Aside from a pair of research reactors, Australia hasn't shown much interest in nuclear power. Will that change? It could, at least as far as the Royal Australian Navy is concerned, according to a green paper by University College London (UCL). Published on August 12, the discussion paper argues that it is entirely feasible for Australia to replace its aging fleet of diesel submarines with nuclear-powered craft for about the same cost as the conventional design currently under consideration.

Australia’s current fleet of six Collins-class submarines are at the end of their service life and will need replacement by the late 2020s. A 2013 Australian government white paper by the states that the government is committed to building a replacement for the Collins class in South Australia and that this will be an “evolved” Collins using diesel power rather than a nuclear design.

Written by UCL’s International Energy Policy Institute in Adelaide, the new discussion paper does not directly advocate a nuclear fleet and doesn't address strategic, tactical or political questions in detail. It’s intended to spark a debate about what sort of submarines could be selected when it comes time to decide on how to replace Australia’s current submarine fleet.

Australian submarines could be powered by nuclear reactors similar to this shore-based one at HMS Sultan in Britain (Image: Royal Navy)

The UCL paper is based on the requirements laid out by the government that the new submarines must have increased range, endurance and strike capability compared the the Collins class. The conclusion is that a nuclear craft would be the best fit for fulfilling those requirements.

According to the paper, a domestic nuclear industry is not needed to obtain a nuclear fleet and historically national defense has spurred nuclear programs before civilian applications. In addition, there’s been considerable progress in submarine design since the first nuclear boats were built in 1954.

Early nuclear submarines had to be refueled on a regular basis. By the next generation operating in the 1980s, submarines were refueled so infrequently that the hull had to be cut open to replace the fuel rods. Today, US and UK reactors are so efficient that the fuel will outlast the service life of the submarine, so they aren't designed to be refueled at all. Furthermore, the West’s safety record with nuclear submarines has been excellent and current designs may be as quiet as diesel boats.

The paper also addresses the issue of waste disposal. “With the exception of the nuclear fuel in the reactor, all of the radioactive waste produced in the decommissioning of a nuclear submarine should be lower-level and manageable within the planned facilities,”says Director of the IEPI, Professor Stefaan Simons. “It is virtually certain that the fuel would be provided with the reactor. With the modern design trade-offs, indicating that fueling for life is preferable, issues around refueling (i.e. the management of spent fuel) would probably not apply and any spent fuel could possibly be the responsibility of the country of origin, depending on negotiations.”

The authors argue that a nuclear sub would have a significant impact on the pacific region by providing a deterrent advantage because they can remain submerged indefinitely, have high speed and deploy quickly. They also state that operating nuclear-powered subs would give Australia expertise useful in international nuclear regulation and would not violate the non-proliferation treaty, which does not cover nuclear submarines, because it’s the fuel cycle that’s important, not a submarine reactor entirely unsuitable for building weapons.

As far as the costs are concerned, the paper concludes that a nuclear submarine would be competitive with a modified Collins-class submarine. According to the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a USS Virginia class submarine would more reliable and cost effective than an evolved Collins class submarine and the same applies to a British Astute class submarine. The authors set the overall costs of a nuclear replacement at between A$2 billion and A$3 billion (US$1.8 billion to US$2.7 billion).

HMS Astute (Image: Royal Navy)

How Australia would get a nuclear submarine depends on whether a decision is made to build, buy or lease. Regardless of which, possessing such a submarine would mean acquiring the technology to maintain and operate it.

This raises the question of Australia becoming dependent on its allies, though the paper points out that this is also true of diesel submarines, even if built in Australia. Diesel craft are also becoming increasingly obsolete and they could be seen as riskier from an alliance point, since a nuclear submarine reactor is self-contained for its working life.

As to where Australia would get a nuclear submarine from, there are six countries that currently operate them, but the United States, Britain, and France are the only likely suppliers. The US is a probable source of surplus boats, Australia has a military cooperation agreement with Britain, which includes close cooperation on submarines, and France could also be a source, though the French technology is less advanced and the French boats still require refueling every ten years. Any decision taken would involve making certain that work is done within security restrictions and in accord with treaty agreements.

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