Opinion: Former naval officer and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner argues that Australia can build nuclear submarines locally in a timely and affordable manner — and analyses the threats and opportunities of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine program.
The Australian recently carried the headline “Nuclear build beyond us…” and connected this with a notional need for interim conventionally powered submarines — which I dispute because we can build nuclear submarines here, and in a timely and affordable manner. This view is shared by Greg Sheridan in his latest column “We should welcome US ‘apex predators’ for interim defence”, The Weekend Australian 3–4 December, where he sees any interim submarine requirement met by basing US Navy Virginia Class boats in Western Australia.
The nub of this debate is the time it will take to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia as proclaimed in the AUKUS agreement in September 2021 and earnestly confirmed by Australian governments ever since. The widespread discussion focuses on the sheer lead time to prepare for this step-change in capability in a manner that receives the full support of both the USA and the UK, and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on safety and security, and the wider international community on the stewardship of highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear fuel as used in current US and UK submarine reactors.
The issue with HEU is that this level of enrichment is also used for nuclear weapons which are expressly forbidden by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which Australia is a longstanding signatory.