Will AUKUS turn us into the world’s nuclear waste dump?
Written by: Nick G. on 15 November 2023
While Albo and Marles are confident that the US Congress will approve the sale of several second-hand nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, doubt remains in the US over the wisdom of the whole AUKUS arrangements.
This despite the US having suggested back in 2013 that we lease ten or twelve Virginia-class nuclear submarines, a proposal that Malcolm Fraser strongly opposed. This beneficiary of a US-backed constitutional coup became so worried about Australia’s surrender of sovereignty to its US masters that he called his book Dangerous Allies, criticising the US proposal.
Under the Morrison-Albanese AUKUS arrangements, the submarines are to be purchased, and not leased. However, the US Congress is worried that the US is so far behind in the production of nuclear submarines for its own use that it will not be able to supply new ones to Australia.
Speaking of the recent Indo-Pacific Conference in Sydney, the US online Breaking Defence journal wrote:
Indo-Pacific naval and industry leaders meet in Sydney this week for the Indo-Pacific Exposition, amid growing concerns that AUKUS, the region’s signature defense initiative, is running out of steam. Despite substantial investment over the last decade, the US submarine industrial base is generating as much backlog as boats, leading US lawmakers to question the wisdom of selling a tenth of the operational US submarine fleet to Australia. On the other side of the Pacific, a chorus of Australian leaders is balking at the potential bill for a country of 26 million to field its own nuclear submarine force.
The author went on to say of the Australian Navy that:
…its fleet of about 50 ships and 16,000 personnel is small compared to the vast region it has to protect and the alliance operations it may need to support.
And demands on the RAN are only likely to grow, as the new Australian Defence Strategic Review highlighted. Australia’s sparsely-populated northern approaches are expected to be critical for supporting alliance air and naval operations in a confrontation with China, but sustaining a presence across thousands of miles of water will be impossible using the existing Australian fleet and air force.
Meanwhile, concerns have grown about the responsibility Australia has taken on in relation to the decommissioning of the eight nuclear-powered submarines it hopes to own and operate. As the government’s Australian Submarine Agency website now clearly states;
As a responsible nuclear steward, Australia will manage all radioactive waste generate by its own Virginia Class and SSN-AUKUS submarines, including radioactive waste generate through operations, maintenance and decommissioning.
Morrison had not drawn attention to this when he announced AUKUS with his US and UK counterparts, knowing well that it would never be accepted by most Australians.
The decommissioning of a nuclear-powered submarine is a costly and complicated process. The UK has decommissioned 20, but they remain in dockyards and have done so for more than thirty years.
The problem is the nuclear waste. The reactors employ enriched uranium high in U-235 isotopes which are constantly bombarded by neutrons to release energy. The U-235 that remains after the submarine is taken out of service must be carefully extracted and stored. It has a half-life of 704 million years.
From 1946 through 1993, thirteen countries used ocean disposal or ocean dumping as a method to dispose of nuclear/radioactive waste with an approximation of 200,000 tons sourced mainly from the medical, research and nuclear industry. Since 1993, the UK has not been able to dump high level waste in the ocean, has not yet discovered a geologically stable land dump site, and so has its retired nuclear-powered submarines sitting in its harbours with their nuclear wastes intact.
Unfortunately for Australia, we are seen as a prospective dumping ground for high-level nuclear wastes because we are a relatively geographically stable land mass. It would seem that the US and the UK saw AUKUS as an opportunity to require Australia to create the high-level radioactive waste dump that could eventually solve their own nuclear waste disposal problems.
After all, if Australia can be made to dispose of the U-235 in its nuclear-powered submarines, why could it not be persuaded to take other nations’ wastes as well? This idea had previously surfaced in the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission established in 2015 by the “left” ALP state Premier Jay Weatherill. Weatherill was enthusiastic about what it could mean for the state’s revenues, but a randomly-selected “citizens’ jury” overwhelmingly rejected the idea, and it was binned.
It stands to reason that the US made it a condition of supplying us with nuclear-powered subs that we take care of the wastes, so that they can manipulate a future Australian government into taking their, and the UK’s, waste as well at a future date.
The AUKUS arrangements must also be binned if we are not to become the world’s nuclear waste dump.
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