable than conventionally-propelled boats for the long distances they would need to travel while patrolling the Indo-Pacific.

“China believes that the nuclear submarine cooperation among the U.S., the U.K. and Australia creates serious nuclear proliferation risks, clearly violates the spirit of the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Hua said.

“It will not only have a far-reaching impact on the international non-proliferation system, but also bring real threats to regional peace and stability.”

China, whose rising military prowess and ambitions are viewed as the main driver behind AUKUS, has been joined by Russia in spearheading criticism of the plans.

During strategic dialogue talks in Geneva between senior U.S. and Russian officials on Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov raised the issue, also citing the non-proliferation goals of the NPT.

He told journalists after the talks that the Russian delegation had directly conveyed Moscow’s concerns about plans to transfer a nuclear propulsion system to Australia, which he said flew in the face of NPT commitments not to shift nuclear materials and activity from peaceful to military spheres.

Ryabkov said Russia intends to take up the matter at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

The NPT recognizes as nuclear-armed states only the five countries that possessed nuclear weapons at the time the treaty was opened for signature in 1968 – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.

Other signatory states are permitted to pursue peaceful nuclear energy programs, under IAEA supervision that entails “safeguards” agreements and requirements to declare all nuclear material in peaceful nuclear activities.

Although the submarines at the center of the AUKUS arrangement would not carry nuclear weapons, their propulsion systems would require HEU. (All U.S. nuclear submarines use HEU, although some French and Chinese nuclear-powered submarine reactors operate on low-enriched uranium.)

At the AUKUS announcement, President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also referred separately to the plans being fully in line with non-proliferation obligations.

In contrast to North Korea and Iran, Australia has what U.S. officials describe as a “longstanding and demonstrated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.”

As the process to help provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines moves forward, the parties have committed to engaging fully with the IAEA.

But China, whose relations with Canberra have soured significantly over the past two years, says Australia could exploit “loopholes” in the non-proliferation regime to build nuclear weapons.

“There are gaps in the IAEA’s safeguards system, which cannot effectively prevent Australia from using relevant nuclear materials to manufacture nuclear weapons,” Hua told reporters at a briefing earlier this week.

She also accused the three Western democracies of “double standards.”

Lobbying counterparts from countries in Southeast Asia against the initiative this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the U.S., Britain and Australia of reviving a “Cold War mentality.”

Wang said AUKUS seeks “to overturn the current status quo and start all over again, with an eye to provoking rivalry among blocs in the region and ushering in geopolitical zero-sum games.”

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