What is this flaw that worries nuclear control specialists about Australian submarines?

Since last Wednesday, and the announcement by Canberra, Washington and London of the signing of a tripartite alliance treaty and the replacement of the French-made Shortfin Barracuda conventionally powered submarine program by an American or British nuclear attack submarine model, a lot of information, often confusing, emerged in the press about the type of reactor that would be used, and the respect of international legislation by this contract. It seems important to present a clear and understandable vision of the technological solutions and regulations to which reference is often made, so as to understand the challenges of such a decision. In fact, this leads to a cascade of events which, if they were unknown to anyone until now, were still carefully kept under control.

In order to enforce international agreements to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the planet, the supervisory agency, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), must be informed of all movements and storage of materials. enriched fissibles. To this end, it has the capacity, under the aegis of the United Nations, to carry out the necessary verifications in this regard. In fact, States have the legal right to produce or sell enriched fissile material, as long as its use respects pre-established criteria. Thus, from the point of view of international legislation, nothing prevents a State from selling a nuclear-powered submarine to another, including with its loading of nuclear fuel, to the extent that the nuclear propulsion, even if it is for military purposes, is not a nuclear weapon strictly speaking. On the other hand, the State carrying out the transaction must allow verifications concerning the nuclear fuel before delivery as well as at the end of its life, which must then be fully recovered by the seller.

Submarine astute Defense Analyzes | Nuclear weapons | Australia
The Astute-class nuclear attack submarines use a highly enriched uranium reactor, like the US Navy's Virginias.

This is precisely where it is located the flaw that is often discussed. Indeed, when it concerns, as in the case of American, British or Russian nuclear submarines, submersibles using highly enriched nuclear fuel, beyond 20%, this can potentially be used to design a nuclear weapon, without the AIEI having the possibility of highlighting it through its inspection protocol between the time of delivery and recovery of the spent fuel. As said previously, this flaw has been known for a long time, but no consensus could ever be found to remedy it. It is probable that the 5 major nuclear nations of the planet have always wanted to preserve a way out in the event of a rapid deterioration of the international security situation, to, for example, equip allied navies with nuclear submarines, especially when, like the United States or Great Britain, their national industries have long lost the know-how to design and manufacture conventionally powered submarines.


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