Mark HibbsAustralia and Nuclear Submarines

Australia for many reasons is an exceptional country, including in the nuclear policy area: Nuclear weapons were tested on Australian territory, Australia owns intellectual property for enriching uranium, and uranium mined in the outback today fuels the world’s peaceful nuclear applications, but Australia has no nuclear weapons and it produces no nuclear electricity. And so far, Australia has no nuclear submarines.

This morning in Berlin the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung brought to my breakfast table a tempest in a teapot that was brewed down under last week. Tony Abbott, a member of the Australian Parliament who served as Prime Minister for a Liberal government from 2013 through 2015, on June 29 and thereafter told anyone willing to listen that Australia should think hard about building nuclear-driven submarines in its ongoing effort to upgrade its naval defenses. That probably won’t happen anytime soon, but Australia’s discussion about its submarines including last week should remind anyone who has forgotten it that nuclear fission reactors fueled with uranium are “strategic” technology, and that a changing geostrategic environment will put time-honored non-proliferation policies under pressure.

Germany’s leading serious newspaper today reported on Abbott’s comments because back in April 2016 Thyssen Krupp Marine Services (TKMS) had lost out in a competition to Naval Group  a.k.a. DCNS of France; the Australian government picked the French firm to build 12 submarines for the price of 50 billion dollars. Australia chose the French to build conventional submarines. But, according to the FAZ, “the order could be redefined at any time” to specify nuclear-powered craft. When the German firm dropped out of the race to build Australian boats, it asserted darkly, “behind the scenes it was suspected that that had happened because the Germans offer no nuclear option.” (The above-linked article from 15 months ago in fact mentioned the French vendor’s atomic advantage over TKMS.)

Instead, Abbott said in a statement flavored with skepticism, Australia will “take a French nuclear submarine and completely redesign it to work with conventional propulsion.” He urged Australia to reconsider the case for nuclear-propelled vessels in the country’s long-term interest, especially given Australia’s marine security environment and naval technology developments in China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Discussion of a possible Australian nuclear navy follows upon previous protracted debate in Australia about whether to generate electricity with nuclear reactors. Abbott has elsewhere elaborated on this theme, regretting that Australia, including under his tenure as Prime Minister, has repeatedly brushed off nuclear power, and asserting that “Australia could develop a nuclear servicing industry from scratch within about 15 years,” in time to commission nuclear-propelled submarines that could be built by French or U.S. firms. That of course would beg the hypothetical question whether Australia would finally dust off its nearly half-century-old gas centrifuge blueprints, or instead use laser technology it more recently pioneered, to enrich Australian uranium needed to fuel future fission-powered vessels. It also would raise the (still more-hypothetical) question whether the fuel for such submarines would be under IAEA safeguards 24/7 (it was Australia that in 1978 prompted the IAEA Director General to establish for the record that a state with safeguards obligations couldn’t decide that sensitive matter by itself).

In recent years Australian federal and state governments have carried out very transparent and visible investigations of the country’s various nuclear “options,” including nuclear power generation, commercial uranium enrichment, and disposal of highly-active nuclear waste and spent fuel.  Australia has the world’s largest reserves of uranium, and is the world’s third leading uranium producer after Kazakhstan and Canada, but Australians appear to remain profoundly disinclined to use the uranium they produce on their territory–to say nothing about ships patrolling international waters in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The question raised by Abbott last week re-litigates a debate that got underway over a decade ago even before Australia prepared to upgrade its naval defenses. The above-linked 2006 government report on nuclear energy included a submission from the Submarine Institute of Australia. When Australia began preparing to beef up its naval might, in 2013, predictably, nuclear nonproliferators warned of the governance perils an Australian nuclear navy would unleash, while defense strategists countered that nuclear-propelled submarines would protect Australia best. In fact Abbott’s own government in 2015 was itself not prepared to champion the case for a nuclear navy–a point that Abbott’s critics now raise in the wake of his remarks.

Abbott said on June 29 that while “conventional subs need to surface frequently to recharge their batteries, need to refuel every 70 days, and can only briefly maintain a top speed of about 20 knots, nuclear powered submarines can stay submerged as long as the crew can endure, never have to refuel, and can travel at nearly 40 knots.” Even if Australian military leaders beset with the future consequences of China’s naval buildup were to conclude that these were decisive advantages, Abbott’s previous lack of enthusiasm would suggest that the road toward a nuclear navy might be paved with political risks including for Australia’s strategic community; what’s in print suggests there may be no internal consensus on this issue. Following from Canberra’s firm and longstanding nuclear non-proliferation commitment, as the above-cited 1978 interaction with the IAEA bears witness, Australia today would not welcome the emergence of navies powered by uranium withdrawn from IAEA safeguards. Ultimately, it is hard to believe that Australians who until now have been wary of deploying climate change-mitigating power reactors at home would in the near term favor using the same technology to propel their country’s navy on the high seas.




