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Joint Standing Committee on Treaties
03/12/2021
Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement

BRENNAN, Mr Sam, Communications Coordinator, Independent and Peaceful Australia Network [by audio link]

GREEN, Dr Jim, Private capacity [by audio link]

HANSON, Dr Marianne, Vice-Chair, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons [by audio link]

PEPPER, Ms Mia, Nuclear Free Campaigner, Conservation Council of Western Australia [by audio link]

RAMSDEN, Mr Bevan, Committee Member, Independent and Peaceful Australia Network [by audio link]

WAREHAM, Dr Sue, President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) [by audio link]

[11:19]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, the Conservation Council of Western Australia, and the Medical Association for Prevention of War. Before we continue, does anyone have anything to add about the capacity in which they appear today?

Dr Green : I'm appearing as an adviser to the conservation council.

CHAIR: Thank you to all the witnesses for joining us here today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath I should advise that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I also remind witnesses that there is a hard stop for this hearing at 12 o'clock today.

I now invite brief opening statements before we proceed. I'd like witnesses to keep their opening statements to no more than two minutes. As we don't have the representative from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons on the line yet, I'll go to Mr Brennan or Mr Ramsden from the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.

Mr Ramsden : I'll lead off. I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak at this JSCT hearing. Sam Brennan and I will speak for IPAN, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network. IPAN urges that this exchange agreement, ENNPIA, be rejected and not ratified by the parliament and that the 18-month period for consideration of the path forward in submarine acquisition be honoured to allow adequate democratic debate in the public and parliamentary domains. The Department of Defence's assertion that the signing of the agreement is the start of the 18-month debate doesn't hold water. The signing of the exchange agreement by the defence minister, Peter Dutton, gives a strong signal that the decision to acquire long-distance, nuclear-powered submarines has in fact already been made. Thus, the government's promise of an 18-month period of debate and consideration has become an empty promise, if not a duplicitous one. However, such a debate is vital. It is IPAN's contention that the decision to acquire long-range nuclear-propelled submarines destabilises our region and, under the recently signed AUKUS war pact, this could lead Australia into yet another disastrous war.

IPAN sees the exchange agreement as locking Australia into the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines using highly enriched weapons-grade uranium and as having serious radioactive risks, and that it will require the establishment of a nuclear service industry. This is totally at variance with the deep-seated opposition within the Australian community to nuclear weapons and a nuclear industry. In addition, it is in violation of Australia's commitment to the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty, to which Australia reaffirmed its commitment as recently as 15 December 2020. This treaty provides for the renunciation of nuclear explosive devices and peaceful nuclear activities; the prevention of stationing and testing of nuclear explosive devices; and prevention of dumping of radioactive waste.

Australian governments, and the people, have for many years expressed ambitions for a world free of nuclear weapons. Adherence to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the NPT, has been seen by previous and current governments as a step towards such an ambition. However, much of the NPT has fallen short of such a goal. This exchange agreement takes us much further away from these ambitions and from modern international standards. This has seen the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the TPNW, become law in January 2021, putting in concrete the standard that nuclear weapons are illegal and illegitimate for all states.

The best way forward is for Australia to move in the direction for a world free of nuclear weapons, if we define [inaudible], and then, subsequently, publicly adhering to the TPNW. This exchange agreement will be completely at variance with the spirit of the TPNW.

CHAIR: Mr Ramsden, I'll have to ask you to complete your remarks, please, because I did ask for a statement of no more than a few minutes.

Mr Ramsden : Sure, I'll just complete it now. IPAN strongly supports keeping Australia nuclear-free and, indeed, the Pacific area, of which we are part, also nuclear-free. We urge the signing of the TPNW. In conclusion, and for the reasons given, I reiterate that IPAN urges that this exchange agreement be rejected and not ratified by parliament, and that the 18-month period for the consideration of a pathway forward in submarine acquisition be honoured before such an agreement is considered with adequate discussion in the public and parliamentary domains. IPAN believes—

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Ramsden. You have exhausted your time, I'm afraid. We have other witnesses who also need to speak.

