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Report examines feasibility of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia

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August 18, 2013

A nuclear submarine could replace Austrlia's aging diesel fleet, such as HMAS Collins (Ima...

A nuclear submarine could replace Austrlia's aging diesel fleet, such as HMAS Collins (Image: Royal Australian Navy)

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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...
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)

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

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
27 Comments

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.

Wombat56
18th August, 2013 @ 10:37 pm PDT

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.

Threesixty
19th August, 2013 @ 01:38 am PDT

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?

Chris Mahaffy
19th August, 2013 @ 02:24 am PDT

Nuclear is stupider than anything.

The author should go live in Fukushima.

davem2
19th August, 2013 @ 02:56 am PDT

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.

Australian
19th August, 2013 @ 03:56 am PDT

> 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.

Freyr Gunnar
19th August, 2013 @ 04:34 am PDT

@davem2

Fossil fuel use kills about 3,000,000 people annually. How many does nuclear kill?

Now, what was stupider?

splatman
19th August, 2013 @ 05:55 am PDT

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!

ClubDoug
19th August, 2013 @ 06:17 am PDT

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.

Nairda
19th August, 2013 @ 07:09 am PDT

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

Toffe Kaal
19th August, 2013 @ 09:26 am PDT

If you're going to be as obedient as the Brits, then Oz needs whatever subs Uncle Sugar says you need. Even as a military history I'd be hard-pressed to recall the last time any nation's subs did something useful.

Hey, you'd prolly get more hacks voting for this than something truly wasteful - like education, healthcare, alternative energy research.

Speaking of which, I decided to switch my prime support for electricity from nuclear to solar/wind after 60 years just looking at cost v output curves. The chance for fission power is gone.

Ed Campbell
19th August, 2013 @ 10:20 am PDT

Guess Australia has forgotten Neville Schute's book On The Beach ... not surprised ... it must be 60 years ago, now. People can forget anything in two generations.

Jansen Estrup
19th August, 2013 @ 10:36 am PDT

Just what the world needs, mobile Fukushimas?

ezeflyer
19th August, 2013 @ 10:43 am PDT

EZ, have US send em one of our decomm models to RAN for reuse

Very doable

Sail sub to Australia for Decomm & fly crew home afterwards.

Stephen N Russell
19th August, 2013 @ 05:25 pm PDT

Submarines represented less then 5% of navel vessels in WW2 but represented over 95% of all losses , Submarines are the best deterrent to any would be aggressor, Nuclear submarines would strike fear into all our would be aggressors, but Australia's greatest threat to defending itself is its politicians.

Deauzie
19th August, 2013 @ 06:28 pm PDT

The List of potential enemies Starts with the PRC goes through the mid-east back around to Russia. Then an African dictator might get his act together enough and try to unite his subjects with a foreign war. Same thing might happen in south or Central America as well.

Submarines prevent the enemy from controlling the oceans, Fire cruse missiles as well as a surface combatant, hunt enemy subs, gather intelligence, And keep enemy leaders off balance.

Whether you like nuclear energy or not nuclear propulsion makes food, and ammunition the limiting factors in operations if you can acquire nuclear boats at the same cost as convectional boats it should be clear that nuclear boats are superior.

The state of the art reactors look to be a good choice for surface ships as well especially given that it makes fuel costs for the life of the vessel fully predictable.

Nuclear power is the environmentally sound way to power an industrial society and the waste heat can be used to desalinate seawater. It took record earthquakes and tsunamis to cause the problems at Fukushima Daiichi, not something that Australia is known for. However I like the idea of putting the reactors on a Floating island in deep water.

Slowburn
19th August, 2013 @ 07:28 pm PDT

They were lucky if even one Collins was going at any time and I hear they had a hell of a time manning it, a complete fiasco. You are not going to need a sub to see who attacks Australia

Re: Australian

Since when is Kakadu National Park 'a desert region'.

If something went wrong with your 'stable gelology (contradiction in terms?)' and radiation got into the Great Artesian Basin 3/4 of Australia would be screwed with no ground water.

A coal train crash doesn't even interfere with local traffic, I could imagine the road blocks etc with a uranium carrier crash (well I hope it would be declared).

Go for a drive to (sorry, near; its still radioactive) Maralinga if you want to see the real reaon we don't want nuclear anything.

Re Nairda

Which is this awesome type of uranium that can't be used in a dirty bomb?

