The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has produced a strongly worded briefing paper:
Agenda for Change 2016 is intended for the incoming Australian Government that wins the July 2, 2016 Election and for public consumption. Major contributors to the briefing paper include:
- former Defence Minister and former Ambassador to the US, KimBeazley
- Executive Director of ASPI Peter Jennings,
- Graeme Dobell, Shiro Armstrong and ASPI analysts.
- and it is edited by Malcolm Davis.
Agenda for Change 2016, also covers non-nuclear topics including:
- concluding a major war,
- redesigning ANZUS cooperation,
- and reorienting the Australian defence industry to export markets.
Chapter 1 THE STRATEGIC AGENDA [pages 10 to 18] by Peter Jennings
[page 10, "Key recommendations] "• Prepare the ground for submarine nuclear propulsion."
[page 12, "New policy challenges] "• Prepare the ground for submarine nuclear propulsion".
The major nuclear propulsion discussion is on pages 15 and 16:
[page 15] " It’s been an article of faith since the 2009 Defence White Paper that Australia’s next submarine will be conventionally powered, using a combination of diesel and electric propulsion. Although geography imposes a unique requirement for our submarines to have extended range, nuclear propulsion (which essentially gives submarines unlimited range) has been off the agenda for political reasons. That’s unfortunate, because the capabilities required for our future submarine would in many respects be better performed by nuclear-powered boats. Readers will appreciate the irony of Australia selecting the French-designed Shortfin Barracuda—a nuclear submarine that will be adapted to conventional propulsion.
It may be that community thinking on nuclear power is changing. The South Australian Government is conducting a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. In particular, the royal commission is examining the viability of expanding mineral extraction, processing and manufacturing, the use of nuclear fuels for electricity generation and the disposal of nuclear materials. [6. See the terms of reference for the royal commission, online] Waste storage may offer a valuable industry for South Australia if safety issues can be properly addressed."
[Significantly Peter Jennings Chaired the Expert Panel & Community Consultations for the 2016 Defence White Paper (2016 DWP). I've bolded parts for emphasis. In strong wording:]
"In the defence field, the expert panel that advised the Australian Government on the 2016 DWP found in its 2015 community consultation that there was a strong public desire to understand the details of how nuclear propulsion might serve Australian interests. The panel recommended that the government ‘identify an opportunity to explain the “pros and cons” of nuclear propulsion for submarines.’[7. Defence White Paper Expert Panel, Guarding against uncertainty: Australian attitudes to defence, 2015, p. ix, online.] This didn’t happen in the 2016 DWP, nor indeed at the announcement of the preferred submarine design, which was accompanied with a risible 13-paragraph media announcement.[ 8. Prime Minister of Australia, Future Submarine Program, 26 April 2016, online] Unsurprisingly, a good deal of the public reaction to the White Paper and submarine design decision continues to seek further information on the issue. The 2016 DWP does, however, offer this somewhat cryptic remark:
This could be hinting that nuclear propulsion may be considered a decade or more from now. However, no Australian Government in the 2030s or later will be in a position to adopt nuclear propulsion unless earlier decisions have been taken to prepare the ground for such a major development. In 2016, Australia has no viable option other than conventional propulsion for our future submarines because the Navy, the wider Defence establishment and Australia’s industry and infrastructure are simply not at the right level of capability to crew, operate and support nuclear-propelled submarines. Nor should we assume that the US as our key ally would be willing to give us access to some of its most carefully guarded military technology without Australia first demonstrating a serious intent to operate and support nuclear propulsion systems. Getting to that point will require a sustained investment effort to build a cadre of trained nuclear technicians, industry specialists and Navy crew able to work with nuclear propulsion systems.
After the 2016 election, the Australian Government should start to scope out what steps might sensibly be taken to create a realistic option for nuclear propulsion at the end of the 2020s. A key part of this strategy should be to have an open discussion with the Australian people explaining the basis for the submarine design decision. Government should consider the following steps:
These six steps point to the very substantial investment needed to make the capability leap to nuclear propulsion. They also point to the reasons why nuclear propulsion has been off the table for Australian Governments up to now. This is no small step. The 2016 DWP is, however, quite right to say that changing technology and strategic circumstances might well force an Australian rethink about nuclear propulsion. The responsibility of the government we elect in 2016 should be to do what’s needed to enable a government in 2026 or later to make realistic decisions about nuclear propulsion".
SUBMARINE MATTERS COMMENT
Peter Jennings' comments on the politicians is timely, frank and fearless. He may be right that there needs to be a lead time of 20+ years to prepare the way for nuclear propulsion.
The South Australian nuclear fuel cycle royal commission actually delivered its Final Report in May 2016 to very little public interest or discussion (so far). This could be because both the South Australian Government and Federal Government have been very tentative in suggesting action this side of the July 2, 2016 Election and other milestones they can procrastinate about.
However, even if Australia spent 10s of $Billions on fuel-cycle raising infrastructure, eg. enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities, actually refueling submarine reactors is another thing. Refueling and servicing submarine reactors is a highly specialised science and art. The K15 reactors on Barracuda SSNs present a major refueling problem as it would need to be done every 7 to 10 years.
Perhaps if Australia could avoid decades of moving up the nuclear fuel cycle by purchasing or leasing Virginia SSNs with reactors that do not need refueling during the 33 year life of those submarines. "...a cadre of trained nuclear technicians, industry specialists and Navy crew able to work with nuclear propulsion systems" could perhaps be trained in pre-existing US facilities rather than Australia duplicating training facilities here. This is noting the US already has a track record of sharing its facitilities, training, SSBN, SSN and submarine reactor secrets with the UK since 1958.
A similar case is Australia pre-paying F-35s. Australia has been part of the US based F-35 program for around a decade, buying some F-35s that have remained in the US for years, with Australian pilots training on these F-35's using multi-$Billion US training facilities for several years. Australia has not needed to duplicatethe multi-$Billion US training facilities or reinvent many of the high-tech technology.
Please connect with many Submarine Matters articles over the last 7 years including: