• Briefers addressed questions about cooperation between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to assist Australia in the acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines and to elaborate on the non-proliferation aspects of the partnership. 


MODERATOR:  Hello and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s hybrid briefing about the AUKUS partnership and its implications for the nuclear nonproliferation regime.  My name is Jed Wolfington, and I will be the moderator for today’s program.  Just a reminder that this briefing is on the record.  We will post the transcript and the video on our website later in the day at  Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and media outlet that you represent.

Today, we are very honored to welcome two briefers, Mr. Anthony Wier from the Department of State and Mr. Stockton Butler from the Department of Energy.  Mr. Wier is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Policy, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and Mr. Butler is the AUKUS Coordinator at the Office of Nonproliferation Policy and Arms Control.  Welcome, gentlemen.  I turn it over to DAS Wier.

MR WIER:  Great.  Thank you so much, Jed, and thanks to the Foreign Press Center for hosting this event and of course for – to everyone both here and online for participating today.  So as Jed said, my name is Anthony Wier, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear – or for Nonproliferation Policy in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

So on Monday, of course as you know, President Biden, UK Prime Minister Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Albanese, after an 18 month consultation period, announced the optimal pathway for Australia to acquire conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines, or SSNs, under the Australia-UK-United States partnership also known as AUKUS.

So as you know, AUKUS comprises two pillars: the first pillar, which we’re here to focus on today – under that first pillar, we in the United States along with the United Kingdom and – are assisting Australia in acquiring conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines while setting the highest nonproliferation standard possible.  Under the second pillar, we will jointly collaborate with the – among the three partners to develop a series of advanced technologies, including undersea capabilities, quantum computing, and in other – a number of other things.

I think it’s important at the outset to note that naval nuclear propulsion does not mean nuclear weapons.  Naval nuclear propulsion means that the submarines are powered by nuclear reactors.  That’s it.  This technology is safe.  For over 60 years, the United States and the United Kingdom have traveled over 240 million kilometers.  That’s the equivalent of over 300 trips to the Moon and back without adverse effect on human health or the quality of the environment.

AUKUS is a defense partnership, but it’s about more than that.  It is a concrete commitment of the United States and our partners and our allies to a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific by bringing together our sailors, our scientists, and our industries to maintain and expand our collective capacity to maintain peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

We support Australia’s decision to modernize its submarine fleet, obviously, but moreover, through AUKUS, the United States, Australia, and the UK intend to significantly deepen our longstanding cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.  And in doing so, we are actively working to re-examine and streamline our processes for optimizing defense trade through any AUKUS context.

I think it’s important to make clear: Australia is a non-nuclear-weapon state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has made clear it does not and will not seek nuclear weapons.  The longstanding and demonstrated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by Australia has been essential to making this partnership possible.  And all three partners remain compliant with and committed to maintaining their respective legal obligations and to nonproliferation.

To that end, this initiative will occur within the framework of Australia’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and its Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Our nations, from the very beginning 18 months ago, have consulted regularly with the IAEA in support of the IAEA’s mandate to uphold the integrity of the global nuclear safeguards regime.  As you are probably aware, the director general of the IAEA has in the past reported to IAEA member-states that AUKUS partners are committed to ensuring the highest nonproliferation and safeguard standards are met, and he has in the past noted his satisfaction with the engagement and transparency shown by the three countries to that point.  We’re – the international community can be confident, in our view, that our three nations will continue to work transparently with the IAEA towards an approach that will strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime and set a strong nonproliferation precedent.

So with those opening remarks, I know Stockton and I would be happy to answer some questions that you may have as it relates to the nonproliferation aspects of AUKUS.  Thanks very much.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for those remarks.  We’ll go to the room.  Are there any questions in the room?

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Matt Cranston from the Australian Financial Review.  Back in ’58 when the Congress came up with rules to allow smoothing of export licenses and information, it came up with the McMahon Act for the UK.  Is there something like this that will come up in legislation that the U.S. Congress will have to consider when it comes to the nuclear propulsion aspect of the AUKUS agreement?  Thanks.

MR WIER:  Sure.  I’m happy to answer that.  That is correct.  So cooperation on nuclear reactors, technology, and the like is governed under U.S. law by something called the Atomic Energy Act.  Both the Department of Energy and the Department of State, as well as the Department of Defense in this case, have responsibilities under that act.

As you may recall at the outset of the AUKUS initiative, one of the requirements was for the three countries to secure agreement among themselves for the transfer of information – just information only related to naval propulsion – and that was completed through a trilateral agreement that was submitted through our various constitutional mechanisms, including in the case of the Congress, which has a review mechanism that happened that was completed early on in 2021-2022.  It was actually when the agreement was enacted and enabled some of the cooperation that’s already begun.

And then – and a similar type of arrangement will be needed ultimately for – to enable the transfer of the actual reactors and equipment themselves.  We have been in close consultations with Congress from the beginning, going back to September of 2021 and working with them closely on how to implement it and are quite confident that we can obtain the necessary pathway to enabling the agreement.

