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Could Australia's future submarines be nuclear-powered?

By Stefaan Simons - posted Thursday, 15 August 2013

In 2009, Australia's Department of Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 , identified its "Future Submarine" requirements as being of increased range, patrol endurance and strike capability compared to the existing Collins Class submarines.

The 2013 version of the White Paper states that the Australian Government remains committed to assembling the future submarines in South Australia, but rules out consideration of a nuclear-powered submarine capability. In contrast, senior Coalition frontbenchers have called for a debate on the nuclear-powered option. The main assertion made against such an option is that, since Australia does not have a nuclear power industry, it would not be possible for it to operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. This is a false assertion. A nuclear industry per se does not need to be developed first in order for a nuclear-powered submarine option to become feasible. Indeed, in most cases around the world, defence needs have preceded civil ones. In a Green Paper launched on Monday by the IEPI ("Could Australia's Future Submarines be Nuclear-Powered") several possible scenarios, together with the high-level political and regulatory issues that will need to be addressed, have been put forward that could lead to Australia building its capability to operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines, including leasing an existing vessel from one of its allies, namely the USA or UK.

It is highly possible that this could be achieved without the need for Australia to have to deal with disposal of the spent fuel, a major cause for public concern on this issue (spent fuel would be regarded as high-level waste and would require a deep, underground repository). It is virtually certain that the fuel would be provided with the reactor and, hence, it could be negotiated that it remain the responsibility of the supplier-country. In addition, with the modern design trade-offs indicating that fuelling for life is preferable, issues around refuelling (i.e. the management of the fuel) would probably not apply. Hence, it is possible that Australia would only need to manage short-lived wastes produced during operations and maintenance, which are consistent with hospital and other wastes that will be managed within the ANSTO facilities already planned for development in Australia.


The 2013 White Paper also states that the Government has suspended further investigation of the two MOTS designs in order to progress an 'evolved Collins' and new design options. Such a strategy is fraught with risk, particularly from overruns on both time and costs, since Australia has failed to sufficiently maintain its design and construction capabilities for conventional (diesel-electric) submarines and support from its allies cannot be guaranteed, since most no longer have diesel-electric submarines of their own and hence, their capabilities lie with nuclear propulsion systems.

Concerns raised over defence spending cuts and the viability of adapting the Collins class submarines to meet Australia's defence requirements lead to the conclusion that nuclear-powered submarines should continue to be explored as an option for Australia, in line with the requirements to consider the most cost effective and lowest risk options in meeting Australia's strategic needs. Developing a nuclear-powered submarine capability may present no greater challenge than Australia developing its own uniquely modified conventional submarine design and construction capability.

Concise arguments have been made by others for the need for at least part of the new submarine fleet to be nuclear-powered. Nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSNs), such as the US Navy's Virginia Class, have superior range, speed, endurance, power output, sensors, and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) compared to any conventional submarine. Furthermore, the Virginia Class is expected to be more reliable and cost effective compared to modified Collins Class submarines (particularly if overruns occur, as mentioned above). It is likely that a very similar argument can be made for the UK Astute Class submarines.

This leaves Australia at a key decision point; whether to invest significant resources in developing its domestic conventional submarine design and construction capability in order to continue to build domestic submarines capable of meetings its requirements; or, make the transition to a nuclear-powered submarine fleet by way of various options, including initially leasing or assembling foreign designed submarines, thereby focussing on developing its capability to operate and maintain such submarines.

In either case, maximising local content must not put at risk the time and cost to develop an operational submarine fleet. It will take time and investment to develop a nuclear propulsion supply chain, which will be a highly skilled industry that will grow as each submarine is built. The resultant highly-skilled workforce will put Australia in a commanding position to benefit from the rapidly growing nuclear industry in Asia, where there will be an increasing demand for naval nuclear propulsion systems and experienced nuclear engineers, operators and regulators.

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Disclosure: The IEPI was established with funding donations from the Government of South Australia, Santos and BHP Billiton's Sustainable Communities programme. This funding has no influence on the research undertaken by the institute.

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About the Author

Professor Stefaan Simons is Director, International Energy Policy Institute, University College London, UCL Australia, Adelaide.

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