Nuclear powered submarines for Australia

Comments by Dr. Jim Green

National nuclear campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia, 0417 318368

16 September 2021

Following secret deliberations, the Morrison government has announced that Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines.


Because the process has been entirely secret, we have no way of knowing whether alternative options have been properly considered. These include the options of building fewer submarines (or none at all), and advanced lithium-ion battery technology to power submarines (South Korea’s choice after 30 months of comprehensive evaluation).

Weapons / security

Nuclear powered submarines typically use highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. This would undermine global efforts to phase out the use of HEU because of WMD proliferation and security concerns.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons notes: “Military nuclear reactors in Australia would present a clear nuclear weapons proliferation risk and become potential sites for nuclear accidents and radiological contamination long into the future.”

The government wants to build nuclear submarines in suburban Adelaide. Does that put a target on our back? Is it prudent to build nuclear submarines in a city of 1.3 million people? What alternative locations have been considered, if any?

Does the government secretly want to bring Australia closer to a nuclear weapons capability with a nuclear submarine program? Do such deliberations explain why the Morrison government refuses to sign the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and has actively undermined the Treaty at every step? (In the late 1960s, John Gorton’s government actively pursued a nuclear power program and Gorton later acknowledged a hidden weapons agenda. Gorton actively opposed Australia signing the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)

Broader nuclear industry?

Then Defence Minister Christopher Pyne noted that in 2019 that Australia would be the only country in the world with nuclear submarines but no domestic nuclear industry to back them up.

All countries operating nuclear submarines (the five ‘declared’ weapons states plus India) have both nuclear power and weapons.

Building a domestic nuclear industry to support nuclear submarines would be astronomically expensive and problematic in other respects. Nuclear power is vastly more expensive than renewables ‒ and significantly more expensive than renewables plus backup stored power (batteries, pumped hydro storage, etc.)

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese says that Labor support for nuclear submarines is conditional on there being no requirement for a domestic civil nuclear industry (among other conditions).

Nuclear waste

The government has been silent about disposal of the high-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste generated by a nuclear submarine program.

No country in the world has a repository for high-level nuclear waste. The only deep underground nuclear waste repository in the world ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the US, for disposal of long-lived intermediate-level nuclear waste ‒ was shut down from 2014 to 2017 following a chemical explosion in a waste barrel, with costs estimated at $2 billion (clean-up, lost income etc).

Waste from a nuclear submarine program would be dumped on Aboriginal land, as is the case with the federal government’s current plan to dump Australia’s nuclear waste at Kimba in SA despite the unanimous opposition of Barngarla Traditional Owners. It speaks volumes about the crude racism of the federal and SA Coalition governments that they are prepared to ignore unanimous Aboriginal opposition to a nuclear dump. The federal government even fought to exclude Traditional Owners from a so-called ‘community survey’. SA Labor’s policy is that Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over any proposed nuclear facility including a nuclear waste dump.


The high-level and long-lived intermediate-level nuclear waste generated by nuclear submarines would cost tens of billions of dollars to dispose of, based on cost estimates overseas. For example, the cost estimate for a high-level repository in France is A$40 billion. The US government estimates that to build a high-level nuclear waste repository and operate it for 150 years would cost A$130 billion. The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Royal Commission estimated a cost of A$145 billion over 120 years for construction, operation and decommissioning of a high-level nuclear waste repository.

It is highly unlikely that the government has considered these massive long-term costs in its secret deliberations.


A 2019, a federal government-dominated parliamentary committee released a report on nuclear power titled ‘Not without your approval’. The report emphasised that nuclear power would not be pursued without community support.

But now, the federal government has secretly decided that Australia will acquire nuclear submarines and any consultation will likely be tokenistic. This is the DAD ‒ Decide, Announce, Defend ‒ approach which is the antithesis of good government.

Despite the government’s secrecy and obstinacy, the plan for nuclear submarines could easily collapse for any number of reasons ‒ economics, the availability of superior options, public and political opposition etc.