He was bound to say it. Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines wouldn’t be welcome visitors on this side of the Tasman, and AUKUS would not change New Zealand’s long-held nuclear free policy. But Chris Hipkins was addressing a non-existent problem. On the one hand, it’s difficult to envisage a peacetime scenario in which Canberra would want to send one of those multi-billion dollar subsurface vessels, suited for missions well into East Asian waters, to a New Zealand port. And on the other hand, we have plenty of time to ponder the hypothetical chances of that request coming from Canberra. Assuming no big delays (a dangerous thing to do) Australia will be waiting about a decade for the delivery of its first Virginia class submarines from the US (and then another decade before Australia builds any of the new generation submarines, the AUKUS SSNs, which will also be procured by the Royal Navy).
But that complex and expensive multi-stage deal brings a different nuclear-related challenge that touches on New Zealand’s pro-disarmament view of the world. The reactors in the Virginia class (as in some other US vessels) rely on weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. Selling vessels with this propulsion system may not be a technical violation of the respective safeguards agreements that nuclear weapon possessing America and its non-nuclear armed ally Australia have with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it is definitely a blow for the spirit of the nuclear non-proliferation regime which New Zealand strongly supports, and will leave the IAEA with an extra verification challenge it scarcely needs.