The surprise new security pact between Australia, Britain, and America (AUKUS) is a geopolitical game changer in part because it starkly features the provision of advanced technology as a critical component of curbing China’s growing global influence.
This approach copies a core of China’s strategy for capturing nations through long-term economic ensnarement and augments it with military and deterrence utility that serves to defend democratic principles and institutions. It, however, is not every democratic nation’s cup of tea.
At the heart of the deal is the creation of an Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet totaling eight or more ships. The subs will not be armed with nuclear weapons.
It’s a shocking development because of the willingness of the U.S. and U.K to share their sensitive naval nuclear technology. Since their 1958 mutual defense agreement, neither country has extended their naval nuclear bubble to other nations. The U.S. is explaining this as a "one-off" submarine deal not the beginning of a new global initiative. But that may not hold.
A clear concern is focused on the various precedents that the AUKUS submarine arrangement will create. The assumption is that the naval reactors will be fueled with nuclear weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium, as that is the fuel for both the U.S. and U.K. subs. Both of those nations are nuclear weapons states and Australia is not.
Australia also does not possess the deep nuclear knowledge and infrastructure of its partner nations, necessitating the rapid development of a robust support system.
The Australian government has made clear that, “responsible nuclear stewardship is fundamental” for the program to move forward and that it will, “maintain our exemplary nuclear non-proliferation credentials [and] engage regularly with international and national nuclear regulators.”
But another precedent to consider is how this new arrangement can impact the process of exporting American and allied nation civil nuclear technologies in support of carbon reduction, energy security, and economic advancement – all important geopolitical concerns.
Just as the U.S. nuclear Navy blazed the path to civilian nuclear power almost 70 years ago, naval nuclear power under AUKUS may create a process that the next-generation of civil nuclear energy can follow.
The decisions on the details of the submarine deal will be worked out over the next 18 months. But the process is already pretty clear – (1) sign up for the technology in advance; (2) develop the governance, training, and infrastructure required to safety and securely operate it; and (3) receive product delivery and likely cooperate with experienced nations on nuclear operations for some period of time.
This is an approach that needs to be considered for the next-generation of civil nuclear energy if the U.S. and its allies want to win the nuclear component of the global clean energy competition. The essence of this export strategy shift has three components.
First, get pre-commitments from embarking nuclear nations to purchase U.S.-qualified small modular or advanced reactors. The U.S. and its allies would provide training, governance, and nuclear infrastructure development and qualified operators for the reactor for the first 10-15 years.
Second, create a sustainable energy archipelago of nations in the developing economy world that are allied with U.S. and allied nuclear technology and values. Match the small reactors with the renewable energy technologies in the country in an integrated package that ensures steady, uninterrupted, diversified clean energy flow.
Third, provide financing that supports vendors and manufacturing scale, offers grants and low-interest loans to importing nations based on economic need and degree of climate change impact, and allows multilateral financial cooperation among key allied supply chain partners and funds for relevant international institutions.
One reason this new export strategy need to be seriously considered is that the upcoming global summit on climate change is likely to fall short of preventing a continually warming planet.
The U.N. has starkly stated that the global temperature will rise by 2.7 degree Celsius even if all current national commitments are kept. India and China have indicated a reluctance to significantly expand their greenhouse gas reduction promises. The expansive green energy package of the Biden administration is in trouble on Capitol Hill.
This climate tightrope is narrowing the room for debate over whether one carbon neutral technology is morally superior to another. This zero-carbon vice grip already has pushed some reluctant industrial nations, including Japan and South Korea, to more fully embrace the clean energy potential of next-generation nuclear energy.
These nations have little political or geographic space for the massive amount of renewable energy required to maintain their economies. They also are looking at the U.K. and what happens to energy prices and economic productivity when dependency on intermittent power sources fail.
These same issues also are going to vex small, developing economy nations in Africa and Asia, which have growing populations, urbanization, and energy demand and which are financially less equipped to be competitive in a carbon-neutral world.
The political, technological, and military challenges from China are driving major democracies to remarkable new thinking, and in the process it is blowing holes in timeworn policy silos.
AUKUS offers a striking combination of the offer of advanced nuclear technology to a relatively inexperienced nation in harness to the objectives of blunting China’s geopolitical aggressiveness and preserving democratic norms. This process will necessitate new nuclear guardrails, but they will be built on the terms of strong non-proliferation nations. This process can provide a template for a global civil nuclear sector that also needs to fend off authoritarian nation control but is still in harness to old policy approaches.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security