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Nov 4, 2013

Why Australia should procure nuclear-powered submarines

Australia's six submarines are in poor condition and are due to be retired in 2025. Should nuclear-powered vessels replace them? Freelance writer Henry Belot finds passions running hot on both sides.



As Australia’s unreliable and ageing submarine fleet faces retirement, a leading nuclear engineering expert is urging the Abbott government to consider leasing nuclear-powered submarines from the United States. The proposal has divided politicians, military brass and the non-proliferation movement.

Stefaan Simons, director of the UCL International Energy Policy Institute, believes that developing a nuclear-powered submarine capability presents no greater challenge to Australia than developing a modified conventional fleet. He’ll outline his case in a speech in San Francisco later today. But with the exception of India, which is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by a non-nuclear-weapon state like Australia would be unprecedented and steer the country into uncharted legal waters.

Simons told Crikey “a reactor could be leased to Australia, probably as part of a US Virginia Class Submarine. Hence, there is no need for Australia to have a nuclear power industry, although, of course, this could eventually be a spin-off.”

The Australian Navy is facing a looming “capability gap” and may not have a single deployable submarine once the six much-maligned Collins Class submarines, which are in poor condition, are retired in 2025. In most cases, only two or three submarines are operational at any given time. On occasion, none have been operational.

Back in 2009, the Rudd government’s defence white paper promised a dozen new conventional submarines, but Defence still remains stumped on whether to lease, procure or construct replacement subs.

Importantly, the 2013 defence white paper released by then-defence minister Stephen Smith categorically ruled out replacing the Collins Class fleet with nuclear-powered subs. But there’s been a change since then, and some within the non-proliferation movement see little to fear in nuclear submarines.

Ramesh Thakur, director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, told Crikey that nuclear-powered submarines make a lot of sense for Australia. “They can be at sea for much longer periods. They are a lot less noisy and can therefore be much harder to detect by enemy forces,” said Thakur.

“… acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered subs would not and should not raise suspicions by others in the Asia-Pacific.”

Supporters of nuclear-powered subs often see a clear delineation between propulsion and armament. As Thakur told Crikey: “Being nuclear-powered by itself does not have any implications for weaponisation. Nuclear weapons are ruled out for Australia by both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, so acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered subs would not and should not raise suspicions by others in the Asia-Pacific about our non-nuclear weapons stance.”

But Shannon Kile, the head of the nuclear weapons project at the esteemed Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Crikey any acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines would create a dangerous precedent. “The spread of nuclear-powered submarines threatens to undermine or erode important arms control and non-proliferation goals,” he said. “It also complicates the already complex political and diplomatic task of negotiating a meaningful global Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty — an important piece of unfinished business on the multilateral arms control agenda.”

Simons acknowledges that the non-proliferation treaties remain the stumbling block for any potential lease agreement with the United States. “The NPT is the major hurdle, along with the restrictions on the movement of defence materials of national security interest, but our opinion is that these hurdles can be overcome with careful diplomacy,” he said.

But should they be? The UCL International Energy Policy Institute’s green paper Could Australia’s Future Submarines be Nuclear-Powered? admits that although many nations may not be overly concerned by the transfer of nuclear material and technology to Australia and the consequent removal of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, “some may be concerned that this sets an undesirable precedent and implies tacit international support for such transfers generally”.

Australia’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA requires the government to inform the IAEA should it intend to use fissile material for non-explosive military purposes. Australia would have to forge new agreements with the IAEA, and accept certain conditions, to ensure safeguarding.

But Kile says the IAEA regulations around nuclear-powered subs are too lax as it is. “The rather minimal safeguards applied to uranium designated naval nuclear reactors need to be strengthened to make it easier for the IAEA to achieve a timely detection of any nuclear weapons-related use of fissile material designation for naval nuclear propulsion,” he said.

The Abbott government has not announced any aim to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. While there were some suggestions of such a policy before the federal election, then-opposition defence spokesman David Johnson rejected the idea. “Nuclear submarines are not Coalition policy and they are not on the table for us to be examining,” Johnson said before the election.


