Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Facts about the advances in nuclear engineering

Comment: Submarine Institute of Australia

An opinion article on the Quadrant website written earlier this month (which can be found by clicking here) fails to consider many of the critical issues associated with the Future Submarine Program.

The only areas where nuclear submarines have unarguable advantages are sustained speed and endurance.

The Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) recognises the speed/endurance advantages of nuclear-powered submarines over conventionally-powered submarines, however, the perception that a move to procure this type of technology in a time-frame commensurate with sustaining a viable submarine capability – via a long-lead procurement program – shows an unrealistic appreciation of the complex factors which exist.

The Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act recognises the protection of the environment from nuclear actions as a matter of national environmental significance.

Nuclear actions include establishing a nuclear installation. Hence, a change in federal legislation is required before any commitment by an Australian Government is made to pursue any nuclear power program.

While the SIA considers that discussion around the long-term planning for a nuclear-powered submarine force is necessary to ensure that all the issues are understood, the consequent delay in planning and procurement for the sustainment of the submarine capability, involving nuclear studies in the short-term, would result in a critical gap in submarine capability.

It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that Australia could approach any of its allies possessing a nuclear submarine capability with a proposal for a rapidly executed leasing arrangement or “off-the-shelf” purchase. The infrastructure to support these vessels is highly complex, as are the sensitivities of the associated technology. None of the nations with a nuclear submarine capability would simply “hand over” that technology.

The most important issue is continuity of our submarine capability. In the short-term, this can only be achieved by continuing with conventional submarine technology.

At the rate that all relevant forms of submarine technology is advancing – hull design, conventional propulsion and combat system (sensors, processing and weapons) – the progression towards nuclear power will, hopefully be ongoing, but it will take time.

The people of Australia must be given the facts regarding the advances in nuclear engineering and the benefits that Australia can gain from embracing the technology. Nuclear-powered submarine technology is but one aspect of these benefits.