Defence minister says nuclear submarine plan ‘is taking shape’ one year after controversy

An Astute Class nuclear submarine at the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard in the UK.

An Astute Class nuclear submarine at the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard in the UK.

Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and Britain is starting to take shape.

The Morrison government announced the three-way pact on September 16 last year, creating the framework for Australia to access coveted nuclear secrets from Britain and the US.

Australia has since taken the first steps to develop a domestic industry.

Local crews will train on UK submarines while defence officials participate in nuclear reactor courses and universities teach engineers and scientists.

“The optimal pathway is taking shape. We can now begin to see it,” Defence Minister Richard Marles said.

Australia controversially scrapped a French submarine deal in favour of the AUKUS agreement. One year on, the heavily-strained diplomatic relationship is finally starting to thaw.

Australia is also working to quell international concerns about adherence to a nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

The global agreement is designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

A recent report by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said it was satisfied with the three-country deal.

China was quick to attack the report’s findings as “misleading”.

“The report turns a blind eye to many countries’ solemn position that the AUKUS cooperation violates the purpose and object of the NPT (non-proliferation treaty),” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

Navy Vice Admiral Jonathon Mead, who is leading the nuclear submarine project, is confident Australia will be able to operate the vessels without relying on the US or Britain.

The reactor will be welded shut to restrict Australia’s access and meet international obligations.

This design will be similar to how Australia operates its existing submarine fleet, which uses a US combat system.

Local personnel maintain a working understanding of the submarine systems and can be briefed by US counterparts on any major issues that arise.

For its nuclear-powered fleet, Australia is looking to ramp up its industrial base and prove to the US and Britain that submarines can be built and maintained in the country.

“If we were to rely solely on the US and the UK, it will be a while before we get them,” the defence minister said.

The government remains on track to finalise its submarine strategy by March following an 18-month consultation period about which model to purchase.

This process has run alongside a review of Australia’s defence spending priorities and capability gaps.

The country’s Collins Class submarines are ageing and the nuclear ships aren’t expected to arrive for another two decades.

Mr Marles said the government would prefer to operate the same technology as other nations so there was shared experience and industry bases, rather than being the only country operating Collins Class subs.

Vice Admiral Mead has identified land in South Australia to be used for the submarine project and is in discussions with the state government to develop a local workforce strategy.

An east coast base is also under consideration with Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Campbell shortlisted as early options for possible sites.


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