June 10, 2016

Nuclear Propulsion Advocated in Major Australian Document of June 7, 2016

Peter JenningsExecutive Director of the Australian Strategic 
Policy Institute (ASPI)

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has produced a strongly worded briefing paper:
Agenda for Change 2016: Strategic choices for the next government, of June 7, 2016, [100 page PDF, 6.1MB]. A major purpose of Agenda for Change 2016 is to discuss a subject effectively blocked by political interests from being proactively discussed in the 2016 Defence White Paper [10MB]. That subject is the place of future submarine nuclear propulsion as a serious option for Australia. It argues Australia should "Prepare the ground for submarine nuclear propulsion" in order that this propulsion can be used in Australian submarines by the 2040s

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".

Prepare 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:

During the long life of the new submarines, the rapid rate of technological change and ongoing evolution of Australia’s strategic circumstances will continue. As part of the rolling acquisition program, a review based on strategic circumstances at the time, and developments in submarine technology, will be conducted in the late 2020s to consider whether the configuration of the submarines remains suitable or whether consideration of other specifications should commence. [9. Australian Government, 2016 Defence White Paper, paragraph 4.29, online.] 

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:

1.   Commission an expert panel to evaluate necessary steps to position for a nuclear propulsion option. The panel should produce a public discussion paper setting out the challenges, risks, opportunities, financial cost and industry requirements necessary to support this technology.

2.   As Adelaide is being positioned to be the centre of continuous ship and submarine construction in Australia, the federal and state governments should jointly develop a plan to strengthen university-level instruction in physics, nuclear engineering and necessary supporting sciences based in South Australia. 

[page 16] 
3.   The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) should develop a training program in collaboration with the US Navy and potentially the French and UK navies for officers and other personnel involved in operating nuclear propulsion systems.

4.   The Defence Science and Technology Group should do its own scoping study to determine Defence’s science and technology requirements to support a move to nuclear propulsion.

5.   Defence, in conjunction with other government agencies, will need to determine how to establish an appropriate safety regime to manage nuclear propulsion systems, and quantify the investment needed to make naval bases and support systems suitable to accommodate nuclear submarines.

6.   Defence should discuss with the US the possibility of seconding significant numbers of RAN personnel in to the US Navy submarine arm. Beyond the nuclear propulsion aspect, this has a number of benefits: the RAN can grow its own cadre of submariners, which it will have to do to prepare for the future submarine, and we will be able to enhance alliance cooperation with the US Navy in a critical area of strategic interest to both countries. 

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".

[page 17] "Conclusion 
The diversity of these four recommendations - concluding a major war, redesigning ANZUS cooperation, planning for nuclear propulsion and reorienting the Australian defence industry to export markets - shows the enormous task expected of the Australian Government. Most particularly, the Defence Minister will play a central role in delivering on these policy suggestions. It’s regrettable that since the publication of the last Agenda for reform paper in August of 2013 we’ve had four defence ministers (Stephen Smith, David Johnston, Kevin Andrews and Marise Payne) in less than 36 months. For any new policy initiative to get traction and to make a difference, we need the next Defence Minister, indeed the next

[page 18] government, to prize stability in cabinet positions—in the old phrase, ‘good process delivers good policy.’ To that nostrum one might add the thought that experienced ministers who have received adequate sleep and aren’t prone to panic are the sponsors of good processes. Australia needs these capabilities more desperately now than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

See the whole of ASPI's Agenda for Change 2016: Strategic choices for the next government, of June 7, 2016, [100 page PDF, 6.1MB] 


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:

-  French Attack Submarines (SSNs) For Australia? First Published March 31, 2009

-  Australian Nuclear Submarine Option - Virginia SSNs of February 10, 2015 and others.



Anonymous said...

Hi Pete

We have had a chance to build ship with nuclear propulsion, Mutsu by Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), nearly 50 years ago [1]. A minor leakage [2] of neutrons and gamma rays from the reactor shielding was observed during the first nuclear power navigation tests carried on the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Aomori Prefecture, Sep/01/1974. There was no significant radiation exposure, but it became a political issue, with local fisherman blocking her return to the home port for more than 50 days. Mutsu had to wander many ports for 16 years to remove nuclear reactor. After that, JAEA did not plan, build or purchase nuclear ship except modified reactor and reactor for deep submergence vehicle.

Building nuclear submarines is technically possible for Japan and I think that JMSDF has desire to equip nuclear submarines, but, we cannot equip them because of said situation. Even if we build nuclear submarines, no governor will offer a port. Overcoming prejudice is quite difficult and we should not underestimate it.

[1] https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%80%E3%81%A4_(%E5%8E%9F%E5%AD%90%E5%8A%9B%E8%88%B9)
[2] ibid, reference (5),” Leaked radiation per hour is 0.002 (MS/h), which is only twice as much as radiation from radiation from general brown tube TV”.


Peter Coates said...

Hi S

Thanks for that information. I have located an English wikipedia reference https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutsu_(ship)

I'll do an article on Japanese ship reactors later this week.



Anonymous said...

Hi Pete

In the case of Mutsu, though radiation leakage from the reactor shield occurred, Asahi Shinbun reported as leakage of radioactive substance. It was huge mistake, because radiation leakage and leakage of radioactive substance are perfectly different. While human body is temporally exposed in the former leakage, the latter leakage causes internal exposure and results in serious damage of body even in trace amounts of the radioactive substance in body.

JAEA published reported on reactor for deep submergence vehicle (DRX) [1] and modified reactor for large ship [MRX] in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Iin the first mid-term planning from 2005 to 2009, the second mid-term planning from 2010 to 2014 and the early stage (from 2015 to current ) of the third mid-term planning from 2015 to 2021, research on reactor for ship was not conducted by JAEA at all [2]. Japan is not currently planning development of nuclear submarine.

[1] http://www.rist.or.jp/atomica/data/pict/07/07040401/05.gif
[2] http://jolissrch-inter.tokai-sc.jaea.go.jp/pdfdata/JAERI-Tech-97-048.pdf
[3] https://www.jaea.go.jp/about_JAEA/business_plan.html


Peter Coates said...

Thanks S

I'll add your 13/6/16 4:08 PM info to the article.

More effective Chinese SSNs and US isolationism may change the Japanese public's mind in the 10+ year longer term.