“Astonishment and Stupefaction” at $90-Billion Industrial Double-Cross for Australian Submarines

President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian PM Scott Morrison declared Sept. 15 that they would rebrand their military alliance “AUKUS” and then announced that they had wrested from French warship builders the multi-billion dollar contract to build at least eight Australian nuclear-powered submarines following secret negotiations.

The shocking announcement was a sucker punch to France’s submarine industry, cancelling without warning a $90 billion agreement signed in 2016 to build diesel-powered subs for Australia. The head of French military contractor Naval Group, Pierre Eric Pommellet, spoke of “astonishment and stupefaction” at being told the nearly $90 billion dollar submarine contract with Australia was being torn up, the Guardian reported Oct. 7.

Reacting to what appears to be a case of industrial espionage among fierce global rivals — France had reportedly already spent $2 billion on the agreed diesel-powered attack submarines — Paris recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the United States, and its foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the cancellation betrayed “the letter and spirit” of cooperation between France and Australia.

In the face a dozen severe, urgent, and daunting global crises — climate change, increasingly extreme weather events, deforestation, desertification, over-fishing, mass migration, disease control and prevention, and resource depletion among others — Australia’s decision to throw $90 billion into the black hole of uranium fuel handling, nuclear reactor operations, and endless radioactive waste management, when diesel-powered warships are cheaper and safer, could not be more bewildering.

Australia has not built a submarine for 20 years and because of the plan’s immense complexities, supporters admit that its technical hurdles are enormous, and critics say they “could be insurmountable,” the New York Times reported November 9. “I don’t think this is a done deal in any way, shape or form,” Marcus Hellyer, an expert on naval policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Times.

Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said during an Oct. 19 visit to Washington, DC, “To have a nuclear reactor in a submarine in a vessel operating safely is a very difficult thing to do,” alluding to the deadly accident rate among nuclear submarines, the Guardian said.

Grossi said that the onus is on US and the UK to ensure that weapons-grade radioactive material and technology was transferred to Australia in a way that did not risk nuclear weapons proliferation. But such risks can only be exacerbated by Australia’s embrace of military propulsion reactors, because US and UK nuclear submarines run only on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel, and HEU can be made into nuclear weapons. A new low-enriched uranium fuel system must be developed for the Australian subs, or the country will gain access to weapons-grade uranium.

Australia’s decision to promote nuclear militarism — when the country has no nuclear power expertise, no reactor industry or uranium fuel rod program, no radioactive waste control system, and no infrastructure for radiological disaster response — is shockingly counterintuitive.

Andy Stirling, Phil Johnstone in the November 9 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted that building, maintaining, and operating reactor-propelled submarines depends on “expensive access to specific skills, supply chains, regulatory and design capabilities, educational and research institutions, and waste management and security infrastructures.”

“Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” PM Morrison said September 15. But Friends of the Earth Australia’s spokesperson Jim Green told Australian Broadcasting Corp. news that the country’s “nuclear power lobby” had “been quick off the mark,” and was already using the submarine announcement to push for further involvement with the uranium fuel cycle, including nuclear reactors and radioactive waste storage. In the realm of nuclear power and waste generation, all Australia has now are dozens of uranium mines.

“No country in the world has got a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste, and the only repository in the world to dispose of intermediate-level nuclear waste, which is in the United States [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico], was shut for three years from 2014 to 2017 because of a chemical explosion.”

Australia could still reverse its blindingly expensive, dirty, and risk-intensive decision before adding to the naval parade of sunken billions and wasted lives. It should reject this deal with the nuclear devil and refuse to deliberately generate radioactive waste materials that will permanently pollute our shared environment, the oceanic commons.

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.