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 conventional propulsion submarine program by an American or British nuclear attack submarine model, a lot of information, often confused, has emerged in the press about the type of reactor that would be used, and the respect of international law by this contract. It seems important to present a clear and understandable vision of the technological solutions and regulations to which it is often referred, in order to understand the stakes of such a decision. In fact, this leads to a cascade of events which, if they had not been ignored by anyone until now, were nevertheless carefully kept under control.

In order to enforce international agreements to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the planet, the oversight agency, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), must be informed of all movements and storage of materials. enriched fissures. It therefore 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 fissionable material, as long as its use meets pre-established criteria. Thus, from the point of view of international law, nothing prevents a State from selling a nuclear-powered submarine to another, including with its load of nuclear fuel, to the extent or nuclear propulsion, even if it is for military purposes, is not strictly speaking a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, the State which carries out the transaction must allow verifications concerning the nuclear fuel upstream of delivery as well as at the end of its life, which must then be fully recovered by the seller.

Astute-class nuclear attack submarines employ a highly enriched uranium reactor, like the US Navy Virginia's

This is precisely where it locates the flaw that is often discussed. Indeed, when it is, 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 IAEA having the possibility of highlighting it by its inspection protocol between the moment of delivery and the recovery of the spent fuel. As said before, this flaw was 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 wished to preserve a way out in the event of a rapid deterioration of the international security situation, for, for example, to 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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