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.