Safety first: independent safety review of nuclear-powered submarine project is essential

Senator Rex Patrick

“The proposed construction of a fleet of new nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide must only proceed on the basis of the most rigorous of nuclear safety assessments and the implementation of a world-class regulatory regime that will give South Australians absolute assurances of safety and environmental protection,” Independent Senator Rex Patrick said today.

“An independent nuclear safety review is an essential first step in the Government’s plans to progress the proposed nuclear-powered submarine program announced with such fanfare last week.”

“As a former Royal Australian Navy submariner who has sailed in a United States Navy nuclear-powered submarine, I have high confidence in the safety of USN submarine operations. With that experience I am very aware of the great strength of USN nuclear safety engineering, organisation, regulations and culture built up over 66 years of operations.”

“US Navy experience, and that of the Royal Navy, shows that there can be absolutely no shortcuts with regard to nuclear safety through the entire life cycle of nuclear-powered vessels – from construction to operations and eventually to decommissioning and disposal.”

“If Australia is to commit to a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, then the RAN, the Defence Department and Australia’s nuclear regulators must commit to build up a safety regime of equal if not better standards as the United States and Royal navies. That is a tremendous challenge; a whole of government task that must not be underestimated.”

“It is unfortunate, then, that Prime Minister Scott Morrison made only very brief mentions of nuclear safety when he announced that Australia’s proposed nuclear-powered submarine fleet will be built at Adelaide, presumably at the Osborne site on the Port River.”

“This is significant because there appears to be no public record indicating that Port Adelaide has ever been approved to receive visits by nuclear-powered warships. The Port has never hosted such a visit.”

The last time the Australian Parliament was provided information on the approval of ports to receive nuclear-powered warship visits was thirteen years ago – in August 2008. At that time the ports that had been approved for nuclear-powered warship visits were Fremantle, HMAS Stirling, Albany, Darwin, Gladstone, Brisbane and Melbourne.

More up to date records have not been made available. In recent years USN nuclear powered warship visits appear to have been limited to Western Australia and Queensland, for example the nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe berthed at HMAS Stirling in February 2019, and the French Navy nuclear submarine Emeraude visiting the following year.”

Senator Patrick said: “We don’t know whether the suitability of Adelaide for nuclear-powered warships visits has ever been assessed by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency or the interdepartmental Visiting Ships Panel (Nuclear).”

“We don’t know whether ARPANSA have ever applied their 2000 nuclear reference accident to scenarios at Port Adelaide, let alone done any more recent modelling.”

“In any case, the use of facilities for the construction and maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines, with reactors on hard stands or moored in the Port River, are clearly scenarios that have never been considered by Australian nuclear regulators.”

“These are very serious issues that can neither be glossed over, nor should they be hyped up by alarmist and politically motivated rhetoric.”

“What is required is an early, independent study carried out by a full range of relevant experts covering nuclear and maritime safety as well as environmental considerations. We need scientific, engineering, maritime and environmental expertise in the lead on this.”

“Australia should undertake that work independently of the broader joint study of the proposed acquisition and construction of nuclear-powered submarines that is to be undertaken by the Australian, United States and United Kingdom Governments.”

“The results of an independent study should be presented to the Australian Parliament for debate.”

“The Australian public, and especially the citizens of South Australia, must be absolutely confident that every aspect of safety is fully investigated and evaluated.”

Separately I am pushing for a Senate Committee inquiry into the entirety of the Government’s submarine program decision and for the Committee to provide an interim report before the Federal Election.

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