Military

Report examines feasibility of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia

Report examines feasibility of...
A nuclear submarine could replace Austrlia's aging diesel fleet, such as HMAS Collins (Image: Royal Australian Navy)
A nuclear submarine could replace Austrlia's aging diesel fleet, such as HMAS Collins (Image: Royal Australian Navy)
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A nuclear submarine could replace Austrlia's aging diesel fleet, such as HMAS Collins (Image: Royal Australian Navy)
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A nuclear submarine could replace Austrlia's aging diesel fleet, such as HMAS Collins (Image: Royal Australian Navy)
HMS Astute (Image: Royal Navy)
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HMS Astute (Image: Royal Navy)
Australian submarines could be powered by nuclear reactors similar to this shore-based one at HMS Sultan in Britain (Image: Royal Navy)
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Australian submarines could be powered by nuclear reactors similar to this shore-based one at HMS Sultan in Britain (Image: Royal Navy)
FNS Rubis requires refueling every ten years (Image: Rama/Wikimediaa)
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FNS Rubis requires refueling every ten years (Image: Rama/Wikimediaa)
USS Seawolf (Image: US Navy)
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USS Seawolf (Image: US Navy)
Schematic of a nuclear submarine reactor (Image: Webber/Wikimedia)
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Schematic of a nuclear submarine reactor (Image: Webber/Wikimedia)

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)
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.

Schematic of a nuclear submarine reactor (Image: Webber/Wikimedia)
Schematic of a nuclear submarine reactor (Image: Webber/Wikimedia)

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)
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.

Source: UCL Australia

27 comments
Wombat56
It might be completely feasible from a technical and economical point of view, but you would never convince the anti-nuclear public. Australia would also have to import nuclear engineers from the US or UK for probably the first 10 years as we don't have any experience with nuclear power generation. So sadly, fat chance.
Threesixty
Collins Class brings memories of huge cost over-runs and delays when deployed in Oz long ago. Maybe it was just politics or media hype. It appears Oz ended up paying for the development when it purchased a complete product. This is a common strategy and the Oz caretakers should have been wiser. Hopefully the current caretakers are wiser. Debate about nuclear power is a smokescreen.
Chris Mahaffy
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. Why does the World need submarines at all? Just who, exactly, are the Aussies going to fight, the NSA?
davem2
Nuclear is stupider than anything. The author should go live in Fukushima.
Australian
Australia should not only have nuclear powered submarines, it should develop a full industry for full life-cycle management of the fuel. Australia has vast quantities of uranium which is mined from a desert region. Australia could process it, enrich it and use and sell it internationally. We could then reprocess spent uranium and resell it. At the end of it's usable life we could treat it and dispose of it in the very same desert where it originated from with even less likelyhood of it contaminating the already stable geology from where it came. Nuclear power is the only low carbon energy source for mass production of electricity. While renewables need to take on a bigger share, they simply cannot provide base load generation despite potential technologies which are starting to turned into reality like molten salts. These have their place but their generation capabilities are still so miniscule compared to demand. Australia stands to make a fortune from it's Uranium should the government ever make a serious commitment to it. Sadly there are a few ignorant people that spruik how bad nuclear is and create undue fear in the community, not the least of which is the coal lobby. The "Greens" party that claim to want to preserve the environment are just as hypocritical. They don't want coal but refuse to accept the only logical substitute. Consequently the environment continues to suffer with dozens of coal fired stations powering the nation. Unfortunately we have vast quantities of coal so looks like nothing is going to change anytime soon. Chris mahaffy, Australia has it's own interests to preserve. Whether you think that matters is irrelevant. The Australian Military is not very big but it is very well trained and when the skills are coupled with advanced equipment within our region, it serves as an effective deterrent to any would-be aggressors. The Nation itself is largely inhospitable. The challenge for any invading force would in the first instance be getting here, in the second, maintaining supply lines. This is why Australia has put so much emphasis on submarines and long range bombers/strikers. Until recently we still used F1-11 aircraft because it suited our purposes perfectly. Due to end-of-life and inability to continue it's logistic and maintenance support it was retired. The interim stop-gap is the F18 Superhornet because it provides the closest function to the F1-11. As for the NSA - well, the USA Government already has troops stationed in Darwin. A move that has not been popular with many Australians but seems expedient for US government relations.
Freyr Gunnar
> Aside from a pair of research reactors, Australia hasn't shown much interest in nuclear power. Which makes sense, with so much coal and so small a population.
splatman
@davem2 Fossil fuel use kills about 3,000,000 people annually. How many does nuclear kill? Now, what was stupider?
ClubDoug
Australian, agree with everything you have said (as a fellow Aussie). Kinda reminds me of travelling via plane vs travelling on the roads. Plane crashes catch so much more media attention due to the large casualty figures, which makes people scared to fly. Whereas in reality it's the safest, most regulated form of transport, and it grabs media attention due to the large number of casualties purely because there are large number of people in a normal jet plane! By far many more people die on the roads than in the air. But the media get us scared to fly. Same deal with nuclear power. When there are accidents, the fallout is quite large, therefore the media put huge emphasis on it and scare the public. Whereas the amount of waste from this modern day energy source is miniscule compared to the tons of carbon pumped into the atmosphere every day by coal fired power stations. Yet the media keep the public scared of nuclear and everyone's happy to continue burning stuff for their energy requirements, not much different to how our caveman ancestors lived millenia ago! Get with the program humans!
Nairda
Agree with Chris Mahaffy that subs of any propulsion are a thing of the past. UCAVs patrolling our borders would be a far better use of resources, with lower maintenance, and the ability to be retasked for civilian applications like searching for missing boats and people at sea. Besides, In a war between the two a swarm of the unmanned can hover overhead with deep penetration radar and depth chargers to make short work of any manned sub. I also agree with Australian in that the country has huge reserves of uranium that needs tapping for the world to use. Though would add I would only really be in favor of reactors that can't be used to create weapons grade material. Like the Thorium or pebble bed variety.
Toffe Carling
Or can go for Sterling engines subs like Sweden and Germany. USA couldn't find ours in the over 2 year long exercise where they hired the Swedish sub Gothland. The Swedish people thanks the US Navy for paying for some good training time. :D Only down side is the refueling of liquid oxygen but the sub is more silent than a cods fart. :D