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Byron Shire
October 16, 2021

Nuclear Submarines – just a foot in the door

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Trident submarines are powered by highly enriched Uranium 235, which can be used as fuel for nuclear weapons.

Between 1960 and 2000, Australia operated six Oberon class diesel-electric submarines. One of them, HMAS Onslow, is preserved at the Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.

Shortly before being decommissioned, this boat was involved in joint war games near Hawaii with the US Navy. After the exercise the Australians were able to present their American allies with periscope photos of the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson. They had scored a virtual kill without the Yanks even being aware of their presence.

This anecdote underscores the supreme advantage of such vessels – they are extremely quiet. They are the ultimate stealth weapons. Admittedly, nuclear-powered subs can stay underwater virtually indefinitely, but they are relatively noisy. A nuclear reactor with its pumps and heat transfer systems cannot help but make noise continuously. There is only so much that can be done to muffle or quieten them down. In contrast, a submerged conventional submarine can switch off all its motors, and survive on battery power. Provided the crew don’t fart or sneeze, they can be very quiet indeed. And contemporary subs equipped with fuel cells as well as batteries can operate submerged for up to three weeks.

In the next few months we will hear a lot about how superior nuclear-powered submarines are. Vice Admiral Mike Noonan is even claiming superior stealth characteristics – which is simply not true. Yes, they tend to be faster. This is great if you want to go thousands of kilometres in a matter of days. But they are also much more expensive.

A conventionally powered sub like the German-Italian Type 212 costs between €280 and €560 million. Even allowing for Australia paying mug’s prices, we could acquire and run one for far less than a billion dollars. Contrast that with the proposed boats, each of which will probably cost ten times that much. The money we could save could be used to preserve an Australia worth defending – a fleet of firefighting aircraft, stopping the erosion of our health care system, free university education… you fill in the rest.

So, why nuclear subs?

Elements of the Federal coalition and the media are very keen on Australia getting more involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. The Financial Review has jumped straight in lobbying for nuclear power. On July 29 there was kite-flying in the West Australian newspaper about building a nuclear reactor in WA (with UK involvement). This would probably be sited in a remote location (to avoid the NIMBYs) – maybe the Kimberley – and primarily tasked with producing hydrogen. Expect an announcement if the Morrison government is returned at the next election.

Meanwhile the planned nuclear waste dump in SA could very profitably be expanded. High-level N-waste could be taken, not just from military sources. Countries like the UK and Germany (and I dare say France) could solve their dilemma of N-waste by exporting it to a remote location in the third world (Aboriginal land in Australia). So the move to N-powered ships can be seen as a slip into the whole nuclear cycle.

Meanwhile Defence Minister Dutton beats the drums of war, trying to terrify us regarding China’s ‘huge military buildup’ (China is spending less than one-third what the US does). Our own military bill is huge and increasing – $45 billion this year. The recent announcement of AUKUS, a strategic partnership obviously aimed at China, identifies an enemy, and offers a strategic excuse for this expenditure. It is about this country playing a minor role in a US-led game of brinkmanship and global hegemony. We would base our nuclear subs at HMAS Stirling near Fremantle and play the role of Deputy Sheriff in the Indian Ocean, targeting Chinese assets in the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Then there is Dutton talking about more US weapons and GIs being based in Australia. This is AUKUS.

The alternative scenario is that Australia protects itself. In 1986 the Hawke Government received the Dibb Report, which proposed such an approach, but gained little traction. This might include conventionally powered attack submarines that would be far better equipped to deal with any seaborne invasion. Unmanned Undersea Vehicles are a rapidly emerging technology that could also play a role. (Such drones may render crewed subs obsolete anyway).

But rather than preparing for war, we could enhance the prospects for peace.

Above all, Australia is desperately in need of an independent foreign policy and a competent diplomatic service. Building trust and friendship with neighbours to the near north and in the Pacific would be a good start.

♦ Richard Staples is a bamboo grower and craftsman, former Byron Shire Councillor (1995–2012) and activist (water, energy, forests, defence and disarmament). He lives near Bangalow with his wife, Devi and young daughter, Emily.


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16 COMMENTS

    • The article quotes a lot of facts and figures, the Wolfe seems to prefer to denigrate without sharing, producing or quoting any knowledge or sources whatsoever. Let’s see who the reader prefers and trusts…

  1. Only six!
    In Australia’s defence policy covering a time of both Labor and Liberal Coalition prime ministers from 1960 to the year 2000, Australia in underwater surveillance/defence operated only six Oberon class diesel-electric submarines.
    Only six subs were to defend the complete coastline of 59,736 kilometres of Australia, including Tasmania. Those subs harbour great memories as they did a good job.
    One of them, HMAS Onslow, is preserved in the memory of history and maritime defence at the Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.