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30 thoughts on “Why Australia should procure nuclear-powered submarines

  1. Andybob

    Whatever tactical benefits might arise from nuclear powered subs we should not overlook the strategic regional implications of greater use of nuclear energy. Increasing the risk of Indonesian radicals getting their hands on the makings of a nuclear ‘dirty’ weapon seems dumb.

  2. GJ Rogers

    A bit bewildered by Mr Thakur’s reported comments. Nuclear subs are NOT quieter than conventional ones. The opposite is true. This is one of the major advantages of conventional submarines, in fact. A nuclear submarine’s reactor must operate continuously, so produces noise from water circulation pumps etc. There is no way around this. A conventional sub can shut down its engine completely in order to operate off silent batteries when stealth is at a premium. Not sure whether the error is Mr Thakur’s or Crikey’s, but this is pretty fundamental to the convenional vs nuclear debate. Nuclear subs are STRATEGICALLY better because of their range and freedom from refuelling needs. Conventional subs are tactically better because they’re quieter.

  3. Boerwar

    Here are some issues not considered:

    Here some considerations not raised by what must rate as a very shallow article which appears to have been generated by nuclear-industry lobbying rather than by any attempt to come to a balanced view of the strategic military issues as they relate to a comparison between nuclear- and conventional powered boats. Just some of the issues not canvassed:

    (1) The comparative cost of acquisition and maintenance. At just under $3 billion per unit price the Virginia class boat is much more expensive than something like the Soryu, the Type 214, or even a customized child of the Collins. Even allowing for capacity of nuclear boats to stay at sea for much longer than conventional-powered boats, the immediate result of purchasing Virgina class boats on the current ‘budget’ would be that we would be scratching to maintain at sea 2 boats at a time.

    (2) The degree to which the choice between conventional and nuclear-powered ties us to third parties. In particular we lack the industry infrastructure to refuel. We would also lack all of the criticual propulsion machinery parts.

    (3) We lack the necessary engineering skills. This is already a critical issue for our conventional naval maintenance. Adding nuclear-powered boats would magnify this issue enormously.

    (4) We lack of the industry capacity necessary for refuelling. Apart from anything else this would tie us permanently to being fleet units of the US Navy. (Unless we purchased the nuclear-powered vessals from the Soviets).

    (5) While there is a strategic issue with the life of the Collins, there is no intrinsic reason to prefer nuclear-powered vessals over conventional boats to address this issue. Apart from anything else, the article overstates this issue. Ironically, it is highly likely that Australia will draw on US expertise in extending the operational life of the Virginia Class by decades in order to stretch the operational life of the Collins Class.

    (6) The ‘best’ thing by far about purchasing Virginia Class vessels would be that we would purchase them off the shelf. The horrendous tactical, strategic and fiscal risks involved in building custom boats in Adelaide would largely be avoided.

  4. dirtysnowball

    The argument that nukes are quieter is a bit dodgy, though closer to truth than it once was, but by blurring the distinction between tactical and strategic situations you run the line that nukes are less detectable because they’re not regularly running surfaced or snorkelling on diesels to actually go anywhere. Nukes have a lower “indiscretion rate”.
    More generally, I’d be surprised if the Non-Proliferation treaty would allow the Yanks or Poms to casually supply us with enough weapons grade uranium to blow up a small country, even if it was sealed in a submarine reactor.

  5. dirtysnowball

    The Virginias (and the British Astutes) are intended never to be refuelled, their highly enriched uranium fuel is supposed to be good for the planned thirty year life of the submarine. The French are using much less enriched civilian reactor grade fuel in the Barracuda class, but will need to refuel every decade.
    Not that there wouldn’t be other vital maintenance we have no expertise in.

  6. Michael Jones

    Yeah, there’s a clear argument to be made for conventional subs being a better tactical option because they can be very, very quiet.

    Getting mixed up and saying they’re louder completely erases this vital point.