QUESTION:  Just to follow up on that, is there any sort of – just to follow up on that, is there any sort of scheduling on that?  For example, to – in order for you to actually practically start moving on these things and transferring the physical parts of this, is there a timeframe that Congress – or that you’d like to see Congress have that legislation done?  Like, is it months, is it years?

MR WIER:  What I’d say is, frankly, it starts in earnest as soon as possible, I think, to enable that possibility.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for the question.  I see some hands raised in the Zoomisphere.  Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.  Alex, I’m going to ask you to unmute yourself.  There you go.  And if you want to turn on the video, feel free to do so.

QUESTION:  Jed, thank you so much for doing this.  I just want to follow up on DAS Wier’s opening statement regarding commitments.  Can you please help us understand the concerns that have been raised regarding long-established nuclear safeguards to prevent nuclear materials from getting into the wrong hands?  You did say that Australia has no intention to do so, but it is not surprising that critics in countries such as in Russia, China, are seizing this momentum and portraying this deal as – either as a arm race or, if I were to quote Chinese foreign minister, walking further and further down to the path of danger.  So their argument is that withdrawing nuclear material from safeguard, it will not make the treaty stronger and it won’t make the world safer.

I’m just curious how – I just want to know how much of these concerns you are communicating with both partners and also perhaps the foes.  Thank you so much.

MR WIER:  Sure.  Well, thank you for the question.  I mean, we have been committed from the beginning, from September of 2021, to being open and transparent with the international community and with partners, certainly with IAEA member-states, about the approach.  We’ve been committed to an approach that enables the IAEA as under its mandate with respect to safeguards to ensure that it has – will have the information so that it can meet the technical objectives that it sits under.

And so we certainly can understand the questions.  We’ve been endeavoring at every opportunity to explain the way forward we see.  We’ve tried to engage transparently throughout the process, but certainly will continue to do so I think to really highlight our view that the way forward can set a strong precedent for this activity and can contribute to strengthening the IAEA and the broader nonproliferation regime.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for the question, Alex.  Mr. Butler, did you have anything to add, or not for now?

MR BUTLER:  (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR:  Okay, great.  Thank you.  Just want to make sure you feel comfortable.

Any other questions from the journalists in the room?  Yes, sir.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I’m Tetsuo Shintomi of Kyodo News.  My question is related to a previous one.  According to the joint statement, Australia will deliver its first nuclear-powered submarines in Australia in the early 2040s.  So in that future, will Australia accept IAEA inspection regarding its naval nuclear propulsion technology?  Have you been discussing about this possibility?  Thank you.

MR WIER:  Yeah, absolutely.  I mean, I think, as I said, we have been engaged – all three AUKUS partners have been engaged with the IAEA, I can tell you from the earliest hours of the initial announcement, within the earliest hours of the initial announcement.  We’ve done it with an aim of ensuring an open and transparent process with the IAEA, because we recognize and very much value their mandate in providing this assurance around nonproliferation.  And so we’re confident that we have a nonproliferation approach that can allow the IAEA to meet its technical objectives around its safeguards requirements.

I should say, too, we have been from the beginning working on a kind of broader nonproliferation approach that we think can help provide a certain amount of confidence to the community, right.  So of course, first and foremost, as we’ve said before, Australia does not and will not seek nuclear weapons.  That’s kind of a given.  Australia is going to do this within the framework of its agreement with the IAEA, its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, its Additional Protocol.  Australia has made clear that it will not enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel as part of the AUKUS project.  Australia has made clear that it doesn’t intend to produce nuclear fuel on its own territory, and maybe Stockton will want to talk to this some, but the United Kingdom and the United States intend to provide Australia with complete, welded power units intact as part of the cooperation.

And then – so I think that we hope that the approach that we worked together with – and just as importantly, the openness and transparency with which we’ve engaged from the very beginning with the IAEA to develop this approach going forward – can help build the confidence needed that all three countries are living up fully to their nonproliferation obligations.

Stockton, I don’t know if you wanted to talk to some of the reactor units and the like.

MR BUTLER:  Sure.  Just to add on to what DAS Wier has said, I would say that the work with IAEA has started already, is ongoing.  The specifics to your question of what will be done in the 2040s is something that will have to be worked out, again, between Australia and the IAEA with the cooperation of the UK and the U.S. as they’re going forward.

But as DAS Wier mentioned already, Australia will not be receiving nuclear material in anything other than a complete, welded power unit.  As you noted, the first submarine to be built in Australia is not set to be done until the early 2040s.  We have some time to work with IAEA to develop those specific safeguards arrangements, and hopefully that will be done going forward in the near future.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for the response and the question.  I’m going to go back to Zoom.  Bingru Wang, Phoenix TV.  Please unmute yourself.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you very much.  I have two questions.  One is regarding China criticism saying that AUKUS is double standard.  For the past 18 months, China has been saying that the United States provides weapon-grade enriched uranium to Australia under AUKUS but bans Iran to build a nuclear power plant for civil use.  So how can this double standard on nuclear proliferation be justified?