  1. Ben D (History)

    Speaking in the military context, Australia has not considered the nuclear option seriously before as it was always a given that they could rely primarily on the UK – US nuclear umbrella. Playing catch up at this late point in the geopolitical dominance game is not going to make a difference imho, either the world makes the transition to a one world government without nuclear war or it doesn’t.

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    Does this concern full-up nuclear propulsion or a hybrid scheme with a small reactor to provide low-speed propulsion and hotel services coupled with a conventional engine for high-speed sprints?

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    May all your breakfast reads be so fruitful.
    If ever there were a new country that could make the case for nuclear-powered attack subs, it would be Australia.
    If ever a country that could set the gold standard for safeguards relating to a nuclear Navy, it would be Australia.
    Best wishes,

    • Mark Hibbs (History)

      Michael, you are right on both accounts. That 1978 IAEA interchange that Australia instigated and is recorded in GOV/INF/347 looms very large and points to a sustained and well-articulated policy by Australia that depending on the strategic future of the Pacific and Indian Oceans will come under pressure. One option for Australia policy-wise–especially looking at Brazil, Iran, and maybe others–is to accept nuclear navies in NNWS that safeguard their submarine fuel 24/7. That would get them over the dilemma that was raised first by Canada in the 1980s, but it would also imply that Australia’s military would accept the limitations on invulnerability, stealth, flexibility and, ultimately, sovereignty, that IAEA safeguards on a naval craft would imply. Australian safeguards policy would then be a factor in a strategically critical decision by Australia whether to deploy a specific military technology option.

  4. Cthippo (History)

    I’m thinking that the IAEA safeguards on nuclear subs would not be so onerous as one might think. The big concern with IAEA is diversion and you cannot get at reactor fuel without cutting the hull open. Is the hull intact? Yes? Then no material has been diverted.

  5. Gregory Matteson (History)

    It should be recalled that France’s nuclear subs do not use HEU, but rather commercial-type reactor fuels, refueled, if I understood the article that was linked here correctly, by changing out the entire reactor core. Wouldn’t that be a preferable route for a State like Australia, if they felt compelled to go nuclear? And much easier to keep under IAEA safeguards?

  6. watsonbladd (History)

    How much of a problem are safeguards for a nuclear submarine? After all they are rarely refueled. Auditing of uranium supplied to the submarine and waste products should provide certainty the fuel is not being diverted, and there are very few places where a sub would dock to carry out the refuelling operation.

    • Mark Hibbs (History)

      In a nutshell, the challenge is that the model safeguards agreement for non-nuclear-weapon states in the NPT permits withdrawl of the fuel from safeguards. Once withdrawn, the state can irradiate the fuel in the submarine reactor, then take it out and reprocess it to recover the plutonium. So it depends on what you mean by “auditing.” If there are gaps, there are vulnerabilities. There were once upon a time two commercial nuclear vessels, one German, the other Japanese, which were safeguarded 24/7. No problem. In the case of an attack submarine, the respective navy would want to have complete freedom of action to maximize invulnerability and effectiveness for as long as the fuel is used–a period of several years without inspections. What’s in between safeguards 24/7 and years without inspections would be subject to negotiation between the IAEA and the state. So far, this situation has not arisen. Canada intended to go that route in the 1980s. It was discouraged from doing so and it ultimately abandoned its plan for a nuclear navy.

  7. Mark Hibbs (History)

    I mentioned Canada just now. After the Mulroney government had pursued the nuclear submarine plan in the 1980s, this option remained dormant until the early 2010s, when according to this CBC news report it was briefly reconsidered by Prime Minister Harper. That was then. This is now. It is in my mind unthinkable that Justin Trudeau would want to go there.

  8. John Carlson (History)

    The present discussion of nuclear powered submarines for Australia was prompted by a brain snap of former Prime Minister Abbott who, as others have noted, was opposed to nuclear subs when he was PM but is now intent on making life difficult for the current PM. There is no serious consideration of nuclear subs in Australia, mainly because of cost and also because Australia would be reliant on the supplier country for operation and maintenance.

    This discussion serves to highlight a major verification issue. Because no NNWS has yet proceeded with nuclear subs, the IAEA has not had to establish appropriate arrangements to counter diversion risk from naval programs. However, this is on the horizon as a key issue for nuclear disarmament – if, as we all hope, the NWS and other nuclear-armed states proceed with substantial nuclear arms reductions leading to elimination, the challenge of assuring non-diversion from naval programs will have to be addressed. The difficulties presented by possible NNWS naval programs will be straightforward relative to the scale of the US and Russian naval programs.

  9. Olli Heinonen (History)

    Which are the verification challenges? The first one is the size of the strategic stock of fresh fuel, which may not be accessible for the IAEA, if withdrawal is permitted. There could also be sensitivities with the disclosure of the design of such fuel. Most likely it will be difficult to confirm that material stays in reactor cores for long periods of time between re-fuellings.