  7. Malcolm Street

    The article fails to say just why we need the capabilities of nuclear subs. They’re faster and have longer range, but how is that relevant to our strategic situation? As others have pointed out, conventional subs are actually quieter in tactical situations. Are we supposed to be taking on China and India? And how much would this cost, not just in leasing but in specialised nuclear sub training such as reactor management?

    The biggie – how much control would we have over the subs in practice? My bet is that the US would only allow such technology out to another nation (even a close ally) under very tight controls – to me it would be the next step in the process that began under Howard of Australia’s armed forces being set up to only operate as an adjunct to the US.

    And wouldn’t this risk starting a regional arms race in nuclear powered subs, starting with Indonesia? And if they want to build their own aren’t they going to have to build their own enrichment facilities, even if they don’t have a nuclear power industry?

    And finally, I know both the Netherlands and Canada (and I imagine others) seriously looked at nuclear submarines in the past and both dropped the idea. Why are we different?

    The proposal, with all due respect, is nuts.

  8. AR

    I’d argue for neutron bombs planted throughout the nation, esp in town halls, so that anyone invading would be wiped out (assuming they’d already dispensed with we natives)without damaging valuable real estate & important stuff like that.

  9. Boerwar

    Oh, oh. I assume that we would be after the ‘improved’ Virginia class. Originally due in 2025, the delivery date has been pushed back to 2033.

    So much for the Collins Class ‘gap’ being a relevant issue.


  10. Scott

    We can barely staff the 58 odd sailors required for a collins class, let alone the 100 odd for a Virginia class.

    Really, the only advantage a nuclear sub has over a conventional is endurance…70 days is the max for a conventional where as a nuclear sub in theory has an indefinite range (But in practice, that is not the case. There is still a requirement for food/supplies etc)

    There is no doubt a submarine capability is a critical requirement for Australia, but we don’t need a monster nuclear sub to fulfill the navy’s mission. Stick with the conventional subs that are just as quiet, have as many teeth, but are smaller and have a skeleton crew.

  11. Geoff Russell

    We are talking about nuclear reactors on these submarines, not atomic weapons. Can someone explain what these have to do with the non-proliferation treaties? They aren’t weapons, they have no weapons grade material, their fuel can’t be made into weapons any more easily than an omelette can be made into an egg.

  12. dirtysnowball

    The fuel in the newest American and British submarines is real weapons-grade, more than 90% Uranium 235. Highly Enriched Uranium is more than 20%. Civilian reactors run on 3-5%.

  13. michael r james

    GJ Rogers at 2:09 pm

    There are even more serious stealth weaknesses:

    [The stealth weakness of nuclear submarines is the need to cool the reactor even when the submarine is not moving; about 70% of the reactor output heat is dissipated into the sea water. This leaves a “thermal wake”, a plume of warm water of lower density which ascends to the sea surface and creates a “thermal scar” that is observable by thermal imaging systems, e.g., FLIR.[14] Another problem is that the reactor is always running, creating steam noise, which can be heard on SONAR, and the reactor pump (used to circulate reactor coolant), also creates noise, as opposed to a conventional submarine, which can move about on incredibly silent electric motors.]

    It should also be noted that the US also has conventional (diesel-electric) subs which are more nimble and stealthy than the gigantic nuke subs.

    At any rate this article focuses on the wrong issue. Like most major countries (or even medium to small ones like Spain & Sweden) we should use the huge defense expenditures (eg. $36 bn sub program) to drive our own national industrial development and capacity.

    The author is also less than honest about the current state of the Collins subs. Most of the problems have been fixed (3 are at sea right now). The reason for the problems was because this was actually building a new design–it may be based on European technology but is much bigger and has better capacity, as needed for Australian purposes. Throwing away such hard-earned technical capacity would be exceptionally dumb at this stage.

    Especially in conventional subs where there is much potential for new technology that can overlap with some existing strengths in Australia (or should if renewable energy were more vigorously pursued) eg. Ultrabattery (super-capacitor with battery), fuel cells, etc. There is likely to be vast improvements in these and other energy storage methods over the next 10-20 years driven by the energy industry. These will greatly extend stealth operation times.

