Australia’s nuclear submarine decision leaves more questions than answers
30 Sep 2021|

It is correct, as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has asserted, that few of the questions raised by the government’s announcement that Australia will acquire nuclear-propelled submarines (SSNs) have been answered. The particular question he raised goes to the nature of the nuclear industry needed to support the submarines, but there are others that are just as essential to the success of the enterprise.

On Turnbull’s question, the government has suggested that the ‘game-changer’ enabling us to acquire SSNs is the development of reactors that don’t need to be refuelled over the life of the submarines, meaning we don’t need a civil nuclear industry to support them. However, operating submarines that don’t need refuelling still requires a nuclear industry—it just isn’t the industry you might first imagine.

We may not need civil nuclear power plants, or facilities that can enrich uranium to fuel the submarine’s reactor, but we’ll still need to perform maintenance and repair on the submarines, including the reactor. You can’t have an effective military capability if you need to return it to the US any time there’s a defect. Deeper maintenance will require putting the boats in dry dock and shutting down the reactor, working on it and starting it up again in an absolutely safe manner. We’ll need to develop that maintenance workforce from a very low base.

We’ll also need an independent and highly skilled workforce that can establish and enforce the rigorous safety regime that is absolutely critical to the operation of a nuclear fleet. That regulatory workforce will need to be built almost from scratch and will need to be in place well before the first boat arrives.

It may be possible to develop that workforce without a civil nuclear sector, but it’s misleading to say we won’t have a nuclear industry. Any enterprise where you are operating, shutting down, restarting and maintaining reactors—all in a robust and trustworthy regulatory and safety environment—is an industry. And much of that industry needs to be under Australian management—otherwise, we won’t have sovereign control of our most significant military capability.

What is the scale of that workforce and how do we develop it? Hopefully in the year of discussions leading up to the government’s announcement, the Department of Defence was able to develop a reasonable understanding of the answer to the question.

But there are other unanswered questions that are just as critical to the success of the enterprise.

First, with the first SSN not entering service until the late 2030s, how will we maintain an effective submarine capability? On that schedule, our Collins submarines will be older than the Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala that was lost with all hands in a training accident earlier this year.

Second, what’s it going to cost? The government has said it will cost more than the cancelled Attack class. A lot will depend on which boat we select and the size of the enabling industry and workforce. Fifty per cent more than the $90 billion for the Attack class could be a safe starting assumption.

Third, what is the role of Australian industry in the building and sustainment of the SSNs? Australians would like to see a lot of that money stay here, but they also don’t want to see requirements for Australian industry involvement slow down delivery and drive costs up.

Fourth, how are we going to generate the much larger uniformed workforce needed to operate the new fleet? The US Navy’s Virginia-class SSNs have a crew of about 130, compared with the Collins’ 56. We’ll likely need at least twice as many submariners, so we’ll have to dramatically grow their numbers while simultaneously imparting nuclear engineering skills so they can safely operate the boats.

That gets to the final question. During the Attack-class program, many observers called for a Plan B due to its cost, schedule and capability. The government has now jumped from the previous Plan A to something completely different. But, in light of these unanswered questions, there are already calls for another Plan B in case the new plan doesn’t deliver.

Every time ASPI has looked at the path to acquiring nuclear boats we’ve concluded that Australia still needs a new conventional submarine to ensure we can safely transition to a nuclear fleet. Yet the government has cancelled the Attack program and burned its bridges behind it. So, the final question is, what gives the government such confidence that this plan is going to work?