WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the global nuclear regulatory agency pledged Wednesday to be “very demanding” in overseeing the United States’ planned transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, amid complaints that the U.S. move could clear the way for bad actors to escape nuclear oversight in the future.
Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, spoke to reporters during a Washington visit. Grossi was also meeting with senior National Security Council officials to discuss matters including the newly announced deal among the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom on nuclear-powered submarines.
President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom announced Monday in San Diego that Australia would purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines from the U.S. to modernize its fleet amid growing concern about China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. It would be the first transfer by a nuclear-weapon state of nuclear-powered submarines to a non-nuclear state.
Nuclear-powered submarines move more quietly and for longer than conventionally powered ones. While strengthening the military position of the U.S. and its allies in that region, the deal has raised concern as the first in the decades-long span of nuclear non-proliferation accords to take advantage of a loophole that allows narrow use of nuclear material outside of set safeguards. Critics express concern that bad actors could use the loophole as cover, pointing to the U.S.-Australia deal as precedent, to divert nuclear material into a weapons program.
China renewed its objections to the deal on Wednesday, accusing the three countries of “coercing” the IAEA into endorsing the arrangement. All member states of the IAEA should work to find a solution to the “safeguards issues” and “maintain international peace and security,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing.
Grossi rejected China’s accusation. “Nobody coerces me. Nobody coerces the IAEA,” he told reporters. AUKUS — the name used by the three-country grouping of the U.S., Australian and the United Kingdom — had “committed to the highest standard of transparency” in the deal, he said.
“We are going to be very demanding on what they are planning to do,” Grossi said. “So the process starts now.”
The architects of nuclear nonproliferation accords left open a loophole for use of nuclear material for some non-explosive military purposes, with nuclear naval propulsion in mind. Prior to withdrawing nuclear material from safeguards for that loophole, states are required to strike a separate agreement with the IAEA.
Biden said Monday, “we have set the highest standards with the IAEA for verification and transparency, and we will honor each of our countries’ international obligations.”
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he had no doubt that Australia would be scrupulous in its management of the nuclear material transferred to it in the deal with the United States. But there was no guarantee other states would be as transparent, he said.
“I do worry that a future state, a nefarious state, may announce that it’s removing nuclear materials and safeguards for naval reactors and then use it to develop nuclear weapons,” Acton said.
U.S. objections in the past helped dissuade Canada when it considered nuclear-powered submarines.
Iran has repeatedly expressed interest to the IAEA in developing nuclear naval propulsion.
Iran’s claims that its fast-accelerating nuclear program is for civilian purposes are widely discounted. U.N. experts say Iran has enriched uranium to 84% purity, just short of weapons grade, though they say Iran is still months away from the ability to build a weapon.
Separately, the IAEA says Iran pledged this month to restore cameras and other monitoring equipment at its nuclear sites and to allow more inspections at a facility where particles of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade were recently detected.
Grossi said Wednesday he was sending a technical team for the work and that the process of stepping up monitoring and inspections would start within days.
Meanwhile, in Australia on Wednesday, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating launched a blistering attack on his nation’s plan to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States, saying “it must be the worst deal in all history.”
Speaking at a National Press Club event in Australia, Keating said the submarines wouldn’t serve a useful military purpose.
“The only way the Chinese could threaten Australia or attack it is on land. That is, they bring an armada of troop ships with a massive army to occupy us,” Keating said. “This is not possible for the Chinese to do.”
He added that Australia would sink any such Chinese armada with planes and missiles.
“The idea that we need American submarines to protect us,” Keating said. “If we buy eight, three are at sea. Three are going to protect us from the might of China. Really? I mean, the rubbish of it. The rubbish.”
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.