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New Zealand to uphold ban on nuclear vessels despite Australia’s submarine program

New Zealand to uphold ban on nuclear vessels

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern told reporters that the country intends to uphold its ban on nuclear powered vessels within its territorial waters, the same policy that fractured ANZUS in the 1980s.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern told reporters that the country intends to uphold its ban on nuclear powered vessels within its territorial waters, the same policy that fractured ANZUS in the 1980s.

Speaking at a COVID-19 press conference today, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters that the country will maintain its ban on nuclear powered vessels within their territorial waters, despite the Australian government’s announcement this morning regarding the construction of nuclear powered submarines.  


“New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged,” PM Ardern told reporters.

“New Zealand is first and foremost a nation of the Pacific and we view foreign policy developments through the lens of what is in the best interest of the region.”

The snub stems from a 1984 policy from the New Zealand government not to allow nuclear powered vessels into the nation’s territorial borders, which saw New Zealand partially suspended from the ANZUS treaty.

“Certainly they couldn’t come into our internal waters. No vessels that are partially or fully powered by nuclear energy is able to enter our internal borders,” she said.

However, PM Ardern’s criticism stopped there, acknowledging her broad support for the new alliance.


“We welcome the increased engagement of the UK and US in the region and reiterate our collective objective needs to be the delivery of peace and stability and the preservation of the international rules based system,” she said.

PM Ardern expects that New Zealand’s ongoing role in the Five Eyes alliance will remain firm, despite the creation of a new bloc.


Key updates:

  • Australia is expected to become the only non-nuclear nation to possess nuclear submarine capabilities;
  • Australia, UK and US expected to undertake knowledge sharing to enable the Royal Australian Navy to attain a nuclear powered fleet, the first time such knowledge sharing has taken place in over six decades;
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that the submarines will be built in Adelaide;
  • Workers ensured that their skills are still needed, and that submarine construction and sustainment remain critical priorities for the government;
  • Leaders have announced the creation of new “trilateral security dialogue” with Australia, UK and US; and
  • Naval Group expressed their disappointment with the decision, defending the capabilities of the Attack Class Submarine.

Late this morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, flanked by the Secretary of the Department of Defence Greg Moriarty and Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell addressed the nation to provide a strategic update on the ground breaking cancellation of the SEA 1000 contract with Naval Group and the decision to build nuclear powered submarines.

At the heart of the decision, the PM confirmed, was the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific.

“The relatively benign security environment that Australia has enjoyed over many decades in our region is behind us. We have entered, no doubt, a new era,” the PM said.

GEN Campbell concurred with the Prime Minister, explaining that the strategic environment faced by Australia within the Indo-Pacific was worsening at “an accelerated pace, requiring the creation of new capabilities and alliances.

To counter this, the PM explained that the new AUKUS agreement was just an alliance, but an alliance among “oldest and most trusted of friends” in the spirit of a “forever partnership”, a phrase the PM repeated a number of times throughout his conference.

However, it is evident that the move to nuclear powered submarines was not an isolated act by the Commonwealth government, rather it forms part of a wider set of strategic deterrence capabilities.

“We will be enhancing our long-range strike capability, including Tomahawk cruise missiles to be filled on the Royal Australian Navy Hobart Class destroyers and joint air to surface stand-off missiles extended range for our Royal Australian Air Force capabilities.”

For the meantime, however, the Collins Class submarines will continue to undergo their life of type extension to ensure that Australia maintains its stop gap submarine capabilities.


Program specifics

The PM announced that Australia expects to commence the construction of the new nuclear powered submarines within 10 years. It is likely that for the first 18 months, Australia and the new AUKUS partners will be examining and researching the capabilities that Australia will require to maintain a naval fleet.

This will be spearheaded by a new commonwealth taskforce, alongside our UK and US forever partners to oversee waste, regulation, workforce constraints and force structure. The PM explained that Australia was well placed to meet these tough challenges, with a long history of working with nuclear reactors, such as the one located at Lucas Heights as well as submarine capabilities.

The PM continued by reassuring the people of Adelaide and people currently employed in Australia's submarine industry, outlining that he construction of a sovereign built nuclear powered submarine will take place in Adelaide, and that the skillsets of those current submarine workers are still vital for Australia's future naval capabilities.


Why nuclear powered submarines?

The PM did not mince his words when he explained that the deteriorating environment in the Indo-Pacific, coupled with US willingness to support Australia’s acquisition of the nuclear technology, prompted the step change.

“Nuclear submarines have clear advantages. Greater endurance, they’re faster, they have greater power, greater stealth, more carrying capacity. These make nuclear submarines the desired substantial capability enhancement that Australia has needed. It’s helps us to build regional resilience,” PM Morrison explained.

“It is the first time this technology has ever been made available to Australia,” he continued.

In fact, the PM noted that capability and technology sharing of this scale is so rare that nuclear powered submarine technology had only been made available once before, with the US providing the UK with nuclear submarine technology in 1958.

Australia is indeed lucky to be the recipient of such technological and research sharing, the PM suggested. “This is a one off”.

Though, the PM nevertheless defended the position of the Turnbull government, which selected Naval Group to oversee the Commonwealth’s SEA 1000 program and construct the Attack Class submarine.

“Australia was not in a position at the time we took the decision back in 2016 to build and operate a nuclear powered submarine. That wasn’t on the table,” the PM said.

“So the decision we have made not to continue with the Attack Class submarine and to go down this path isn’t a change of mind, it’s a change of need.

“Contractual gates were built into the Attack Class project, necessarily.

“As we were looking towards that next gate we have decided not to enter through it as part of the Attack Class program.”

The Prime Minister confirmed that he informed France’s President Emmanuel Macron of the government’s decision to cease the Naval Group contract.

However, the benefits of nuclear-powered submarines in enhancing Australia’s naval capabilities simply could not be mimicked by traditional diesel engines offered by the Attack Class program.

“Australians would expect me as Prime Minister to ensure that we have the best possible capability to keep them safe, and to be unhindered in pursuing that as best I possibly can,” the PM continued.

“Next generation nuclear power submarines will use reactors that do not need refuelling during the life of the boat. A civil nuclear power capability her in Australia is not required to pursue this new capability.”

Like this morning’s joint conference between Prime Ministers Morrison and Johnson and President Biden, the Prime Minister warned potential opponents to the scheme that the new nuclear submarines were nuclear powered, and not armed with nuclear weapons – in violation of nuclear non-proliferation treaties.

“This is about propulsion, not about acquiring nuclear weapons … it’s not on our agenda,” PM Morrison explained.

“We will continue to meet all of our agreements on the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons as our partners in this exercise will also do.”

[Related: Naval Group responds to Future Submarines overhaul]

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New Zealand to uphold ban on nuclear vessels despite Australia’s submarine program
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