The Complexity Of Nuclear Submarine Safeguards Impacts Current Landscape – Analysis


By Leonam dos Santos Guimarâes*

The topic of applying safeguards to nuclear submarine fuel, with a focus on ensuring security and proliferation resistance, involves a complex interplay of international regulations, agreements, and technical considerations.

A pivotal aspect of this discussion centers on the application of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, particularly in the context of military-to-military transfer of nuclear material for submarine programs. It has been argued that there should be no automatic exclusion from safeguards for nuclear material simply because it is used in military activities.

The emphasis is on ensuring that the non-application of safeguards is as limited as possible, encompassing all processes outside the actual use of relevant nuclear material in the submarine, such as enrichment, fuel fabrication, storage, transportation, reprocessing, and disposal.


The application of safeguards to the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and United States) Nuclear Submarine program is a complex and highly technical subject, requiring a nuanced understanding of international nuclear non-proliferation norms, the specific details of the AUKUS agreement, and the technical aspects of nuclear submarine technology. The AUKUS pact, a security agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, announced in September 2021, involves the provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. This arrangement has significant implications for nuclear non-proliferation and safeguards. The following points are pertinent AUKUS agreement:

Nature of Nuclear Technology in Submarines: The nuclear reactors used in submarines are designed for propulsion and not for the production of nuclear weapons. However, they do use weapon degree HEU, which can be weaponized. This necessitates strict safeguards to ensure that the HEU is not diverted for non-peaceful purposes.

Australia’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Commitments: Australia is a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). As such, Australia is obliged to maintain a civilian nuclear program exclusively for peaceful purposes and under international safeguards. The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines places Australia in a unique position, as it will have to demonstrate that its new capabilities are not being used for prohibited military purposes, like nuclear weapons development.

International Safeguards and Oversight: The IAEA plays a crucial role in the implementation of safeguards. Australia, along with the UK and the US, must work closely with the IAEA to develop a framework that ensures the submarine program adheres to Australia’s non-proliferation commitments. This could involve regular inspections, monitoring, and verification mechanisms.

Regional and Global Implications: The deployment of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia could have significant implications for regional security dynamics, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a need for transparency and dialogue to address any concerns raised by neighboring countries and to prevent any escalation of regional arms races.

Technological and Operational Safeguards: Apart from international oversight, there are also technical and operational safeguards that are integral to the program. These include secure handling and accounting of nuclear materials, physical protection measures, and safety protocols to prevent accidents or unauthorized use.

Legal and Policy Frameworks: The AUKUS partners will need to develop robust legal and policy frameworks that align with international norms and bilateral agreements. This includes legislative and regulatory measures that govern the use, transfer, and disposal of nuclear materials and technology.

The application of safeguards

The application of safeguards to the AUKUS Nuclear Submarine program is a critical aspect of its implementation. It requires a balanced approach that addresses the non-proliferation concerns while allowing Australia to enhance its defense capabilities. Ensuring the program’s compliance with international nuclear non-proliferation norms and maintaining transparency will be essential in mitigating any regional tensions and in bolstering global nuclear security.

The status of the AUKUS Nuclear Submarine program is marked by significant advancements in both the technical and strategic aspects of the program, along with ongoing negotiations and engagement with the IAEA to ensure compliance with international nuclear non-proliferation standards. The program’s progress is part of a broader strategic initiative aimed at enhancing the military and technological capabilities of the AUKUS nations.

As of the latest information available, the negotiations between the AUKUS partners (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding the AUKUS Nuclear Submarine program were progressing, with a focus on ensuring compliance with nuclear non-proliferation standards.

Progress on the Nuclear Submarine Program: The AUKUS partners have made significant progress in the development and implementation of the nuclear submarine program. This includes the establishment of education and training opportunities for Royal Australian Navy personnel, increased industry training, and preparations for the Submarine Rotational Force-West in Australia. The first sale of U.S. Virginia-class submarines to Australia is expected in the early 2030s, with the delivery of the first Australian-built SSN-AUKUS in the early 2040s.

