AUKUS and the nuclear subs: delayed, dirty and dangerous

The AUKUS military pact is burning huge sums of money and has the potential to make Australia a global destination for nuclear waste, as well as accelerating the drive to war between China and the US.

This March marked one year since the announcement of the extraordinary $368 billion price tag attached to the AUKUS nuclear submarines.

But in the days leading up to the anniversary the Pentagon’s new Defence Budget revealed massive construction delays. It has halved next year’s planned procurement of Virginia-class nuclear-powered boats, producing just one in 2025, rather than two.

Under existing plans the US said they would deliver Virginia-class subs from its existing fleet to Australia in 2032 and 2035 and a newly built third submarine in 2038. But the sale to Australia hinges on the ability of the US to meet its own requirements.

Construction problems mean it has been building only 1.3 submarines per year. This needs to increase to 2.3 annually for there to be enough submarines available.

US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has unmasked the aggressive intent of the submarines, highlighting that they are designed to bomb China and to, “deliver conventional ordnance from long distances… including in cross-strait circumstances” around Taiwan.

The real danger from another Donald Trump presidency is not that he would ditch AUKUS but that he would adopt even more aggressive actions against China.

But none of this is shaking the Albanese government’s commitment to AUKUS. Instead it is dumping billions into the stressed submarine industrial base in the US and UK. Australia has agreed to invest $3 billion in US shipyards and will give Britain $3.1 billion toward designing AUKUS subs and expanding a Rolls-Royce plant that builds nuclear reactors for submarines.

AUKUS will continue to rip money away from schools, hospitals and cost-of-living relief, shovelling it into the pockets of arms manufacturers like BAE Systems who won the contract to build the SSN AUKUS subs.

Nuclear nightmare

New “nuclear safety” legislation tabled in parliament has further highlighted the nuclear waste nightmare that will accompany the AUKUS subs.

Under the AUKUS pact Australia has committed to disposing of all high-level waste from its planned fleet of nuclear subs.

When a submarine is decommissioned highly radioactive spent fuel the size of a small hatchback has to be stored in a special facility, isolated from the environment for at least 100,000 years.

Richard Marles has not said where exactly this waste will be stored, except that it will be in a yet-to-be built facility on “current or future” Defence land. This almost certainly means trying to bulldoze Indigenous opposition to waste dumps on country.

But even worse, the new safety legislation opens the door to Australia being a destination for high-level nuclear waste from other AUKUS countries.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Dave Sweeney told a senate enquiry that the bill could open “a poison portal to international waste”. The legislation opens the way for facilities “managing, storing or disposing of radioactive waste from an AUKUS submarine”.

But an “AUKUS submarine” is defined in the legislation as either an Australian or a UK/US submarine, and, “Includes such a submarine that is not complete (for example, because it is being constructed or disposed of).”

Under the legislation Australia could become a destination for nuclear waste from the US and UK which both currently have no permanent disposal solution for the high-level nuclear waste from their submarine fleets.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has protested that Australia will not accept high-level waste from other countries. But his government has already committed to accepting “low-level” radioactive waste from US and UK nuclear subs that rotate through Australian ports.

Japan joins AUKUS

AUKUS continues to accelerate the drive to war in our region. In an announcement this month it has been revealed that Japan will join the “second pillar” of AUKUS focused on technology sharing.

Anthony Albanese described this escalation of the effort to encircle China as a “natural evolution” of AUKUS.

The trajectory in the region is incredibly dangerous. At the end of 2022 Japan announced it would begin its biggest military build-up since the Second World War, with a $320 billion plan that would see it acquire missiles capable of hitting China.

The genocide in Gaza has exposed the sham of the “rules based order” that AUKUS was supposedly set up to defend against China. The US, UK and Australia are central supporters of Israel’s genocide.

This, along with the huge cost of AUKUS, the danger it is creating in our region and the nuclear waste nightmare it will unleash are all reasons to build a movement that can tear up the AUKUS agreement and smash imperialism in our region.

By Adam Adelpour


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