Mr Rams den : Sure.

CHAIR: Dr Green, would you like to go ahead?

Dr Green : Actually, I should invite Mia Pepper to speak first; she's an employee of the Conservation Council of WA.

CHAIR: We'll only have one speaker; it will be one for each organisation and then we'll probably go to questions. Go ahead, Ms Pepper.

Ms Pepper : Thank you. I'm calling from Boorloo, on the land of the Whadjuk Noongar people. I work for the Conservation Council of WA, which is the state peak environment group. I want to briefly outline our concerns with the process and safety and security issues. Others have actually commented on the issues about the process and we would like to echo those, so I won't spend too much time on those.

I would like to recommend that this committee require or recommend that there be a full regulation impact statement, because there are many pieces of Australian, state and territory legislation, as well as international treaties that Australia is a signatory to, for which this agreement has implications. Our organisation thinks it would be irresponsible for this agreement to be approved without a complete understanding of the regulatory impact.

We also echo a lot of what Mr Ramsden just spoke about in terms of process and the implications of this. At the Conservation Council we also have a no-nuclear position. Western Australians have a very proud history of opposition to the nuclear industry, from uranium mining, which is banned in Western Australia, to nuclear power, which is also prohibited in Western Australia. We also have prohibitions on nuclear waste and we have, for a long time—over decades—protested at the docks against nuclear warships and, now, nuclear submarines.

What I'd also recommend the committee consider is the preparedness of states, like Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland, that are likely to host nuclear submarines. Western Australia recently had a visit from a UK Astute class nuclear submarine, and we have a lot of questions about how prepared Western Australians were. We've got questions that we're submitting to state parliament to address some of those, and we recommend that this committee ask some of the same sorts of questions.

I'd like to read part of our WA state hazard plan for visiting nuclear warships. What would our emergency services do? In the case of an emergency:

Police and other emergency service personnel who are required to function in areas classified as risk areas for inhalation or ingestion of radioactive iodine will be issued with stable iodine tablets.

In zones affected by the radioactive plume, or identified contamination, or contaminated persons or equipment, emergency service personnel shall be provided with personal radiation monitors in order to estimate the possible excess dose from gamma shine received during the period of duty. Personal radiation monitoring requirements will be under the control of the SRO—

the State Radiation Officer. That's our emergency response.

If a submarine were to go into meltdown, the procedure would be to tow it out to sea or to an anchor point, and there's no real specification on how far out to sea or where this anchorage point would be. There are so many unknowns and so much uncertainty around what the procedures are and what the response is, for our emergency services and for the public, in case of emergency, and we do not accept this. We do not accept this risk on our shores and we do not accept that it's in Australia's name that this risk will go into our oceans and visit communities around the world.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Pepper. We have with us the Medical Association for Prevention of War. Dr Wareham, have you got an opening statement? I'd ask you to keep it to no longer than two minutes please.

Dr Wareham : Yes. It will have to be curtailed. My first comment is that this process has been pretty deplorable. This is one of the biggest decisions that Australia has made in a long time, and the community has been given literally four days to comment. There has not been much transparency so far.

We're talking about the most dangerous technology and most dangerous material in the world, due to the highly enriched uranium issues, which others have covered. This is nuclear bomb fuel. That's why there have been severe concerns expressed by a number of authorities around the globe, including the Director-General of the IAEA, the former head of verification and security policy at the IAEA, the Arms Control Association, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, former US officials and experts, and many others, yet on Monday virtually all we heard from DFAT in relation to these nuclear weapons proliferation concerns was: 'Trust us. Australia has a good record.' The implication is therefore: what could go wrong? This is really not good enough.

You've heard about the loophole in the NPT safeguards which would be used if Australia were to acquire nuclear submarines, and the concerns in the region. This is really getting into the territory of provoking a nuclear arms race. Will Indonesia try to match Australia's military capacity? Who knows? We don't know.

