Developing a nuclear-powered submarine may present no greater challenge for Australia than developing its own uniquely modified conventional submarine.
The Australian government has identified a security need for submarines capable of an increased range, patrol endurance and strike capacity relative to the currently used Collins model. These could be met either by modifying a traditional diesel-powered design, or moving to a nuclear alternative. With little or no nuclear industry existing in Australia at the moment, UCL’s International Energy Policy Institute in Adelaide produced a discussion paper considering in detail the question: ‘What would it take for Australia to develop a nuclear-powered submarine capability?’
This research, the first of its kind, finds a civil nuclear industry does not need to be developed in order for a nuclear-powered submarine option to become feasible. Perhaps more importantly, nuclear-powered submarines have proven operational capabilities – modifying a conventional submarine to deliver Australia’s operational requirements carries high risk.
The green paper provides a broad non-classified understanding of the requirements for nuclear naval (submarine) propulsion. Its findings can be summarised in eight main points:
1. Both developing nuclear-powered submarine capability and developing a uniquely modified conventional submarine design and construction capability are immense challenges for Australia and both need to be embedded in longer-term strategies to develop capabilities.
2. 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;
3. Since construction of conventional submarines also requires close working with allies, there appears to be little evidence that Australia would be more dependent on its allies if it leased or acquired nuclear-powered submarines;
4. There is a significant global shortage of nuclear regulatory personnel and there are significant challenges in developing this capability, although some already exists in Australia;
5. It is virtually certain that the fuel would be provided with the reactor. With the modern design trade-offs indicating that fuelling for life is preferable, issues around refuelling may not apply. The disposal of spent fuel may be resolved by negotiations with the provider of the initial reactor and fuel to also handle disposal..
6. Given this, it is possible that Australia would only need to manage short-lived wastes produced during operations and maintenance [of nuclear-powered submarines], which could be done within the facilities for disposal of low-level waste that are already planned for development in Australia;
7. It is unlikely that any major maintenance would take place in Australia, unless a phased approach to procurement took place where, for instance, the first boat would be leased (to provide capability quickly), with more of the final assembly carried out locally for subsequent vessels.
8. With the exception of the nuclear fuel in the reactor, all of the radioactive waste produced in the decommissioning of a nuclear submarine should be lower-level and manageable within the planned facilities.
This green paper is designed to draw out informed and constructive debate on the key issues that need to be addressed, should Australia decide to have nuclear submarines as all or part of its Future Submarines fleet.
You can download and read the Could Australia’s future submarines be nuclear-powered? green paper freely on the UCLAustralia website, and the text is available for use under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY license.