defence connect logo



Generational anxiety: Can Australia ‘calm the fear’ of nuclear-powered submarines?

United States Navy Virginia Class submarine USS Mississippi arrives at Fleet Base West, Rockingham, Western Australia for a routine port visit. Photo: CPOIS Yuri Ramsey

Time will tell if the Australian public can overcome decades of national fear regarding nuclear-powered submarines, weapons, and related nuclear energy technology.

Time will tell if the Australian public can overcome decades of national fear regarding nuclear-powered submarines, weapons, and related nuclear energy technology.

The Australian Submarine Agency (ASA) might be hoping that obstacle can be conquered, as they publish some slick new advertising and explanation material for the nuclear-powered submarines that this country will one day possess.

ASA championed the safety and strategic value of Australian conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines as part of Nuclear Science Week with an “Introduction to Nuclear-Powered Submarines” video explanation on 16 October.


The agency was originally established in July this year to safely and securely acquire, construct, deliver, technically govern, sustain, and dispose of Australia’s conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarine capability for Australia via the AUKUS partnership.

Drawing parallels to increasing tensions in the South China Sea and regions around Australia, the new marketing content states that “the Indo-Pacific has become a centre of strategic competition. Our nuclear-powered submarines will provide Australia with a potent, stealthy and agile capability edge”.

Australia is on the path to those submarines after a joint-announcement made earlier this year between the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Australia.

The first SSN-AUKUS is scheduled for delivery from the UK to the UK’s Royal Navy in the late 2030s, with the first domestically constructed SSN-AUKUS delivered from the Commonwealth to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s.

In the meantime, plans continue for the United States to sell Australia nuclear-powered and conventionally armed Virginia Class submarines in the early 2030s with the deal pending Congressional approval.

But what’s the benefit of those vessels over diesel-electric submarines?

Nuclear-powered submarines do not require surface recharge time where they are raised above the surface to charge batteries, according to the ASA.

Nuclear-propelled submarines also have unlimited range (disregarding crew supplies) and a superior transit speed of 25-plus knots as opposed to their diesel alternatives with a travel distance of 11,500 kilometres and transit speed of 8–12 knots.

In a simplified science lesson, it further clarifies that the reactor of the nuclear-powered submarine creates a controlled chain reaction of nuclear fission with uranium atoms. Each creates more energy per atom than fossil fuels, according to the ASA.

In addition, the video states nuclear-powered submarines have four layers of protection and submarine crews receive an average annual dose of radiation of less than 0.1mSv compared to long haul pilots (3-4mSv) and the general public (1-4mSv).

It also praises alliances with the United States and the United Kingdom, which operate 500 naval nuclear reactors and have travelled more than 240 million kilometres.

“Australia will achieve the highest possible safety security and non-proliferation standards. We will safely and securely deliver nuclear-powered submarines to protect Australia and our national interests,” the ASA said.

I fear this is where it may lose many members of the Australian public due to generational opposition to nuclear power, memories of Cold War-era rhetoric, and a fierce determination against the development of nuclear energy systems domestically.

Two-thirds of Australians (67 per cent) are either “strongly” or “somewhat” in favour of the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS, a similar result to that in 2022 (70 per cent), according to the Lowy Institute Poll 2023.

However, in 2023, the proportion of Australians who say they “strongly” favour the submarine acquisition dropped by seven points to 26 per cent.

In an April survey, the Lowy Institute Poll asked Australians about the impact they think the submarines will have on regional stability. Australians have mixed feelings in response to this question. Three in 10 (28 per cent) think the submarines will deter military conflict and help ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific region, while two in 10 (20 per cent) think they will increase the risk of military conflict and instability. Around half either say the submarines will make no difference (32 per cent) or are not sure of their impact (20 per cent).

Nevertheless, the Australian anti-nuclear movement runs deep domestically against introduction of nuclear energy production, uranium mining, and nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific; at odds with expansion of nuclear-related technology in countries such as the US, France, the UK, China, and South Korea.

Let’s hope public trust in nuclear fissure and fusion technology gains momentum before the submarines arrive.

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!