    Not to mention the appalling idea of outsourcing our defense even more than we already do … and to one country.

  14. Simon Mansfield

    click bait 101

  15. Tyler T

    How does this sort of rubbish end up on crikey, basic factual errors based on a discussion with a single ‘authority’. Please stop looking to News Ltd for inspiration…..

  16. Josh Cullen

    This is just a pointless article.

  17. condel

    “… acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered subs would not and should not raise suspicions by others in the Asia-Pacific.”- why buy nuclear subs if they mean nothing to anyone in our region. For Training and Practice? Then Training and Practice practice for what?

    Who are we going to monitor, or help monitor? Buy our selves?

    If they were to intercept Assylim seekers – then I accept buying a few Russian relics in good operable condition.

    State plainly which countries in our region have by way of modern military hardware. Or the commitments to future contracts.

    Tell the people1 I think we should have crews on US, UK, French etc subs after all, we will never actually act on our own in a real conflict, so since we are locked into this camp, get something out of it.

    As for nuclear proliferation being a mute point given the difference between nuclear armaments and nuclear for propulsion we may as well sell as many such subs as we can to all our neighbours! – that not proliferation, in a technical sense nut is is in a real sense. At the very least it will seed some nations hasten their military programmes. They may choose more jets over subs?

    In the end it’s ‘more modern arminants in the region with far more lethal subs, nuclear or not.

    “It’s not a weapons race,i t’s a looming of capability gap.”

    Everyone know the madness of the proliferation of modern armaments but defence pundits always have an excuse.

  18. Aidan Stanger

    What would we do with a nuclear submarine? They can’t get it into shallow enough water for it to be useful for espionage like our existing subs allegedly are.

  19. Gratton Wilson

    It is time that we grew up and accepted the fact that war is not cost effective and does not produce a desirable outcome for anybody except armament makers. There is no way that submarines can be described as a weapon of defence – they are created for aggression. If we spent the time and money currently spent on “Defence” and spent the same on good neighbour behaviour we wouldn’t have this stupid and expensive waste. We don’t need it.

  20. Suzanne Blake

    Absolutely yes and we should use it for power as well.

    Lots of safe places we can store the spent fuel rods as well

  21. Eamonn Gosney

    “Navy chief Vice Admiral Ray Griggs says there will be problems if the mining industry continues to poach his dwindling supply of submarine engineering officers…”

    In this day and age, why does the navy even need crude (crewed) submarines?
    Why not just have robot ‘drone’ subs, that Vice Admiral Griggs can operate single-handedly by remote, from his armchair in Canberra.

    Eamonn Gosney
    Ex-RAN 1972-79
    ‘Services No Longer Required’

  22. Peter Bayley

    If they don’t carry formidable (i.e. nuclear) weapons and thus act as a hidden deterrent, what bloody use are submarines nuclear or conventional? The US Military understand the future is with unmanned vehicles. Let’s build our own set of drones appropriate to our defence needs and not, yet again, fall for armament-industry mumbo-jumbo

  23. Eamonn Gosney

    Ms Gina Rinehart
    Mining Heiress, Hancock Prospecting

    Mr Andrew Forrest
    Chairman, Fortescue Metals

    Dear Ms Rinehart & Mr Forrest

    I am writing to let you both know that it won’t matter how much money either of you offer me, that it will not make any difference.

    My heart is with the Navy, and that’s that.

    Kind regards


  24. condel

    If you say let’s go for nuclear submarines, then why dither with cheap and affordable – get a few of super-subs with ICBM’s chase the Russians around the Malina shelf – either use it to learn how to be powerlly effective if the occassionb arises or not to just *uck around. You say to ‘*uck around is ok based on cost benefits. The benefits are theory the costs are real debt into 000,000’s millions.

  25. matthew east

    What needs to be assessed is why the Collins class failed. The Collins class in its self is not such a bad submarine but the politic’s and planning behind it made it appear as such.

    1. The never stock piled spare parts, This led to increasing maintenance times thus both increasing the overall cost for the upkeep but also decreasing the operational time.