    As pointed out by John Carlson, more urgent issue is to address non-diversion of fissile material from the naval programs of NWS, which is one of the key questions related to the verifiability of the FMCT.

    Mr. Salehi, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, got at the end of last year a task to prepare plans for possible maritime propulsion. Since these are non-military applications, there should be no concerns with regard to withdrawal, but higher uranium enrichments – enrichment should be well above 5 % U-235 – may not be within the limits set by the JCPOA. The public deadline for the task has expired, but thoughts about current needs may have meanwhile changed in iran.

  10. Richard Tanter (History)

    John Carlson’s comment about former Australian PM Tony Abbott’s ‘brain-snap’ is absolutely right. Abbott’s recent proposal that Australia convert the recently-contracted build of 12 French DCNS diesel-electric submarines to a nuclear-powered version is not only a repudiation of his own government’s clear rejection of the nuclear-powered option, but is also entirely a product of his attempts to damage the political prospects of his replacement as Liberal Party leader and PM, Malcolm Turnbull.

    Michael Krepon’s remark that ‘If ever there were a new country that could make the case for nuclear-powered attack subs, it would be Australia’ is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but should be seen in the context of the chaos of actually existing defence policy formation in Australia in recent years.

    It is hardly surprising that the selection process for what is now a AUD$50 billion submarine build was highly policiticised. But the Australian ‘future submarine’ selection process was deeply flawed in other critical ways as well, especially the strategic rationale behind the choice..

    The Abbott government’s flirtation early in the process with the US ‘offer’ of Virginia-class nuclear powered attack submarines was rejected by analysts normally supportive of the Australia-US alliance such as former Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Dibb because it would increase technological dependence on the U.S.

    This is the introduction for a piece written a year before the final decision, at a time when Tony Abbott appeared to have promised the contract to japan:

    ‘Almost everything about the Abbott government’s project to spend up to $40 billion on twelve new submarines is breathtakingly wrongheaded, hazardous strategically and profligate financially. The process of deciding which country and company will be lead builder has been a zigzag without logic, born of prime-ministerial survival tactics, secret undertakings given domestically and abroad, and intense lobbying in the shadows by corporations, embassies and different factions of the defence bureaucracy. The process has been held hostage by a typically Australian junior-alliance-partner amalgam of US pressure, ‘unforced’ Canberra policy preference for maximum weight to be given to alliance maintenance, and an expected—indeed, hoped for—Australian niche role in US–Japanese conflict with China.

    ‘The strategic rationale for buying the submarines, the purposes for which they are intended and hence the capacities they are required to have remain hopelessly unclear, with the favoured options bringing serious strategic risks. Furthermore, the Australian government has colluded with the most nationalist government in Japan since the end of the Second World War to break that country’s longstanding bipartisan policy of not exporting major weapons systems, thereby encouraging a steep escalation of Japanese remilitarisation under Prime Minister Abe.

    ‘For Australia, the most enduring strategic consequence, though, will be the effect on Indonesia’s views of Australia’s intentions towards it. Will Australia use its submarines to control the maritime highways through Indonesian waters? This will encourage both extreme and mainstream views on Indonesia’s need to match Australian military capacities and remain wary of Australian intentions.’

    Richard Tanter, ‘The $40 billion submarine pathway to Australian strategic confusion‘, Nautilus Institute, NAPSNet Policy Forum, 20 April 2015, at

  11. Alex (History)

    Abbott back when he was in charge was very keen to buy Soryu off the shelf, with no competition or serious debate about the merits of whatever design was available elsewhere. Now he does not miss a single opportunity to fire off cheap shots at his successor from the sidelines. His comments should be seen in this context.

    Furthermore its questionable that the French design was chosen on merit of nuclear competency. This smells like sour grapes-talk from TKMS, a company that ran a less than stellar campaign to sell a non-existing paper design based not on merits of the boat itself but mostly on elusive “global supply chain and design competency”-cooperation between Australian companies and the German builder.

    The French in all their promotion touted what Australia was looking for: a big hull with long endurance, payload flexibility and based on a design that the French actually intend to buy, operate and further develop themselves as a parent navy, even if propulsion would be different. While I do have my doubts about what Australian wants and needs in a submarine, its hard to ignore how important the combination of complete design and production authority and parent navy that the French were able to offer really is. The Japanese were in a similar position but their pitch was tainted by Abbott already and their industrial representation was astonishingly poor.

    It is indeed a tempest in the teapot. For what its worth and echoing the comments re chaotic Australian defence procurement, I certainly do not share the high regard for best practices re safety for a nuclear navy. I say this as someone who can offer some first hand familiarity with Australian workplace H&S attitudes displayed across a wide range of industries here.