The Australian ambassador to the U.S. confirmed the new AUKUS nuclear submarines will use Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) and plan to avoid needing a civilian nuclear industry.
“The subs will be using HEU and we’re just working out now the arrangements for what that will mean in practice, but the whole point is for us to avoid the need to have a civilian nuclear industry because apart from anything else – we thought if we went down that route it might conflate in the public’s mind what we were doing and raise broader issues about the politics of nuclear power. And I think the government was very keen to try and keep it…within certain guardrails,” Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos said in response to questions from Defense Daily
during a Defense Writers Group event on Nov. 16.
The ambassador did not clarify if the partnership plans to have the U.S. manufacture the submarines’ nuclear fuel or provide the HEU, but said the current 12 to 18 month period underway “will also settle some of those questions in a clearer way.”
Sinodinos confirmed, as far as he is aware, the submarine fuel decision will stick to using HEU vs. a Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel option, Sinodinos said.
In September, the U.S., U.K., and Australia announced the new AUKUS partnership to help Australia procure nuclear-powered attack submarines to replace the current fleet of six Collins-class diesel-electric vessels. Australia is also canceling a pre-existing $90 billion program to replace the current submarines with 12 conventionally powered submarines designed by France’s Naval Group (Defense Daily, Sept. 15).
The agreement has started with a 12-18-month period where the participants will help inform the submarine details.
“The next 18 months, that process…will work out what we need to do from our side. But the whole point of selecting this particular technology is once these reactors are in there they stay in there and they give you this increase in endurance and therefore with it greater range and so on and so forth,” Sinodinos continued.
He said this 18-month period will evaluate the “optimal pathway” for the submarine involving workforce, design, construction, and using a mature design.
Sinodinos emphasized the Australian government is “very keen” to avoid the idea the submarine program will be a precursor to developing a larger civilian nuclear industry.
The ambassador also said his government has been in touch with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with Prime Minister Scott Morrison meeting with IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi while in New York earlier this year.
“We are preparing for further discussions with them to assure them of our bona fides in terms of nuclear nonproliferation.”
The ambassador underscored Australia is seeking nuclear energy-driven propulsion and not weapons and wants to retain a record on working for nuclear nonproliferation.
“But we want to make sure that any misinformation that may be disseminated in [IAEA headquarters] Vienna or elsewhere about this – that we can address. And we’re very keen because we’ve had very strong credentials around nuclear nonproliferation and we’ve had a long experience with this. So we’re very keen to make sure people understand the assurances we give them.”
Sinodinos also noted the AUKUS agreement is the culmination of about a year of Australia doing “a bit of discovery with the Americans and with the British about what is possible” with procuring nuclear-powered submarines.
“For us, the submarine aspect of all of this meant when we were thinking about what we do in terms of upgrading our capability, it was natural to think about where do we get the best, most up to date capability which meets our requirements and also avoids the need for us to develop a civilian nuclear industry or have to do things onshore. And that capability is workable – the British and the Americans were able to bring to the table.”
Last week, Sinodinos noted the proven design Australia intends to use will also be “calibrated for our scale and the levels of complexity that we can handle.” He said the country does not intend to cannibalize U.S. or U.K. submarine fleets or take merely the next vessel coming off the assembly line but find the right design for Australia (Defense Daily, Nov. 9).
In September, , Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the AUKUS submarine program may take decades to complete before any new boats go in the water (Defense Daily, Sept. 23).