Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies, Singapore – Indonesia warns that the sharing of nuclear technology to power submarines could heighten the risk of new types of weapons of mass destruction emerging.
In a submission to next week's United Nations nuclear non-proliferation review conference, Indonesia said the use of highly enriched uranium for naval propulsion was of growing concern.
It comes as a group of American non-proliferation experts have written to US President Joe Biden ahead of the meeting in New York, urging him to abandon plans to sell Australia eight submarines "fuelled with weapon-grade uranium".
China will also bring up the AUKUS submarines deal at the conference, believing it to be a dangerous precedent and a violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
While the submission does not reference the AUKUS deal, Indonesia, as well as Malaysia, have voiced anxiety about Australia's desire to acquire nuclear-powered vessels after the pact with the US and UK was announced last September, worrying it could trigger an arms race.
In a draft working paper for next week's UN meeting, Indonesia argues the sharing of nuclear technology and materials for military purposes may be counter to the spirit and objective of the NPT and "could potentially set precedence [sic] for other similar arrangements".
It could also complicate safeguards "needed to prevent risks arising from such arrangements including, but not limited to... the emergence of new types of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), derived from the combination of nuclear materials and conventional weapons", Indonesia said in the document, which was marked as an "advance unedited version".
In its submission, Indonesia said concerns about nuclear naval propulsion were deserving of serious attention.
"The exclusion of the production, use, and disposition of Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) for nuclear naval propulsion from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards could be exploited to provide a shield for diversion of that material to [a] nuclear weapons program," it said.
Additionally, Jakarta pointed to safety issues involved with the transportation of nuclear material to non-nuclear weapon states, as well as with its maintenance and use, warning of the "humanitarian and environmental consequences" of accidents and exposure.
Contacted on Thursday, Achsanul Habib, the director for international security and disarmament at Indonesia's foreign affairs ministry, said Indonesia's UN working paper was "in no way intended to respond to AUKUS".
"The Indonesian [working paper] was submitted to fill in the gap in the NPT regulation related to nuclear naval propulsion which is still lacking in regulations," he said.
In a statement, he added: "Concerns over potential dangers that can befall the countries traversed during the process of transporting and maintaining the nuclear naval propulsion materials need to get the attention and the protection under the NPT regime".
Under the AUKUS agreement, the US and the United Kingdom will share technology with Australia in order for it to replace its ageing diesel-powered submarines with a nuclear-propelled fleet by the 2030s.
Australia, through a change of government, has maintained that regional neighbours have nothing to fear from its submarine plans.
"We are not a nuclear power," Foreign Minister Penny Wong told a press conference in Malaysia in late June.
"There are nuclear powers in this region but Australia is not one of them. What we are doing is replacing an existing capability with a new capability and that is nuclear-powered submarines."She added during her visit to Kuala Lumpur: "We hope that over time people's concerns will be able to be allayed."
Adam Scheinman, the US special representative for nuclear non-proliferation, said this week the AUKUS partnership would not be a breach of the NPT and Washington would make that case at the UN meeting.
In their letter to Biden, however, the US experts warned other US allies might seek the same arrangement as Australia and that countries might also pursue nuclear reactors from Russia, creating a "monitoring nightmare for the International Atomic Energy Agency".
"We are not concerned that Australia might extract HEU from the submarine fuel to make nuclear weapons," they said.
"Our concern is that providing Australia with HEU-fuelled naval reactors could allow other states to invoke the AUKUS example to justify their own production or acquisition of HEU fuel."
The four authors – who included University of Texas professor Alan Kuperman, the founding co-ordinator of the Austin-based Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project; Princeton University professor and former US assistant director for national security Frank von Hippel; and the US-headquartered Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball – called on the US and UK to commit to developing naval reactors fuelled by low enriched uranium that can't be used for nuclear weapons.
Kuperman released the two-page Indonesia working paper alongside their letter to Biden.