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Nuclear agencies say it is too early to speculate what legislative and infrastructure changes need to be made to support a nuclear-submarine project.
A senate economics committee inquiry into naval shipbuilding has been running for two years, but a public hearing on Friday was the first since the federal government announced its intention to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
Independent senator Rex Patrick called the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to appear. The agencies were quizzed over what nuclear infrastructure and industry would be needed to support the project, and what laws would need to be changed – however, they took most of those questions on notice.
Ansto did confirm it was consulted in March about the plan to buy nuclear-powered submarines, about six months ahead of September’s surprise announcement.
“Initial conversations started in March and we had a number of consultations between then and the announcement,” chief executive officer Shaun Jenkinson said.
Arpansa chief executive officer Carl-Magnus Larsson said his agency was briefed on the plan at the end of June or beginning of July.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said there are no plans to develop a civil nuclear industry to support building submarines. He and defence say the nuclear reactors – which will be procured from the United States or the United Kingdom as part of the Aukus agreement – will not need refuelling, and therefore a domestic industry is not necessary.
Ahead of the inquiry, Patrick said: “It’s just unimaginable, it’s beyond comprehension that someone could suggest we’d be operating a nuclear operator in a submarine in a hands-off manner.
“I also want to understand what safety regime they understand to be necessary for this to be carried out,” he added.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said having nuclear submarines without an industry to support them would be “more plug and pray” than “plug and play”.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence analyst Marcus Hellyer said Australia may not need nuclear power plants or facilities to enrich uranium, “but we’ll still need to perform maintenance and repair on the submarine, including the reactor”.
“You can’t have an effective military capability if you need to return it to the US any time there is a defect,” he said.
Patrick has pointed out that there are no countries with nuclear submarines that do not have a domestic nuclear industry.
“Either way there would be nuclear reactors sitting on hard-stands at Osborne and moored in the Port River,” he said.
“Acquiring, operating and maintaining a nuclear submarine fleet without a domestic nuclear power industry is a challenge that must not be underestimated.”
Labor senator Kim Carr said there would have to be “extensive onshore facilities” to train people in case there’s an emergency, or a malfunction.
“I’d be interested to know how this can be done without the development of the various sustainment industries.”
“We’d need to have intensive training of all personnel to understand the linkages between the reactor and all the other bits of the boat,” he said.
“You can’t just drop it in. It’s not like a battery in a mobile phone, everything’s connected to everything else.”
Australia has a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney for research and nuclear medicine. Australia also has about a third of the world’s uranium resources, and is working to establish a national radioactive waste management facility. Federal legislation bans the production of nuclear power, as do various state laws.
Ansto has said it will work with the US and the UK “to intensively examine the requirements that underpin nuclear stewardship”, and Morrison has said their nuclear science capabilities will be needed.
A Defence spokesperson said Australia, through Aukus, had “committed to working … over the next 18 months to determine the optimal pathway to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine capability for Australia”.
“Australia will leverage technology, capability and design expertise from the UK and US and will also evaluate a variety of considerations, including but not limited to: submarine design, construction, safety, operation, maintenance, disposal, regulation, training, environmental protection, installations and infrastructure, industrial base capacity, workforce, and force structure,” they said.
Shortly after announcing that plans to buy 12 diesel-electric submarines from France would be ditched in favour of the Aukus deal, Morrison was asked to respond to Turnbull’s comments, and those of other nuclear experts, that a supporting industry would be needed.
“We may be speaking about different things here and there’s terms that are thrown about here,” he said.