Editors’ choice for 2021: “Australia’s decision on nuclear submarines leaves more questions than answers”
Originally published September 30, 2021.
It is true, as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued, that few questions raised by the government’s announcement that Australia will acquire nuclear powered submarines (SSNs) have been answered. The particular question he raised relates to the nature of the nuclear industry required to support submarines, but there are others that are just as critical to the success of the company.
On the Turnbull issue, the government has suggested that the “game changer” that allows us to acquire SSNs is the development of reactors that do not need to be refueled during the life of the submarines. which means we don’t need a civilian nuclear industry to support them. However, operating submarines that don’t need refueling still requires a nuclear industry – it’s just not the industry you might initially imagine.
We may not need civilian nuclear power plants or facilities capable of enriching uranium to power the submarine’s reactor, but we will still need to perform maintenance and repair of the submarines, including the reactor. You can’t have an effective military capability if you have to send it back to the United States every time there’s a defect. Further maintenance will require putting the boats in dry dock and shutting down the reactor, working on it and restarting it safely. We will have to develop this maintenance workforce from a very weak base.
We will also need an independent and highly skilled workforce capable of establishing and enforcing the rigorous safety regime that is absolutely essential to the operation of a nuclear fleet. This regulatory workforce will need to be built up almost from scratch and will need to be in place well before the arrival of the first boat.
It may be possible to develop this workforce without a civilian nuclear sector, but it is misleading to say that we will not have a nuclear industry. Any business in which you operate, shutdown, restart and maintain reactors, all in a robust and reliable regulatory and safety environment, is an industry. And much of this industry has to be under Australian leadership, otherwise we won’t have sovereign control over our most important military capability.
What is the scale of this workforce and how can it be developed? Hopefully, in the year of the discussions leading up to the government’s announcement, the Defense Department 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 business.
First, with the first SSN not going into service until the late 2030s, how are we going to maintain an effective submarine capability? On this schedule, our Collins submarines will be older than the Indonesian KRI submarine. Nanggala who was lost with all hands in a training accident earlier this year.
Second, how much is it going to cost? The government said it would cost more than the canceled attack class. Much will depend on which vessel we choose and the size of the enabling industry and workforce. Fifty percent more than the $ 90 billion for the Attack Class might be a safe starting point.
Third, what is the role of Australian industry in building and maintaining VMS? The Australians would like a lot of that money to stay here, but they also don’t want Australian industry participation requirements to slow down delivery and increase costs.
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 to 56 for the Collinses. We will probably need at least twice as many submariners, so we will have to significantly increase their number while simultaneously imparting nuclear engineering skills. they can safely operate the boats.
This comes to the final question. During the Attack Class program, many observers requested a Plan B because of its cost, timing, and capabilities. The government has now moved 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 work.
Whenever ASPI has looked at the way forward for acquiring nuclear ships, we have concluded that Australia still needs a new conventional submarine to ensure that we can safely transition to a nuclear fleet. Yet the government canceled the Attack program and cut the ties behind it. So the last question is, what is it that gives the government such confidence that this plan is going to work?