  2. I guess we are going to use the submarines to sink the Chinese ships carrying our iron ore to China and those bringing our Christmas presents from China.
    Who dreams up these nonsensical ideas of ‘defending our interests’?

    • Key word – Interests.
      Not once has anyone said defending Australia (America). What they say is defending Australia’s (America’s) interests. It’s all about the money. Once upon a time nations used to compete with each other. Now, we’re going to embrace the American way, bomb the competition back to the stone age.
      Yankee go home!

  3. Bye bye American Pie. Dutton’s war drums & useful drones plus Pine Gap.
    I’m saying ‘NO NUKES’ & I mean it. Research the death we are importing.
    THE LAST LANDSCAPE [Stefanie Bennett]

    The last landscape
    lay down its head.
    The watercolours
    of the body fled,
    consciously dissolving,
    knowing her dead.

    As wildfowl still bustled.
    As cattle grazed.
    As tree-shade expanded.
    As the snake slept.

    Who is to blame.
    Who wrote – who authorised
    the suicide note?

    The artist could tell.
    He went down with her.
    If it helps, they, both of
    them, were laughing.

    (From Midnight Tulips, recorded by the Seymour Group, & the ACF
    along with ‘No Nukes’ Art’s Action for Peace.)

    [

  4. Wedging us into accepting nuclear power. According to the Australian Institute of Strategic Studies, the nuke sub is not suitable for Australian waters. To the north, the seas are too shallow. They are also an attack vessel not a defence vessel. Who are we going to attack? Nauru, New Zealand? Perhaps we should stay with RU!

  5. Talking of health etc The 2021 federal budget reveals huge $311bn cost of Covid to Australian economy. We could pay for the subs, get fire fighting aircraft, plant a few forests, pay off debt, well the list goes on what we could if we stopped being locked up. Stick with the bamboo, I’m pretty sure after many years of little going toward defence it’s about time we did something. I would prefer like most that we remain blissfully peaceful, but the fact remains we have a communist country on our back doorstep and no amount of any virtue signaling is going to change China which has no intention whatsoever to be greener or cleaner, but of course they will be building all those electric vehicles for all of us whilst laughing all the way to the bank

    • Per capita China emits less than half the amount of c02 that Australia does , it only emits a lot because it has 56 times our population . As far as China being communist , in name only , they are capitalists through and through , what they do have though is a single party state .

    • In your calculations it’s cheaper to have our hospitals and Intensive Care Units overflowing, people sick and unable to go to work and the virus spreading like wildfire, rather than not being allowed to?
      And yet you ‘prefer to do something’? How about doing something about a Pandemic that has ripped through half of the world with plenty of examples of the damage it has caused in countries that aren’t protected?
      And if you want to defend us against the growing superpower that China is becoming – why export all our coal and iron to them – so they can build more tanks, battleships and weapons? Which we than desperately try to sink with US subs?? Marx would be laughing in his grave to see the Communists lording it over the Capitalists by making their arms race profitable to the capitalist system. Hilarious.

  6. Thank heavens for the article by Richard Staples and the comment bt The Sheriff. Been waiting for some intelligent backlash. Ban nuclear warfare.

  7. What is most disturbing is the comments condemning Richard. How can anyone not see the US is is a war based economy, quickly pulling Australia in with it. 20 years in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands dead, millions now living shattered lives, countless billions spend, most going into the pockets of the military industrial complex. in terms of peace, stability and an increase in a standard of living, it achieved absolutely nothing. Afghanistan is just below Haiti on the HDI (human development index). Imagine if those countless billions were spend building hospitals schools infrastructure. Unfortunately with people like some of those who commented here , we are doomed to never realize what we as a whole, could achieve.

  8. So the country opted to use a petrol engine rather than horse and cart.
    We are talking here about a safe, modern, non polluting, mode of transport. Get some perspective folks.
    I am more concerned about the thousand of Americans with sophisticated surveillance equipment and conventional weapons being stationed in Australia, making us a good target for a pre-emptive strike.

  9. Generals gathered in their masses
    Just like witches at black masses
    Evil minds that plot destruction
    Sorcerer of death’s construction
    In the fields the bodies burning
    As the war machine keeps turning
    Death and hatred to Mankind
    Poisoning their brainwashed minds…
    Oh Lord yeah!

  10. […] Nuclear submarines – a step towards full nuclear chain, importing wastes, and joining in USA nuclear brinkmanship.    . Nuclear submarines must be ‘subject to rigorous parliamentary review’: Senator Rex […]

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