Commitment to Non-Proliferation Standards: The AUKUS partners have reiterated their commitment to upholding the highest standards for nuclear non-proliferation. This commitment is crucial as it involves the use of nuclear-powered submarines by a non-nuclear weapon state (Australia) under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Bilateral Negotiations with the IAEA: Australia has commenced bilateral negotiations with the IAEA. These negotiations are focused on arranging safeguards under Article 14 of Australia’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. The outcome of these negotiations will be pivotal in determining how the AUKUS program aligns with global non-proliferation norms.

Focus on Safeguards and Oversight: These discussions emphasise establishing a robust framework of safeguards and oversight. This is essential to ensure that the nuclear material and technology used in the submarines are not diverted for non-peaceful purposes.

Legislative and Regulatory Frameworks: The negotiations are being conducted in the context of the partners’ respective international legal obligations and commitments, emphasizing the legal and regulatory aspects of nuclear technology transfer and usage. Discussions are underway to secure legislative support across all three countries to ensure the success of AUKUS. This includes the introduction of legislation to the Australian Parliament for establishing a framework for nuclear safety, including an independent nuclear safety regulator.

Technological Aspects: The AUKUS submarines will incorporate U.S. propulsion technology, with reactors provided by Rolls Royce Submarine LTD. for both UK and Australian SSN-AUKUS submarines. The partners are also developing a joint combat system for these submarines.

Broader Scope of AUKUS Agreement: Beyond the submarine program, the AUKUS agreement also encompasses advancements in other technological areas, including cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities. These aspects aim to enhance joint capabilities and interoperability among the AUKUS nations.

The negotiations between the AUKUS partners and the IAEA are a critical aspect of the submarine program, with a strong emphasis on adhering to international nuclear non-proliferation norms and establishing a transparent and effective safeguards system. The outcome of these negotiations will have significant implications for the non-proliferation regime and the future operation of the AUKUS submarine program.


The application of safeguards to Brazil’s indigenous nuclear submarine program involves a complex interplay of international non-proliferation norms, national security interests, and technological innovation. This topic can be dissected into several key areas: the context of Brazil’s nuclear program, the nature of international safeguards, and the specific challenges and considerations in applying these safeguards to a nuclear submarine program.

Brazil’s pursuit of an indigenous nuclear submarine program is part of its broader nuclear technology development, which includes peaceful energy generation and national defense. As a signatory to the NPT and a member of the IAEA, Brazil has committed to using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. It is a unique case of a country proscribing non-peaceful nuclear applications through its Federal Constitution.

Applying safeguards to Brazil’s nuclear submarine program presents therefore unique challenges:

National Security Concerns: Submarines often embody sensitive military technology. Brazil, like other countries with similar programs, may be reluctant to provide full access to its submarines due to security concerns.

Dual-Use Technology: Nuclear technology for submarines can be dual-use, meaning it has both civilian and military applications. Safeguarding such technology requires balancing non-proliferation objectives with the legitimate defense interests of the state.

Technical Challenges: Monitoring and verification in a submarine context pose technical challenges, as the operational use of submarines involves mobility and periods of inaccessibility.

Legal and Diplomatic Negotiations: Establishing a framework for safeguards on a military vessel involves intricate legal and diplomatic negotiations between Brazil, the IAEA, and potentially other international actors. This includes defining the extent of access for inspectors and the nature of oversight mechanisms.

The application of safeguards to Brazil’s indigenous nuclear submarine program represents a nuanced area of international relations and nuclear technology. It necessitates a delicate balance between adhering to international non-proliferation norms and respecting national security and sovereignty. The success of these efforts depends on transparent, cooperative approaches that recognize the complexities of nuclear technology and the diverse interests of the global community in maintaining peace and security.


The status of the application of safeguards to Brazil’s indigenous nuclear submarine program is a multilayered and evolving issue, marked by Brazil’s long-standing nuclear policies and recent developments in its negotiation with international bodies.

