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Government seeks to make nuclear submarines more hazardous

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Nuclear power plants inside Virginia class submarines harbour potential environmental threats (Screenshot via YouTube)

New legislation seeks to exempt nuclear power plants onboard submarines from crucial environmental protection acts, writes Bevan Ramsden.

THE GOVERNMENT has a bill before Parliament which, if passed, would exempt nuclear power plants on nuclear-propelled submarines from the requirement of two other acts: the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The bill is called the Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023. The amendments involve inserting an additional paragraph in parts of each act to exempt ‘a naval nuclear propulsion plant related to use in a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine’ from the requirements in the parts of either of those acts which refer to nuclear power plants.

This must be of considerable concern to the Australian community as it is totally illogical to make a distinction between the nuclear plant providing the power to propel “conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines” and that of a land-based nuclear power plant in relation to controls and protections as it is indeed still a nuclear power plant.

The nuclear power plant on board a submarine needs the same or more requirements for control and protection as a nuclear power plant on land. Indeed, the uranium to be used in these proposed SSN submarines is enriched to the level that is used in nuclear weapons.

It also presents more danger than conventionally uranium-fired nuclear power plants to the naval staff operating inside a nuclear-propelled submarine as they live and work in very close proximity to the nuclear power plant powering the submarine. When in port, residents in the vicinity of the port are potentially exposed to the toxic impact of possible radiation leaks from the submarine’s nuclear power plant.

To pass these amendments exempting nuclear power plants on board a nuclear-propelled submarine from the requirements of these two acts would be a betrayal by Parliament of its responsibilities to the naval staff operating the submarines and to the wider Australian public, especially those in proximity to the ports which service nuclear-powered submarines.

The Federal Parliament has never had the opportunity to vote on Australia joining the trilateral AUKUS security treaty through which the nuclear-powered submarine technology is to be transferred to Australia.

Nor has it had the opportunity to vote on the decision for Australia to buy/acquire nuclear-propelled submarines.

Here is one, possibly the only, opportunity for Parliament to vote on an aspect of the nuclear-propelled submarine procurement and step in and take some responsibility in maintaining the controls and protection of the nuclear power plant on board a submarine by not exempting it from the requirements of these two acts.

The Senate has referred this bill to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee for review and report by 9 June 2023. Submissions can be made to it by 26 May. As many submissions as possible should be made to this committee urging that it recommend opposition to these amendments.

In addition, it would appear from a layperson’s point of view to be an extraordinarily irresponsible decision by any country’s leadership to place a nuclear power plant in a submarine in the first place. These submarines are for deployment in a hunter-killer role and would be subject to enemy attack in wartime. A torpedo that blew up a nuclear-powered submarine would release toxic radiation from the power plant and its enriched uranium fuel; toxic pollution of the environment wherever it has occurred, for generations to come.

This decision by the leadership of two Australian political parties, the Coalition and Labor, to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines is therefore an irresponsible one for the above reason.

But there are many reasons for this decision to be irresponsible.

It is irresponsible for being totally authoritarian. There has been no public discussion and no parliamentary debate or vote before the decision was made.

It is irresponsible because the nuclear-propelled submarines depend on U.S. technology both for build, maintenance and operation and as such, the Australian Government has aligned itself with U.S. foreign policy and will need to maintain this close alignment in order to gain and maintain access to this technology for decades.

The impact is loss of independence in foreign policy, inability to make decisions in the best interests of the Australian people and may well draw Australia into a U.S. war against China which will cause extreme economic distress to the Australian people and the people of our region.

It is irresponsible as Australia is not under military threat from China or any country and doesn’t need nuclear-propelled hunter-killer submarines which are for forward deployment in distant waters and are not essential for the defence of territorial Australia and its approach waters, a task for which conventional submarines are well suited.

It is irresponsible as the huge cost to the taxpayer – $368 billion with substantial blowouts expected – is a substantial loss to addressing serious social needs in our community including public housing, hospitals, education, nurses and teachers, transitioning to renewable energy nationally and taking the necessary measure to address climate change.

We need to mobilise opposition to reverse the irresponsible decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Making a submission to urge the Senate Inquiry to recommend against the amendments scheduled for the two acts is part of this opposition.

Bevan Ramsden is an ex-telecommunications engineer and a long-time peace activist who advocates for Australia’s independence. He was a member of the coordinating committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) for a number of years and is the editor of its monthly publication, 'Voice'.

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