Recent public debate about nuclear propulsion for submarines has been notable for the polarised viewpoints on the issue.
On the one hand, the strategic advantages of nuclear propulsion for submarines have been acknowledged, while on the other, the lack of experience within Australia of nuclear power for civil or naval use demands a deliberate program to move up the learning curve. It will take at least a decade to meet community expectations for internationally-recognised regulatory standards for safety, security, efficiency and sustainability.
The first challenge is to contemplate nuclear energy as a beneficial adjunct to renewable energy generation and advanced storage that is the ultimate goal of an emissions-free electrical power generation network.
What are more likely to be accepted are small, road-portable modular reactors based on proven pressurised water cooling, which is, coincidentally, the norm for naval propulsion. The attractive feature of small, modular reactors is their size and mass is small enough to be easily transportable so they can be constructed and fuelled remotely from their operating sites and after many years of effective operation, they can then be removed in the same way for safe decommissioning in a similar remote site.
The connection between nuclear power stations and trained naval operating personnel has been recognised in other countries such that the education and training of operators and maintainers of naval nuclear reactors are readily transitioned to civil reactor operations after their naval service. This is even more the case when the civil reactors use the same pressurised-water-reactor technology, as is the case with most small modular reactor programs.
For Australia, there is a critical national need for energy security and this is sufficient to justify contingency planning, such as the installation of a single small modular reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney for familiarisation, research and development, and for the education and training of civil and naval professional staff for operation and maintenance of such reactors. This would help to build the foundation workforce for this industry.
Only then could Australia realistically consider the next generation of submarines beyond the current acquisition program for the future submarines, which will itself have many challenges in energy generation, conversion and storage. The design of the Shortfin Barracuda, now underway, will address air-independent propulsion in one form or another and, also, the related issue of energy density in battery technologies. This research and development is already time-constrained. Random thoughts of nuclear propulsion should never be permitted to raise the risk of a capability gap arising from resulting delays occurring in the Future Submarine Program (FSP).
Beyond the urgency of the FSP, there is sound argument to plan for the transition to the greater performance and availability of nuclear propulsion, but this needs a research and development program in its own right and a concerted program to build up the scientific, engineering and operational workforce.
We can reasonably expect support from our allies and business partners in the US, UK or France, but ultimately, Australia needs to set and meet our own demanding standards for safety, security, efficiency and sustainability. This will take significant time – even if we start immediately – as the Submarine Institute of Australia believes we should.