Growing concern about Australia’s lack of strategic resource reserves – mainly liquid energy supplies – is emerging as a major issue to be faced by the new government and Australia’s strategic policy leaders as the world becomes increasingly unpredictable. Further exacerbating these issues is growing concern about climate change and humanity's impact on the environment.
Central to this challenge is Australia's dependence on the ocean and strategic sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) for access to critical energy supplies – namely crude and refined oil products following the closure of Australia's only remaining oil refinery at Kurnell in 2014. As NSW senator and former Australian Army Major General Jim Molan posited, what good is a fleet of advanced land, air and sea assets if we can't fuel, arm, repair and maintain them?
In response to these growing economic and strategic concerns, Energy and Environment Minister Angus Taylor has officially launched a parliamentary inquiry into the viability of developing Australia's own nuclear energy industry: "This will be the first inquiry into the use of nuclear power in Australia in more than a decade and is designed to consider the economic, environmental and safety implications of nuclear power."
Throughout recent decades, nuclear technology has rapidly evolved with a range of civil and military applications – the advent of 'small modular reactors' (SMR) and 'very small modular reactors' (vSMR) in particular serve as notable examples of recent developments to address the growing need for reliable, 'clean' base load power generation for Australia.
Limiting Australia's energy dependence
Recognising these growing challenges – namely Australia's dependence on foreign energy, both oil and increasingly natural gas as a result of Australia's focus on exporting vast quantities of its domestically produced natural gas – the increasingly precarious energy security situation of the nation has become a focal point for policy makers, with nuclear energy emerging as a potential answer despite the inherently emotional responses the suggestion has elicited in the past.
Despite the overwhelmingly emotional response to nuclear energy in Australia, the nation's position as one of the largest fissile material exporters in the world, combined with world-leading standards, environmental protection legislation and voracious demand for reliable, 'clean' and 'safe' energy, positions Australian policy makers at a cross roads where logic and reason need to trump emotion.
The advent of SMR technology and the similar vSMR platforms was a key focus of the terms of reference outlined by Minister Taylor – with the ABC recently reporting the growing focus of SMR developers, stating their key objective as "aiming to lower the typical construction costs associated with nuclear plants through serial fabrication at an off-site facility, with components brought together at the operational site for final assembly".
SMR technology is one such example of modernisation and technological breakthroughs in the nuclear industry, with the US Army 'Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations' study highlighting the growing importance of energy on the modern battlefield, saying, "Energy is a cross-cutting enabler of military power and nuclear fuel provides the densest form of energy able to generate the electrical power necessary at forward and remote locations without the need for continuous fuel resupply.
Enter the development of vSMRs, designed to deliver between one and 10 megawatts (MW) for years without refuelling in a rapidly-deployable (road and/or air) package. Both the US Department of Defense and NASA have collaborated on the development of such reactors for use in military and space exploration contingencies.
Additionally, the US Army study identified a series of performance and design considerations for the development and operation of such a system, including:
- Sized for transport by different strategic, operational and tactical military platforms (C-17 aircraft, ships, Army watercraft and military truck);
- Designed to enable multiple movements in austere locations, throughout its operating life (e.g. passively or actively vibration-resistant during transport);
- Once installed, provides stationary 'load-following' and conditioned electric power as well as possibly process heat. Capable of meeting a camp’s variable electrical base power load demand;
- Provides electrical power for mission systems (e.g. sensing, computing and communications), life support (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting etc) quality-of-life functions, and other future applications (e.g. electric weapons, manufacturing, water or fuel production) during contingency operations in remote locations;
- Must have characteristics enabling minimum downtime for periodic instrumentation and sensor replacement or refurbishing, without requiring direct exposure to the nuclear fuel system;
- Must be simple in design and operation. Reactor design and fuel must be inherently safe and accident-forgiving; and
- Factory fuelled with system operating life of 10-20 years without refuelling.
The HOLOS reactor in particular has been designed to support deployed military requirements, with full-power tested successfully in 2018. The HOLOS reactor uses a form of low-enriched uranium known as 'high-assay low-enriched uranium' or HALEU, which is neither weapons-grade nor useful in dirty bombs, and satisfies all nuclear non-proliferation requirements.
Energy security as a critical part of a National Security Strategy
While Australia enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, the ability to refine and produce vast quantities of steel, coking coal and now domestic agricultural produce and critical, specialised medical supplies also serves as a glaring gap in the broader national security debate. Accordingly, any national strategic reserve policy requires a holistic approach to incorporate these into the development of any policy response.
Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Accordingly, it is now up to Australia's political and strategic leaders to form an integrated policy agenda as part of a broader National Security Strategy – similar to that advocated for by Senator Molan – to include the development of critical national strategic reserves to support the national economy and defence capability during an increasingly troubled period in global history.
Senator Molan stressed the importance of these developments, telling Defence Connect, "We have managed to get away with not having a national security strategy only because we have lived in a tranquil region since 1945. But our strategic environment is changing quickly, and we need to prepare for a turbulent future. Developing a national security strategy would be a vital first step towards building the capacity we need to face the potential challenges that are coming."
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.