There are inconsistencies. The national interest analysis that we've read refers to the proposed submarines as 'peaceful nuclear activities' for the purposes of the NPT and the IAEA, yet this is not so. For IAEA purposes, naval nuclear propulsion is a non-explosive military activity, which means that a new agreement with the IAEA would be needed. There are wrong or conflicting claims about other matters too. When asked whether Australia has any plan to domestically enrich uranium as part of AUKUS, DFAT replied on Monday, 'None at all.' Yet the paper entitled Non-paper on nuclear propulsion cooperation under AUKUS—which was presented recently to the IAEA on behalf of Australia, the UK and the US—stated that no decision had been made about the construction of new nuclear facilities. Have such decisions been made or haven't they?

Finally, let's be clear that the proposal for nuclear submarines for Australia, even conventionally armed ones, is all about being an integral part of US nuclear war-fighting plans. The obvious response from China to these plans will be to increase its number of nuclear missiles. Australia is recklessly feeding a nuclear arms race in which there will be no winners. MAPW strongly recommends that this agreement does not proceed, that there be proper consultation with the Australian people, including those we elect to [inaudible] in parliament, and that there be proper debate in our parliament before this proceeds any further. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Wareham. I believe we have someone from ICAN on the call. Would they like to make a brief opening statement? Please keep your opening statement to no more than two minutes.

Dr Hanson : Thank you for enabling us to share our views here today. This is a very important foreign policy and defence issue, yet it is something that has been given very limited attention in terms of its impact at the strategic, political and financial levels. What ICAN would like to stress is that, if this proposal goes ahead, it will pose a substantial threat to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. This treaty is something Australia has upheld. Australia claims to be one of the chief champions of this non-proliferation treaty. The problem with us acquiring this technology and using highly enriched uranium is that it is an unprecedented step. It will not only have reputationally damaging effects for Australia on behalf of our neighbours; it will also set the stage for other states—like Iran, for example—to claim their prerogative to do the same thing.

Our concern is that the framers of this deal have not sufficiently taken into account the repercussions for the nuclear non-proliferation regime in general. There are numerous experts in the field, people from the IAEA and from various think tanks and scientific organisations. Without a doubt, every one of the analyses that I have read talks about the dangerous nature of this—because this does amount to proliferation. We are a state which is not likely to acquire nuclear weapons, and our Prime Minister has said as much. However, the problem is this: if the exception is made for Australia—and it has been made for no other state at all—then other states will ask for the same thing to happen. If Iran or one of numerous other states requires this kind of provision through what seems to be a loophole in the IAEA's processes, this spells disaster for the non-proliferation regime.

I want to quote Daryl Kimball, who is one of the leading non-proliferation specialists in the United States. He says:

Its one thing to do deepen defense cooperation w/ allies, its quite another to proliferate sensitive HEU—

highly enriched uranium—

nuclear propulsion tech in contravention of U.S. and global nonpro principles.

I do think that there has been a sense of complacency about this deal and that the repercussions have really not been thought through at all prior to the grand announcement that was made. This is also going to have significant difficulties—

CHAIR: Dr Hanson, I ask that you conclude your remarks in the next 30 seconds if you could, please, because we have a number of other witnesses, and we want to have time for questions.

Dr Hanson : I will. Thank you. This is also going to present significant difficulties for our relationship with the IAEA. What this amounts to, basically, is Australia thumbing its nose at various rules of organisations like the NPT and the IAEA and then claiming to be upholding a rules based international order. We're in the process of damaging that order. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Hanson. I don't have any particular questions for the witnesses. I would just point out, though, for the benefit of those witnesses that obviously the subject matter of this inquiry and the jurisdiction of the committee are to look at the particular agreement in front of us, which is the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement. I understand that a number of witnesses on the call have expressed concern about or opposition to the decision taken by the government to seek to acquire nuclear powered submarines, but the mandate of the committee is actually to review the agreement in front of us, and the place to express opposition to that decision is probably through other channels.

