Some Thoughts on the “Changes to Australia’s Submarine Plans”

By Brian Bertosa, 19 September 2021

It is said that an unlikely personal friendship between Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN, widely regarded as the person most responsible (in the West, at any rate) for the development of the pressurized water reactor (PWR) as a form of submarine propulsion, and Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, greatly facilitated the transfer of PWR technology to the British in 1958. None of Rickover’s successors as director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has even remotely had influence of that kind, and the decision announced this week involving the transfer of nuclear submarine technology to Australia must have come right from the top. I very much doubt that US president Joe Biden has taken a sudden liking to Kylie Minogue, Paul Hogan, or Skippy the kangaroo, and so I think this decision tells us far more about American attitudes to China under Xi Jinping than it does of their opinion of Australia.

The French have reacted negatively. (That is probably the most neutral way of putting it.) One of the reasons may have to do with the fact that they would no doubt have liked the opportunity to export their own naval nuclear propulsion technology, but nobody had a clue that the Australians were looking at nuclear this seriously. Let us not forget that Naval Group’s Shortfin Barracuda, which was going to form the basis of the RAN’s Attack class, was a specially developed variant of their nuclear-powered Barracuda. Lest anyone think the recall of ambassadors was a reasoned response, though, I would point out that the French did the very same thing to the Russians in 2015, when, due to political pressure over the Ukraine crisis, they cancelled the deal to provide the Russian navy with helicopter carriers of the Mistral class. Two ships had already been launched—which have since been sold to Egypt—and the French had to refund the money.

These subs will take a very long time to become operational, no doubt encompassing the terms of numerous Australian parliaments. The current Labour leader may be supportive—with conditions—but it is unclear if the Australian decision will, over the long haul, keep the support of any other party but the Liberals. I wonder, then, if Australian prime minister Scott Morrison and his defence minister, Peter Dutton, will become another Brian Mulroney and Perrin Beatty, whose 1987 Canadian Defence White Paper called for a fleet of ten to twelve nuclear boats. I remember 1987 very well, and at the time, the response to the Tory plan on the part of most people was primarily puzzlement, combined, perhaps, with even a bit of embarrassment. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out among the Australian populace at large. Speaking in generalities, now, over the years I have found Australians, overall, to be more pro-defence than Canadians, but also much more anti-nuclear. The submarine decision will only have the support of those who are both pro-defence and pro-nuclear, and I am not certain that that constituency is large enough, even in Australia, to see this project through over the long haul.

Given that all this would likely never have come to pass if it weren’t for Xi Jinping, is it possible that, if a new, more moderate leadership should take hold in China—one can never predict with certainty what is going to happen in that country—the impetus behind this colossal undertaking might lose momentum? Even more imaginatively, if that were the case, what would happen if one of China’s conditions for ‘playing nice’ with its regional neighbours, and the West more generally, were the cancellation of the submarine program? If the United States were desperate enough for a rapprochement and therefore agreed to that, there would be very little Australia could do about it.

What of the British? Seriously. There is, after all, a ‘UK’ in the name of this new security pact, AUKUS (to be pronounced “ockus,” presumably). What meaningful role can they be expected to play?

The specifically nuclear side of all this, as it pertains to Australia, would properly require a full-length article of its own, but I would just like to point out a couple of things. Since the new boats will be coming from either the US or (less likely) the UK, they will have cores of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which will allow each reactor to function on a single fuel charge for the life of the boat. This is all to the good, because refuelling a PWR is a complicated business. (French vessels use low enriched uranium, necessitating periodic refuelling.) As each boat decommissions, will the US (I am assuming that only the Americans can seriously fulfill this program in the time, and in the numbers, envisaged) take their highly radioactive spent cores back for disposal? The Australians certainly have nowhere to put them. A centralized repository for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, which does not include spent reactor fuel, is still in the planning stages, and is intended only to cater to current needs. They will need to make it very much larger. With the addition of at least eight good-sized power reactors to a country that has never had them, their production of low-level waste from almost any kind of maintenance activities at all on the primary coolant circuits, to say nothing of the reactors themselves, is going to vastly outstrip whatever they are producing in that country now. I hope they know what they’re getting into. Either way, if this program really gets off the ground, it will surely be a bonanza for expats with nuclear experience, possibly even some Canadians.

Mr. Dunlop speculates that the Australian decision might make it easier for Canada to acquire similar boats, but the issue has already appeared on the campaign trail, and the prime minister has, not surprisingly, firmly put the idea to rest. (We have trouble enough keeping more than one conventional boat going, but that’s another story.) More likely, perhaps, the French will come knocking, offering us a good price for some Shortfin Barracudas.

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