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Australian-UK-US nuclear submarine deal exposes civilian-military links via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Andy StirlingPhil Johnstone | November 9, 2021

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In democratic nuclear weapons states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, shared civil-military nuclear industrial bases are largely—albeit indirectly—funded by electricity consumers. Colossal investments in new nuclear power are underwritten by anticipated revenues from future electricity sales. These investments flow through nuclear construction supply chains and outward to support military nuclear activities. In this way, crucial support is given to military infrastructures, outside of defense budgets and off the public books. But as civil nuclear power declines, this massive hidden funding flow may diminish, which presents problems for nuclear submarines whose costs are not only often prohibitive but escalating.

The AUKUS deal makes more sense when viewed in light of this crisis in the US, UK, and French national nuclear submarine industries. Spiralling civil nuclear construction delaystechnological failuresbankruptcies, and fraud exercise little effect on government commitments to civil nuclear power, given pressure to underpin military capability. This is why these governments are failing to recognize the radical technology and market changes that render baseload power, according to industry, “outdated.” This is why policymakers so often neglect renewables and storage options that are outcompeting nuclear power. This is why some argue that nuclear power must persist as a “necessary part of the mix” in nuclear weapons states, despite diverse alternatives offering sufficient volumes of zero carbon power more quickly and cheaply than can nuclear.

Although well documented in the defense policy documents of existing and aspiring nuclear weapons states, these military drivers have been seriously neglected in discussions of energy and climate strategies. Recently however, some countries have begun to acknowledge the strong connections between civil and military nuclear capabilities.

In the United States, for instance, a report led by former energy secretary Ernest Moniz said in 2017 that “a strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements. This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with … commercial nuclear energy.” Since then, multiple high level reports have acknowledged that US military nuclear programs depend on a vibrant civil nuclear sector. The connectivity of the civilian and military nuclear value chain—including shared equipment, services, and human capital—has created a mutually reinforcing feedback loop, wherein a robust civilian nuclear industry supports the nuclear elements of the national security establishment,” according to one study. Civil nuclear activities transfer an effective value of $26.1 billion dollars to the US military nuclear enterprise, according to this study.

In recent years, French press reports have hinted that dwindling civil nuclear power threatens national military nuclear capabilities. President Macron confirmed this when he said that “without civil nuclear power, there can be no military nuclear power.” Military drivers of civil nuclear activities are also acknowledged in more authoritarian nuclear states like Russia and China.

Australia possesses some of the most abundant and competitive renewable energy resources in the world. Yet the Australian nuclear lobby argues that acquiring military nuclear technology will benefit the claimed imperative to establish a civil nuclear industry. Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted that he is not pushing for a civil nuclear power program, but other prominent voices disagree. Referring to submarine-derived small modular reactors, Australian politician and UK trade advisor Tony Abbott said that “if nuclear power is ok at sea, pretty soon it will be ok on land, too.” The Minerals Council for Australia claims that acquiring military nuclear technology is an “incredible opportunity” because it “connect[s] [Australia]… to the growing global nuclear power industry and its supply chains.”

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