Secondly, is there any willingness to ease China’s concern on AUKUS, which is widely seen as a U.S.-led effort to contain Beijing?  Thank you.

MR WIER:  Great.  Sure, thanks for your question.  I would say in first instance, again, I think, as I said at the beginning, Australia’s impeccable nonproliferation credentials have been essential to making this partnership possible.  Australia was, I believe, the first adopter of the Additional Protocol.  It certainly has been in force for many, many years.  It’s cooperated closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency.  We have been, at every step of the way – Australia as well as the United States and the United Kingdom – have been in full compliance with all of their requirements, including under modified Code 3.1, the requirements to provide initial notice when decisions are made around safeguards-relevant activities.

As I said, we were seeking time with the International Atomic Energy Agency immediately to lay out with – as transparently as possible from the very beginning of the 18 months and throughout the last 18 months through multiple engagements with the IAEA to work through what we see.

So I frankly don’t think it’s a particularly useful comparison to somehow compare Australia’s impeccable record with what perhaps Iran’s might be.

On the broader question, I think it’s important to recall that AUKUS is about modernizing an alliance among three countries and ensuring connectivity and, as I said at the outset, developing capabilities that are focused on sustaining peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.  I think it’s more important to think about what the parties – what it’s for.  It – I think it’s unfair, not necessarily appropriate, to focus on some accusations about what it might be about.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Are there any questions in the room?  Okay, I’ll go to Zoom.  Jiha Ham, VOA Korea.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  I have a question about other allies, South Korea in this case.  South Korea has been trying to acquire nuclear-powered submarines for a long time.  So I’m wondering if there is any way or what possibility that the U.S. may consider allowing South Korea to have nuclear submarine, as we have seen in the Australian case – I mean, as South Korea is now facing challenges from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and as the security environment is changing in the region.  Thank you.

MR WIER:  Sure.  I think it’s been clear from the outset from the United States perspective that we have no intention of sharing our naval nuclear propulsion technology further.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for the question.  Any other questions in the room?  Okay, I think we have time for one more question.  We’ll go to Zoom.  Mr. Ethan Holmes, Sputnik, of the Russian Federation.  Mr. Holmes, please unmute yourself.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) for taking my question.  Can you hear me all right?

MODERATOR:  We can hear you.

QUESTION:  Excellent.  First question quickly:  Can you elaborate a little bit further on where the U.S.-UK-Australia are in regards to cooperating with the IAEA on transparency, and when you expect to move forward?  The IAEA has said that the second phase is the most challenging.  Would you agree with that in terms of cooperation with them?

Secondly, can you elaborate a little bit on what the exact nonproliferation concerns are here with AUKUS, what sort of threat the IAEA and AUKUS partners are committed to prevent in regards to the spread of nuclear weapons?  Are you concerned about third-party actors, diversion?  If you could give some clarity on that, I’d appreciate it.  Thank you.

MR WIER:  Sure.  I had a little bit of difficulty hearing all the questions, but in terms of our engagement with the IAEA, I’ll start there.  Yeah, as I said at the outset, our first engagement with the IAEA was within hours of the September 2021 engagement – or announcement on AUKUS.  And we have been – all three partners together have been consulting very closely throughout the 18-month process.  We’ve been engaging them with questions.  They’ve been engaging us with questions.  We’ve been taking their questions to inform, I think, the overall process.  We’ve also tried to engage as transparently as possible with the international community.

I think it’s maybe known that the IAEA board of governors – that is, the member-states charged with providing guidance and direction to the International Atomic Energy Agency – meets quarterly.  We have been – AUKUS partners have been prepared and have presented in detail on AUKUS under the course of any other business at every one of these.  When questions have been raised, we’ve been available to meet with member-states whenever possible.  So we – it’s been – for us, the process has been an important part of setting the precedent in how we do it.

In terms of the threat or concerns, I’m not going to speculate.  We’ve been focused on setting the strongest possible nonproliferation precedent.  We think we’ve set out an approach that meets high standards and will meet high standards of safety, of security, of safeguards.  As I say, Australia’s track record on this part is impeccable.  And I think our intention is to set a precedent that meets the broader requirements, meets the sort of broader test that our leaders set out from the very beginning of – with nonproliferation being a focus and setting the strongest possible precedent in how we deal with the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

MODERATOR:  If there are no more questions in the room – which I am not seeing – would like to offer Mr. Wier and Mr. Butler any final opportunity to offer any closing remarks.

MR WIER:  No, just to – I guess just to say thanks, and appreciate the opportunity.  And as we said before, we think the approach of openness and transparency and forthrightness in how we’re developing this activity is important, and so welcome the opportunity to answer some questions today.  Stock?

MR BUTLER:  (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR:  So I thank our briefers for taking the time to share their expertise with us today, and I thank all the representatives of the media in the room and on Zoom.  That concludes this afternoon’s briefing.  Thank you very much.

U.S. Department of State

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