After AUKUS announcement, the US slams shut nuclear propulsion door

The US, like the UK, has operated nuclear submarines for decades and will now assist Australia both acquire and develop nuclear-powered submarines in the years ahead. Credit: US DoD

Washington will not provide its naval nuclear propulsion overseas beyond its commitment to Canberra, following the announcement that it would assist Australia in fielding nuclear-powered submarines.

The US has moved to explicitly state that no further countries will be permitted access to its naval nuclear propulsion technology following the historic agreement with Australia which will see the Royal Australian Navy operate nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) under the AUKUS agreement.


In a recently announced decision, it was revealed that the US would sell up to five of its Virginia-class SSNs to Australia from the start of the 2030s, before Canberra would team with the UK – the third arm of the AUKUS triad – in the development of a new design submarine, dubbed SSN-AUKUS.

The Virginia-class SSNs are powered by the S9G nuclear reactor and can run for more than 30 years without the need for refuelling. Australian naval personnel are already embedded in the US military’s nuclear propulsion school, who will likely be tasked with returning to Australia to train the future generation of sailors who will operate the Virginia-class submarines.

Meanwhile, any UK design for the SSN-AUKUS is likely to utilise the Pressured Water Reactor 3 (PWR3) system, which is being developed for use in the Royal Navy’s future Dreadnought-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Developed by Rolls-Royce in the UK, the PWR3 is an evolution of the PWR2 used on the in-service Astute-class SSNs.

Non-proliferation: “no intention of further sharing”

Speaking at the Washington Foreign Press Center on 15 March, Anthony Wier, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Non-proliferation, said that the sharing of nuclear technology with countries other than those in the AUKUS alliance would not be considered.

“We have been clear from the outset, we have no intention of sharing our naval nuclear technology further,” Wier stated.

Wier was keen to emphasise that the AUKUS deal would not risk the US falling foul of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, a mechanism that prohibits that spread of sharing of military nuclear technology, stating that the Australian submarine would be nuclear-powered, not nuclear armed.

“Australia is a non-nuclear weapons state [and] has made clear it does not seek nuclear weapons,” Wier said, adding that the provision of naval nuclear propulsion technology would occur “within the framework” of the Australian non-proliferation agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The shutting down of any notion of further provision of military nuclear naval propulsion technology in turn reduces the prospects that US allies in the Asia-Pacific region – such as South Korea – could hope to benefit from similar arrangements. South Korea’s advanced naval shipyards are able to produce conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines, but the political classes have long called for the development of an indigenous nuclear propulsion capability.



By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter
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