Ozuzi
19th August, 2013 @ 08:49 pm PDT

As an Australian I believe we should have nuclear subs, but as a South Australian I would much prefer that we build them.

Buying off the shelf from US or Britain would devastate the South Australian defense economy.

I strongly suspect the forthcoming federal election will decide whether we build the subs (if Labor wins) or buy them (if the Liberals win).

Graham R
19th August, 2013 @ 09:53 pm PDT

Ozuzi,

The proven reserves of uranium at Olympic Dam in South Australia (no where NEAR Kakadu!) make it one of the biggest potential uranium mines in the world. This area is not part of the Artesian Basin. It is a desert region with, I will say it again, stable geology. There are no fault lines within hundreds of kilometers. There is no shifting strata below the mine, there are no underground streams or reserves nearby. I doubt there is a single geologist in the world that believes "stable geology" is a contradiction in terms. Rather it is a definition, the opposite of unstable geology which for purposes of nuclear power generation, mining and waste disposal would be highly undesirable. So issues of unstable geology and earthquakes are irrelevant to Olympic Dam uranium mining and irrelevant to locating a nuclear power plant in much of Australia.

The other point worth reiterating is that there is an extreme disparity between the radiation released into the environment by coal powered electricity generation and nuclear power generation. Where the nuclear powered plants have almost zero radiation emission outside of the plant, coal fired plants burn thousands of tonnes of radioactive particles that are present in the coal and when burnt is distributed up the smoke stack to where ever the prevailing winds dictate.

Graham R,

The problem is, the requirements for future generation subs as per the defense white paper simply cannot be met by diesel-electric subs. The only viable alternative is Nuclear subs. This necessitates a transition from the Collins Class to a completely new type. While local production values need to be maximized, we are facing a huge capability gap if we were to wait for a nuclear powered sub that was manufactured here. While we will need to make the huge transition to building the next generation subs here, we will also need to buy nuclear subs from overseas in the short term to plug the capability gap. This should be done simultaneously with the necessary tooling transition.

With due respect, the Liberals are the only party that is advocating a transition to the nuclear subs we need. Labor has point blank refused because we cannot yet manufacture them here. In this regard I fear they are acting for political points, not for national interests as they are ignoring the substantial lead times required for the transition. Under that platform, the SA ship building will grind to a halt as the Collins class will no longer be manufactured.

Australian
20th August, 2013 @ 02:26 am PDT

Sounds good to me. If we loose the war, we may as well destroy the oceans on our way out.

christopher
20th August, 2013 @ 06:36 am PDT

I don't see why Australia would need to buy the reactors license the design maybe cheaper than designing your own but following a set of blueprints is following a set of blueprint.

In the same vein if Australia does not have an uranium processing infrastructure it probably would be cheaper to buy the fuel than develop the infrastructure for a low number of reactors.

Slowburn
20th August, 2013 @ 11:12 am PDT

Considering Australia's woeful military procurement history I would say ABSOLUTELY NOT!

nutcase
20th August, 2013 @ 08:38 pm PDT

Why deal with all the problems associated with nuclear power when Australia could just as easily go with a fuel cell submarine. The German Navy seems pretty happy with them.

http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-events/news-archive/2013/may/u36-another-fuel-cell-submarine-for-the-german-navy

Robert Fallin
22nd August, 2013 @ 03:41 am PDT

@ Robert Fallin

Range, speed, not having to worry about changing fuel costs, and disaster relief generating capacity.

Slowburn
22nd August, 2013 @ 09:10 am PDT

@Australian

Ranger mine at Kakadu is our major exporter as I suspect you know full well.

Ask Newcastle about earthquakes nowhere near fault lines.

You want to transport uranium to more of our harbours? or are we carrying the subs to the desert

Ozuzi
22nd August, 2013 @ 09:38 pm PDT

@ Ozuzi

Do you really believe that you can not safely transport a 100 Liters of something. In England they the tested a truck designed for hauling nuclear waste by hitting it with a speeding train. The cargo container did not develop a leak.

Slowburn
23rd August, 2013 @ 06:36 am PDT

@Slowburn

Yes, I heard they unbolted the engine. Everyone knows that 'Proof of Concept' is vastly superior to the everyday crap you end up with, just look at CD's.

Presumably these subs are going to be shot at at some point and limp home for repairs. My point is no uranium = no uranium leak. We fish in our harbours.

Ozuzi
26th August, 2013 @ 04:59 pm PDT
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