Flat White

Finally, some sense on subs

16 September 2021

1:09 PM

16 September 2021

1:09 PM

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long signalled he was open to ending a ban on nuclear power in Australia.

He made it clear he would do anything to bring power prices down, but stressed the economic case for nuclear power “would have to stack”.

His response was a clear repudiation of an international UN report which called for coal-fired power generation to be phased out by 2050.

Morrison’s nuclear power reality causes apoplexy among green-eyed climate dragons, but it makes perfect sense.

Australia has abundant uranium deposits, which antinuclear activists insist must remain in the ground lest they be used for perfectly peaceful purposes or, worse, end up as nuclear weapons.

Critics linked the PM’s statement to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, hardly relevant today given it was 35 years ago.

Chernobyl’s antiquated reactors were beyond being obsolete

Built in the late 1960s, they suffered significant design and operational flaws.

Other countries have successfully operated nuclear power plants for more than six decades, including in naval environments.

The US Navy designed, then began constructing, nuclear-powered vessels in the 1950s, starting with the submarine USS Nautilus in 1955.

Since then, the USN has completed more than 5400 accident-free reactor years in multiple vessels travelling more than 130 million miles.

Its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, was launched in September 1960.

Decommissioned in February 2017, USS Enterprise was powered by four banks of double Westinghouse A2W reactors, the second generation of US naval-purpose nuclear power plants.

In comparison, the Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan, which operates in Australia’s region of strategic interest, has just two Westinghouse A4W reactors, fourth-generation nuclear power plants.

USS Ronald Reagan was the last of nine Nimitz-class carriers.

The latest USN aircraft carrier is the USS Gerald R Ford, first of its class and powered by two Bechtel A1B reactors.

The USN has been at the forefront of nuclear design technology, demonstrating nuclear power plants can be operated safely and effectively, even in mobile platforms.

For decades obsolescent nuclear-powered Russian submarines have been leased to provide electricity for such diverse uses as powering remote communities and providing similar services to oil exploration companies.

That simply proves equipment developed for military use can be adapted to civilian use.

Critics of nuclear power generation argue it is inherently dangerous and prone to damage from natural events such as earthquakes.

They also abhor the potential development and of nuclear weapons.

It’s time Australia put such sensitivities aside.

In 2018 then NBN chairman and nuclear power engineer Ziggy Switkowski supported Morrison’s call for a mix of power-generation technologies, including nuclear options.

Like Morrison, he argued that Australia should consider that mix of technologies based on cost and risk, not ideology.

Given Australia’s planned next-generation French submarines were decades away and based around obsolescent diesel electric technology, they were never going to provide anything near their anticipated capabilities

The decision to lease a US nuclear powered boat and draw on combined US-British experience can address this deficiency in the short term.

Manufacturing further boats at the Adelaide Australian Submarine Corporation facilities makes good political sense, but will no doubt enrage the Greens defence spokesagenda and South Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and her ilk.

After all, she is an expert in the field of naval capability having watched the entire Australian television series of Patrol Boat.

Ross Eastgate OAM is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and military historian who writes a weekly column on defence issues and blogs at Targets Down.

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