A 2019, a federal government-dominated parliamentary committee released a report on nuclear power titled ‘Not without your approval’. The report emphasised that nuclear power would not be pursued without community support.
But now, the government has secretly decided that Australia will acquire nuclear submarines, with or without your approval, and any consultation will be tokenistic. This is the DAD ‒ Decide, Announce, Defend ‒ approach which is the antithesis of good government.
We only need to go back to the 2016 decision to purchase French-designed submarines to see how poor decisions can be made even when tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars are at stake.
Rex Patrick ‒ a South Australian Senator and former submariner ‒ said: “The main question about @ScottMorrisonMP’s nuclear sub announcement is simple. Why should we expect his ministers and defence bureaucrats to do any better with this deal than their previous procurement disasters? No grounds for confidence there.”
Despite the government’s secrecy and obstinacy, the plan for nuclear subs could easily collapse for any number of reasons including economics (eight nuclear subs will cost north of A$100 billion, and decommissioning and waste management could cost just as much), the availability of comparable or superior options, and public and political opposition.
Because the internal discussions and international negotiations have been secret, we have no way of knowing whether alternative options have been properly considered. These include the options of building fewer submarines (or none at all), and advanced lithium-ion battery technology.
The Coalition’s attitude towards batteries for energy storage has been hostile and ignorant, and there’s no reason to believe that consideration of advanced battery submarine propulsion has been any more adult.
A majority of Coalition MPs support repeal of federal laws banning nuclear power even though it is vastly more expensive than renewables ‒ and significantly more expensive than renewables plus backup stored power.
Put this all together in the mind of defence minister Peter Dutton and it’s a culture war: nuclear good, batteries bad, own the Libs.
Simplistic, ideological thinking appears to go beyond the Coalition culture warriors. I’m told by the author of a book on Australian submarines that “there’s a phenomenon I refer to as “nuclear zealotry” which seems to be alive and well in parts of the Australian submarine community”.
All countries operating nuclear submarines ‒ the five ‘declared’ weapons states plus India ‒ have both nuclear power and weapons.
Then Defence Minister Christopher Pyne noted that in 2019 that Australia would be the only country in the world with nuclear submarines but no domestic nuclear industry to back them up. Hence the earlier preference for non-nuclear subs.
Building a domestic nuclear industry to support nuclear submarines would be astronomically expensive and problematic in other respects.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted that the nuclear submarine proposal won’t translate into a push for nuclear power plants in Australia. But within hours of the AUKUS announcement, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) called for the repeal of laws banning nuclear power in Australia ‒ laws which might need to be amended to accommodate nuclear subs.
“Now that Australia is acquiring nuclear submarines which use small reactors, there is no reason why Australia should not be considering SMRs [small modular reactors] for civilian use,” the MCA said, adding that SMRs “will provide some of the cheapest zero emission 24/7 power available.”
Even by the standards of the pro-coal, pro-nuclear, anti-renewables MCA, that’s a grotesque lie. Power from SMRs would be far more expensive than that from conventional nuclear ‒ which is far more expensive than renewables.
Hence the paucity of investment in SMRs and the insistence of would-be developers that taxpayers should shoulder the risk.
The far-right culture warriors will argue that it is absurd to pursue submarine reactors but not land-based reactors for power generation. They will argue that it is absurd to pursue military reactors but not civil reactors.
Sane Coalition MPs understand that nuclear power is hopelessly uneconomic and a political non-starter. Their patience and resilience will be tested as the nuclear culture wars drag on and on.
Does the government secretly want to bring Australia closer to a nuclear weapons capability via a nuclear submarine program? Does that partly explain why the Morrison government refuses to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and has actively undermined the Treaty at every step? (In the late 1960s, John Gorton’s government actively pursued a nuclear power program and Gorton later acknowledged a hidden weapons agenda. Gorton opposed Australia signing the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)
Nuclear submarines would certainly bring Australia closer to a nuclear weapons capability, whether or not that is part of the plan. At a minimum, staff trained for a nuclear submarine program could later find themselves working on a weapons program.
The northern suburbs of Adelaide would become Australia’s second hub of nuclear expertise along with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s research reactor site south of Sydney. (ANSTO’s predecessor, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, was heavily involved in the push for nuclear weapons in the 1960s.)
Will the Morrison government insist on some degree of technology transfer as part of the submarine negotiations, such that Australia develops some degree of nuclear reactor manufacturing capability? That will be a test of the government’s true intentions, but of course the negotiations will be conducted in secret and the rest of us can only speculate.
Will Australia’s pursuit of nuclear subs encourage other countries to do the same? Will Indonesia take steps to move closer to a nuclear weapons capability as Australia deliberately or inadvertently does the same? If so, Indonesia will likely seek to acquire nuclear subs or nuclear power or both.
Most nuclear subs use highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. The use of HEU fuel in nuclear subs is a huge problem, accounting for a majority of the non-weapons use of HEU.
So, will Australia insist on the use of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel ‒ which is still problematic since it presumes the existence and operation of enrichment plants, but is preferable since LEU cannot be used directly in weapons? If so, what are the implications for submarine performance, reactor lifespan and refuelling requirements, etc.? Or will we contribute to the proliferation of HEU?
There will be another push for uranium enrichment in Australia. In the mid-2000s, then Prime Minister John Howard likened uranium enrichment to value-adding to the wool industry ‒ an absurd comparison since enrichment provides a direct pathway to fissile material for weapons, in the form of HEU.
Australia’s involvement in enrichment R&D began in 1965 with the ‘Whistle Project‘ in the basement of Building 21 at Lucas Heights. Those in the know were supposed to whistle as they walked past Building 21 and say nothing about the enrichment work.
The government claims that the pursuit of nuclear-powered subs won’t undermine the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But a decade ago, Australia colluded with the US to take a sledgehammer to the NPT by allowing nuclear trade with (and uranium sales to) India, a violation of the NPT principle of prohibiting nuclear trade with non-NPT states.
And even if the NPT is not further weakened by the pursuit of nuclear-powered subs, immense damage can be and often is done within the framework of the NPT. The proliferation of HEU is a case in point.
The government has been silent about disposal of the high-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste generated by a nuclear submarine program.
No country in the world has a repository for high-level nuclear waste. The only deep underground nuclear waste repository in the world ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the US, for disposal of long-lived intermediate-level nuclear waste ‒ was shut down from 2014 to 2017 following a chemical explosion in a waste barrel, with costs estimated at $2 billion.
Waste from a nuclear submarine program would be dumped on Aboriginal land, as is the case with the federal government’s current plan to dump Australia’s nuclear waste at Kimba in SA despite the unanimous opposition of Barngarla Traditional Owners.
It speaks volumes about the crude racism of the federal and SA Coalition governments that they are prepared to ignore unanimous Aboriginal opposition to a nuclear dump.
The federal government even fought to exclude Traditional Owners from a so-called ‘community survey’. SA Labor’s policy is that Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over any proposed nuclear facility including a nuclear waste dump.
The high-level and long-lived intermediate-level nuclear waste generated by nuclear submarines would cost many billions of dollars to dispose of, based on cost estimates overseas.
For example, the cost estimate for a high-level nuclear waste repository in France is A$40 billion. The US government estimates that to build a high-level nuclear waste repository and operate it for 150 years would cost A$130 billion.
The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Royal Commission estimated a cost of A$145 billion over 120 years for construction, operation and decommissioning of a high-level nuclear waste repository.
It is highly unlikely that the government has considered these massive long-term costs in its secret deliberations. Submarine decommissioning is also likely to be an expensive and potentially dangerous nightmare for future generations to grapple with.
Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.