Environment & energy, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia

27 May 2022

Malaysia and Indonesia are caretaker states to some of the world’s most crucial sea lines of communication, but moves toward nuclear-powered submarines could cause chaos if left unregulated, Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli writes.

As Asia’s economies continue to grow, the Straits of Malacca and the seas around Singapore are becoming more and more constricted, increasing the risk of collisions, congestion, and other hazards.

The Sunda Strait in Indonesia for example contains many hazards, including sandbank formations, a live volcano, and numerous oil drilling platforms, as well as small islands and reefs which may disrupt safe navigation.

In addition, the South China Sea is littered with abandoned oil rigs, some at depths of up to 100 meters, and other undersea obstacles.

The Southeast Asian Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) are an important marine highway for the world’s trade and military superpowers, including China, Russia, and the United States, and international law does not permit Indonesia or Malaysia to hamper or obstruct foreign vessels in the area.

This includes passage of nuclear-powered vessels and submarines – but should it?

The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, took to the oceans back in 1955.

Today, more nations posses nuclear-powered submarines. It is estimated that China is in possession of 12 nuclear submarines, Russia 29, the United Kingdom 11, France 8, and India one. The American military still tops the chart though, with a fleet of over 60 nuclear-powered submarines.

More on this: The threat beneath the waves of the South China Sea

Several other countries including Argentina, Brazil, and Australia have ongoing plans to use nuclear-powered submarines. Through the tripartite security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, dubbed ‘AUKUS’, Australia is projected to possess its own nuclear-powered submarines in the next two decades.

This would indicate that the number of nuclear-powered vessels traversing the congested Southeast Asian SLOCs will increase in years to come. But is this a positive trend?

Nuclear submarines are not without risk. There are at least nine sunken submarines in the world’s oceans. When they are nuclear powered, submarines contain large amounts of radioactive fuel and waste eventually leaks into the surrounding marine environment, affecting it permanently.

For instance, the K-278, a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine sank into the bottom of the Norwegian Sea in 1989 after it caught fire. A joint 2019 expedition found it was leaking hundreds of thousands of times the normal radiation levels.

Radioactive waste in the ocean can affect global fish migration, fisheries, human health, and ecological security.

Thus far, there has never been a serious maritime accident involving nuclear-powered submarines within Southeast Asian waters, but last year’s incident involving an American nuclear-powered submarine running into an undersea mountain in the South China Sea should raise concerns that the area won’t remain accident-free for long.

The current Law of the Sea was drafted in the 1970s, when nuclear-powered submarines were not as common as they are today, and nuclear-powered vessels pose more risk compared to conventional non-nuclear-powered ships.

Limiting nuclear submarines in Southeast Asia can lower the risk of a mishap in one of the world’s most crucial maritime spaces. In order to protect their interests as coastal states and take responsibility for their neighbourhood’s ecological wellbeing, Malaysia and Indonesia should come up with a proposal that limits the navigation of nuclear-powered submarines.


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