Mr KHALIL: My questions are specifically in relation to the agreement that is before us. As the chair has noted, this is an inquiry into this particular proposed treaty for exchange of information—NPI, if we can call it that. So I will ask questions related to that, but I do hope, for the record, that, in asking such questions, we won't find ourselves being impugned in parliament at some point about our parliamentary oversight. Parliament has finished, but we had the questions in this committee being highlighted in question time by the minister during the week. So I hope that doesn't happen next year. He might forget, over the summer holidays, about my questions.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I think my question would be most appropriately addressed—although others may want to respond—to the most recent speaker, Dr Hanson. Does IACN have a specific critique of the articles within the proposed treaty before us? Can you specifically point out where these articles may not fit in with existing NPT obligations? This is the key question that we've been looking at on this treaty. Is there a specific article or articles that you could talk about that fit into your point in your opening remarks about this not being within or somehow breaching our existing NPT obligations? If so, what are those articles?

Dr Hanson : Very briefly, one of the things that stands out most clearly is that within the proposed treaty the wording used is that this would be a peaceful use of nuclear energy. But this is not the case., and I believe the MAPW submission has made the same point. Under the IAEA guidelines it is very clear that they are talking about a military use for non-proscribed military purposes, but this is certainly not considered a peaceful use of nuclear energy. That is one of the things that stands out most of all. But there are—

Mr KHA LIL: Sorry—when you say that it's not considered a peaceful use: by whom? What is the legal and settled position on that, and from whom?

Dr Hanson : If you look at the MAPW submission, they spell this out quite clearly. But essentially there is, I believe, an attempt to pass this off as a peaceful use of nuclear energy. That is not the case under the IAEA guidelines.

Mr KHALIL: The IAEA guidelines do refer to non-explosive military use. So, you're questioning the interpretation that this could be considered peaceful use. I presume there's some legal basis for this in respect of the use of the naval propulsion and nuclear propulsion. Part of it obviously is for transportation or movement of the asset or the capability, and therefore it could be argued that that is partly peaceful, because basically it's just an effective movement, if you like, from the propulsion.

Dr Wareham : If you look at paragraph 14 of IAEA information circular No. 153—which is called 'Non-application of safeguards to nuclear material to be used in non-peaceful activities'—the IAEA does not regard naval nuclear propulsion as a peaceful activity. That's fairly clear in what the IAEA states.

Perhaps I could just make a comment, getting back to your statement—which is technically true—that we're only considering a particular agreement here. This gets back to the issue of 'salami slicing', really. We get told, 'No, we're not considering the acquisition of nuclear submarines now; we're only considering the issue of an agreement for the transfer of technology.' But these things take on a life of their own. First there's this agreement, and then that has its momentum, and it leads to something else and then something else. And at no time does anybody seem to step back and look at the whole thing in total, which is the critical part when we're talking about—

Mr KHALIL: I appreciate that point. It's a valid point. I think it's a point about the processes of the parliament and the executive and the interactions therein. Just on this particular agreement, though, you've got the transfer of information; there is no transfer of technology, particularly under this agreement, on the basis of what you just said there. Perhaps I could ask a question in relation to the risk to nonproliferation should Australia invoke article 14 of its safeguards agreement, which is the exemption. Do you have a point about that?

Dr Hanson : Well, the point would be that this has not been granted to a state before. Canada did apply for this kind of exemption some years ago. There are a number of other states—South Korea, and Brazil is also interested in developing this application. It is going to set a precedent, which is going to be very dangerous. The Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA would all need to be convinced, with a very strong argument, that this does not pose a threat to the non-proliferation regime. I don't believe that Australia will be able to make that case convincingly because, as Dr Wareham has just pointed out, material for naval propulsion is not a peaceful application of nuclear energy.