Brazil has been a key player in nuclear technology, developing capabilities encompassing the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium mining, conversion, enrichment, and nuclear energy production. The country’s nuclear program has both civilian and military components, with the Brazilian Navy responsible for uranium enrichment technologies. Brazil’s pursuit of a nuclear-powered submarine dates back to 1979 and has been part of its broader goal to modernize its economy and increase its international influence. The Brazilian Navy has been working with the French company Naval Group to acquire technology for building conventional-powered submarines and non-nuclear systems design of nuclear-powered ones.

In terms of international commitments, Brazil is a signatory to several treaties and agreements emphasizing the peaceful use of nuclear energy, including the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Quadripartite Agreement between Brazil, Argentina, the IAEA and ABACC (Argentine Brazilian Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials) outlines the application of comprehensive safeguards to nuclear materials and installations in both countries.

Low-enriched uranium

Brazil’s approach to its nuclear submarine program involves using low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is not suitable for weapons development. However, due to Brazil’s indigenous military nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment facilities, there are concerns about proliferation risks. The Brazilian government has initiated consultations with the IAEA to apply special procedures to ensure non-diversion of nuclear materials used for naval propulsion. This consultation process is significant as it may lead to the conclusion of complementary technical arrangements with the IAEA, which would mark a major development in international nuclear safeguards.

The negotiations between Brazil and the IAEA could have significant implications for the ABACC safeguards regime and for international non-proliferation efforts more broadly. The outcome of these talks could influence the global nuclear order, potentially leading to innovative safeguards agreements that balance the peaceful use of nuclear technology with non-proliferation concerns.

The application of safeguards to Brazil’s nuclear submarine program is in a phase of active negotiation and development. The country’s history of nuclear technology development, combined with its strategic goals and international obligations, makes this an intricate issue at the intersection of national security, technological innovation, and global non-proliferation efforts.

As of the latest information available, the status of the negotiations between Brazil and the IAEA regarding the safeguards application to Brazil’s nuclear submarine program is marked by ongoing discussions and complexities inherent in the unique nature of Brazil’s program.

Brazil’s initiative to develop a nuclear-powered submarine, which is part of its broader strategic military objectives, has necessitated negotiations with the IAEA to ensure that the program aligns with international non-proliferation standards. The main aspects of these negotiations include:

Special Procedures for Safeguards: Brazil has initiated consultations with the IAEA for the application of special procedures to ensure the non-diversion of nuclear materials intended for naval propulsion. This step is critical as it involves establishing a framework that aligns with Brazil’s obligations under international treaties like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and regional agreements. These special procedures would provide the IAEA with more comprehensive inspection authority, enhancing transparency and confidence in Brazil’s nuclear program.

Concerns Over Indigenous Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Brazil’s possession of an indigenous military nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium conversion and enrichment facilities, adds complexity to the negotiations. The country plans to use low-enriched uranium (LEU) in its submarines, which is not typically suitable for weapons development. However, the existence of these facilities raises proliferation concerns, necessitating stringent safeguards.

Role of ABACC: The Argentine Brazilian Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) also plays a role in the safeguarding process due to the Quadripartite Agreement between Brazil, Argentina, the IAEA, and ABACC. The outcome of Brazil’s negotiations with the IAEA could influence the ABACC safeguards regime.

Global Implications: The negotiations and their outcomes are closely watched as they have broader implications for the global nuclear order. They could lead to the development of innovative safeguards agreements that address the challenges of non-proliferation in the context of military use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Unique Nature of Brazil’s Program: Unlike other countries, such as Australia, under the AUKUS agreement, Brazil is pursuing an entirely indigenous path for its nuclear submarine program, which includes the development of both civilian and military nuclear fuel cycles. This unique aspect adds another layer of complexity to the negotiations.

These negotiations represent a significant moment in international nuclear relations, highlighting the balance between national security, technological advancement, and adherence to global non-proliferation standards. The outcome of these discussions will likely set precedents for future agreements and policies related to nuclear-powered submarines in non-nuclear-armed states.

*The writer is a nuclear and naval engineer (Ph.D.) and a member of the Brazilian National Academy of Engineering. CEO of Eletronuclear S.A. Coordinator, Brazilian Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program. 


IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as the flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group

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