    2. The design was owned by a Swedish company and because of bad foresight we were/are not allowed to change anything legally with out there say so. Biggest problem with this has been the engines that are actually designed for a train (that no train has used). But ignoring that having a vital piece of defence at the ransom of a company be it local or foreign is a big no no.

    There are other factors but those two to me seem to be the biggest ones.

    That being said, Nuclear or conventional?

    Both have there uses and realistically both would be in one form or another good for Australia but going strictly nuclear is a no no.

    1. Our region is filled with shallow waters that are more suited to smaller submarines, The submarines we have (or have planned) are only have the size or less then that of the average US attack submarine (Los Angeles, Seawolf and Virginia classes) meaning the conventional sub’s have an easier time navigating, If it was in the open deep blue sea then the nuclear sub would likely be the better option but for Australia with shallow water’s between us and any conceivable threat conventional the better choice.

    That being said there is an argument that could be made for going for both. Having nuclear would give us the range as well as the VLS Tomahawk launch capability being built into the latest Virginia’s (28 Tomahawks a piece) which would be wonderful as a long range strike capability against the attacking nation, So a mix fleet of both perhaps?

    Jointly build the nuclear submarines with the US which would buy us breathing room for the design, perfection and implementation of a domestic conventional sub (likely AIP).

    Should point out that European submarines for the most part have been ruled out (conventional use ones) due to all of the active ones being to small for our need’s, While Germany has done a design for a larger one Type 216 it could very well end up as another Collins class.

  26. matthew east


    You asked which countries had plans for future military equipment in our region? So far Vietnam has ordered 6 Kilo class subs from Russia and Indonesia has ordered 2 with stated future plans of a fleet of no less then 14 subs by 2025

    @michael r james The US actually doesnt have any Diesel electric submarines although some have suggested getting a few so they dont have to rely on Australia all the time.

    @Boerwar No not the improved one but nice 😛 Likely the Block IV variant but possibly the Block V, VI or VII.

    @Malcolm Street Likely the US would t ry and r etain some control, But they also tried that with the F-18’s holding onto the coding when we wanted to upgrade some stuff.. So to save hassles we actually hacked them and stole it 😛 Might do the same with any Submarine order’s hehe

  27. Eamonn Gosney

    I have been wondering whether, if the Navy spent half of the $36 billion currently being spent on replacement submarines


    purchasing $18 billion worth of soft cuddly toys, and if our ships went on goodwill tours around the globe distributing these soft cuddly toys, whether this would actually achieve far more for Australia’s defence, and give us much more bang-for-buck towards our standing in the world community then purchasing submarines would.

  28. matthew east

    While good will goes a long way the sad reality is that other nations are right now getting the ability and even growing it with submarine numbers to match or exceed Australia by 2025 from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand (possibly) and even the Philippines then there is still China and India.

    Now while we are generally on good term’s with all of these nations that could all change in less then a year and unless we make sure that we have top notch sub’s then and there we could suffer from lack of spending, That being said I do reckin we could get more bang for our buck with $36b spent.. At least 18 sub’s.

    What I’d like our government and Navy do is invest in a Hospital ship/Support vessel that could do good will tours providing medical care and aid to communities around SE Asia and beyond.

  29. Eamonn Gosney

    Australia doesn’t need to build more submarines. All we need do is invite the distinguished officials of Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, China and India down to an outback barbecue. Ask them all to turn up with the billions of dollars that they would otherwise have spent purchasing new submarine fleets.

    Then everyone can just sit around eating a nice meal, having a beer and enjoying festivities, while the treasurers from each country take turns tossing great wads of money onto the bonfire. This way we can all be friends, with no-one any longer having cause to feel threatened by the others torpedoes.

  30. matthew east

    Sounds good on paper and I’d love it to be like that with world peace and global efforts to defeating our problems but in reality it is far from the case.

    Even if Australia was not to be directly involved from the beginning in a possible future war the chances of us being pulled in are high simply because of our resources and agriculture. We are a strong supply base that would be thought over to deny us our use us.

    Reality sucks is all that I can say..

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