Senator COX: Mr Brennan or Mr Ramsden, can you please describe the provisions of the TPNW and what you think the really key things about that are in relation to the treaty, and their importance, which the Australian government should consider?

Mr Ramsden : I would say the spirit of that agreement is violated by acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines which can operate at long distances in an attack formation. I think the acquirement of nuclear propulsion and possibly a nuclear industry in Australia to support those submarines is moving in the wrong direction to what the TPNW is alluding to—and to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There's a very strong body of opinion in Australia—which is going to come to the fore in the next 12 months or so—that is very clearly opposed to us getting involved with nuclear-weapons-grade uranium in propulsion and elsewhere. Whilst the TPNW is about explosive devices and weapons, the spirit of that agreement would certainly be violated by acquiring weapons-grade uranium for propelling attack submarines in distant war theatres.

Senator COX: Dr Wareham, could you outline a couple of the key risks to nonproliferation should Australia ratify this treaty?

Dr Wareham : This has been covered, but it's a key point, so I thank you for raising it again. As has been stated, if Australia is seen to be given special treatment, the provision which would be needed for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines as a non-nuclear-weapons state has never been used before. If this capacity is granted to Australia then other nations are going to be rightly expecting that the same rules apply to all nations. Is that going to mean Iran, Brazil, Japan or South Korea? Any one of these nations could, conceivably, see acquiring highly enriched uranium for submarine purposes as an appropriate route to nuclear weapons capacity. That's the problem. The material that is being required for Australia's proposed submarines is nuclear bomb fuel, and if we allow that to be transferred to Australia for our naval purposes then why should other nations not also have access to highly enriched uranium? That's the reason there has been huge concern from nonproliferation experts around the world—not just in Australia—at this agreement. We don't see that those concerns have been addressed at all, and certainly not by DFAT in the evidence given on Monday.

Senator COX: Thank you very much, Dr Wareham. My only other question is to the CCWA. Ms Pepper, can you just outline what would be the likely scenarios for the management of disposal of nuclear waste generated by submarines?

Ms Pepper : For the decommissioning of nuclear submarines or the disposal of the waste?

Senator COX: Yes, that's right.

Ms Pepper : As far as we understand, one of the biggest issues here is that there's so much uncertainty about what the proposal in front of us is. We haven't seen anything around decommissioning of nuclear submarines or around waste in Australia. In our experience over the last 40-odd years the Australian government has tried to secure a national radioactive waste dump for low-level and intermediate-level waste and has been unsuccessful. There has been broad public opposition; I understand the Kimba project is at the moment facing hurdles in the courts over a lack of public consultation. I might invite Dr Green to answer that; he knows much more about the nuclear waste aspect.

Dr Green : Nuclear waste disposal goes directly to text in article II of the agreement which refers to the disposal of military reactors. It also goes to the national interest analysis, which refers to 'ensuring Australia is a responsible and reliable steward of this technology'.

I will make two points. Firstly, at best, nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning from a nuclear submarine program would costs tens of billions of dollars. Those costs have not been considered by the government in its deliberations. If they were, the cost benefit and risk benefit calculations would be fundamentally altered. Secondly, it can safely be assumed that nuclear waste would be dumped on Aboriginal land and that that would be done without the consent of affected traditional owners. A case in point is the federal government's current attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump on the land of the Barngarla traditional owners in South Australia, despite their unanimous opposition. That plan should be abandoned, and plans for nuclear submarines should be suspended unless and until there are costed credible plans to manage high-level nuclear waste and to do so without further disempowering and dispossessing First Nations people.

Finally, I note there's no repository for high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world. There is one deep-underground repository for intermediate-level waste in the United States, and it was shut down for three years following a chemical explosion in an underground nuclear waste barrel in 2014. These issues need to be considered and not be treated as an afterthought or as something that can be managed down the track.

Senator COX: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: There being no further questions, I thank all the witnesses for their attendance here today and for providing submissions to this inquiry. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence when it becomes available, and you will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Committee adjourned at 11:58