With the swirl of media soundbites, the impression has been created that the Australian government has replaced a diesel/electric French designed submarine for a nuclear-powered American, or British, one. This is not the case.
Australia now has no new submarine program at all. We have cancelled the one we had with France and have a statement of intent with Britain and the US to examine the prospect of acquiring nuclear powered submarines.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signed an agreement with the US and Britain on nuclear-powered subs.Credit:
Over the next 18 months there will be a review of the possibilities – the biggest probably being whether the new submarine should be based on the British Astute submarine or the larger US Virginia class.
The hyperbole around the new AUKUS partnership has been dialled up to 11. No three nations in the world already have closer security, intelligence and technology collaboration than Australia, the US and Britain. And it has been getting closer in recent years. As Canada’s Justin Trudeau observed this is all about selling submarines to Australia.
But nothing is agreed. There is no design, no costing, no contract. The only certainty is that we won’t have new submarines for 20 years and their cost will be a lot more than the Attack class submarine the first of which was to be in the water by 2032.
The Australian government has chosen to terminate a contract with France’s largely state owned Naval Group to build 12 submarines. While based on the design of France’s latest nuclear submarine they were to be conventionally powered – a modification stipulated by Australia in the competitive tender process begun in 2015.
Our advice, confirmed by US Navy nuclear engineers, was that Australia could not operate a sovereign nuclear submarine fleet without the civil nuclear industry needed to support its maintenance. There is no country with a nuclear navy that does not have a civil nuclear industry.
There were three bids – from France, Japan and Germany. It was my government which chose the French bid on the basis that it was the best – especially in terms of stealthiness – the prime requirement for a submarine.
Despite the decision to go with diesel/electric propulsion I kept nuclear technology under review. But the advice remained the same. We are now told the advice has changed because the US and British navies are using reactors which will not be refuelled for the entire life of the ship – 35 years.
And this means, we are assured, that we can have nuclear powered submarines without a nuclear industry because they won’t need to be maintained during the life of the submarine.
The US/UK reactors use highly enriched uranium, or HEU, originally made for the US nuclear weapons program.
For Australia, a non nuclear weapons state, using HEU in a submarine is not a breach of the Treaty on Non Proliferation, but it does set a precedent which other currently non nuclear weapons states, like Iran, will seek to exploit as a justification for producing HEU.
Is it credible to have a hands-off, plug-and-play nuclear reactor filled with weapons-grade uranium and not inspect it for 35 years? The US and Britain will know for sure in about 30 years. And until then if something does go wrong, both nations have extensive nuclear facilities and expertise to deal with it. Australia does not.
The French nuclear propulsion system, however, uses low enriched uranium, or LEU – somewhat more enriched than that used in civil nuclear plants. By law they inspect their reactors and refuel them every 10 years. All submarines go in for a lengthy, year or more, refit every decade. The refuelling of the French naval reactor takes a few weeks. In this regard at least, French naval nuclear reactor safety standards are stricter than those applied in the United States and Britain.
The Attack class submarine program was the largest single element in my government’s plan to establish a sovereign, continuous naval shipbuilding industry. Sixty per cent of the submarines’ content was to be Australian.
More than 600 local subcontractors were signed up to the submarine project – some in the same week the contract with France was terminated. Will those jobs, those opportunities transfer to the new submarine project?
And the submarines, we are told, will still be built in Adelaide. But if there are no nuclear facilities there, that must mean the submarine hulls will be transported to the US or the UK to have the reactor installed together with all of the safety and other systems to which it is connected.
You don’t need to be especially cynical to see it won’t be long before someone argues it looks much simpler to have the first submarine built in the US or the UK, and then the second, third and so on.
President Biden has publicly regretted there was not more consultation between allies – meaning France. If Morrison had been upfront with President Macron, we could have explored, with our American friends, the option of going nuclear with the French LEU reactor technology.
Safety and sovereignty dictate that we will need to develop nuclear facilities in Australia to maintain and support these submarines. The safety and non-proliferation advantages of regularly inspected LEU reactors should have been openly explored with France and the United States.
In 2040, if we have the first of a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, that will be a good development in that the submarine will have range and capabilities a diesel/electric boat does not.
But the way we are getting there has been clumsy, deceitful and costly. Too many questions are not being asked, and fewer answered. The blustering attempts to wedge those who seek answers do not serve our national interest.
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