Why AUKUS does not make sense

Jun 4, 2023
Yellow Nuclear Submarine, 3D rendering

AUKUS relies on the dubious proposition that nuclear propulsion will in 20 years or so be a viable option.  A dubious proposition in twenty years, as it hardly is value for money now. A number of defects should be obvious even to Peter Hartcher as he predicts imminent conflict.

One of the wise decisions made by Billy McMahon as Prime Minister was to ban nuclear powered vessels from Australian harbours, on the sensible ground that even a minor “excursion” (think “leak”) would contaminate many harbourside suburbs, making them uninhabitable. A real estate disaster at Potts Point. This policy has probably been in place ever since, or at least up to Morrison. That this is a real risk has long worried the UK with the nuclear contamination of its submarine bases, and gives one pause for thought. As to the reprocessing of the fuel the British have had to live with the Seascale release of radioactive waste in Cumberland.

The apparent acceptance that any dealing in fuel for these submarines of the distant future will not be encumbered by the Non-Proliferation Treaty is at least subject to some doubt. The proposition that we would have a suitable harbour to on- load nuclear fuel, store it and on-forward it for reprocessing is fraught with unanswered questions. To sidestep this issue it has been claimed that fuel modules already operational would simply be dropped in and pulled out. The problem is still there: what becomes of the ”spent fuel” which must be reprocessed to recover usable fissile material and dispose of the unusable “daughter products of fission”, usually highly radioactive (half-lives often of thousands of years) to be disposed of. We still haven’t done it for Lucas Heights, a much smaller task.

The idea that, even in a few decades, we would be able to produce and reprocess the fuel elements or the drop-in power packs, let alone engage in the technically very difficult and phenomenally expensive activity of uranium enrichment, may well , even in the distant future, be well beyond us, even without NPT “difficulties”. The only current source of enriched uranium derives from weapons programs where the cost is a hidden truth in defence budgets of nuclear weapons states

And what if this technology is obviated by more modern means of powering submarines? Nuclear power for electricity generation is already on the back burner around the world, both on cost and safety grounds. Will our subs be antiquated clunkers in 2043?

The time scale of this enterprise is its most significant drawback. If Hartcher is right about China, war over Taiwan in three years, a few submarines in twenty years won’t save us; we’d be better off arming our infantry, or manufacturing missiles and attack drones now. Thank goodness he’s wrong?

Lastly, how would six, if that’s the figure, or even twelve (however fancy) submarines defend our Island Home. Which two ports would they defend, as only two are likely to be operative at any time. Surely they won’t be there simply to join in confrontation with China in the South China Sea.

Too little, too late, overtaken by the advance of science, pretending to be up with the “big guys”.

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