On September16 2021, a virtual, but nonetheless lethal, nuclear bombshell launched from Australia and bloomed into the skies of Normandy, killing instantly the diesel-electric Attack-class submarine that Naval Group of France was designing for Australia.
The Prime Ministers of Australia and the UK, with the President of the USA, had announced the birth of the AUKUS trilateral agreement, under which the first and major initiative would be to grant Australia with nuclear-powered submarine technology.
The move, justified by “a rapidly evolving geopolitical context” (a new Cold War era between the USA and China), left a massive gap to fill.
All the countries (USA, UK and France), that had transitioned from diesel-electric to nuclear-powered submarines only, had planned a transition spanning over 30 years, and had an existing nuclear industry (power plants), creating a critical mass of workforce and resources to be shared between the civilian and defence sectors.
Australia, when announcing the intent to become a nuclear nation for defence purposes only, had yet no plan to share with the public, but the pathway would be clarified 18 months later, in March 2023.
A leap of faith of sorts…
Australia is meant to buy some existing submarines from the US in the early 2030s, before commissioning in the early 2040s AUKUS submarines built in Adelaide.
Going Nuclear for Defence …without pre-existing civilian industry
All the countries that have or are developing nuclear powered submarines have had an existing civilian nuclear industry: the most recent newcomers into that exclusive club, namely India and Brazil, could rely on a regulatory framework and resources to train the workforce that ultimately works for Defence.
Australia has nothing even remotely approaching these standards, despite some niche activities in nuclear physics but, with all due respect, mostly dedicated to fundamental research or medical applications, even though some recent incidents (the radioactive source dropped from a truck in WA) proved that our Australian structures were efficient to deal with them.
However, having nuclear reactors of more than 100 MWt of power output with High Enriched Uranium (which is weapon grade as well), within our home ports, close to our cities, is a totally different league, and social acceptance by the Australian community will take time and education.
Relevant courses content for Australian training organisations
Three layers of knowledge exist in the overall nuclear submarine topic.
The external one is about the fundamentals in physics and engineering such as thermo-hydraulics, mechanical, but also chemistry, including the nuclear domain.
The intermediate layer is the contextualisation of the fundamental topics in the context of naval nuclear propulsion: radiation management, nuclear engineering, submarine maritime engineering, safety etc.
These first two layers are where Australian training organisations can contribute right now.
The deepest layer is connected to the actual physical assets that are not yet in Australia or bound by Intellectual Property rights due to the proprietary information owned by American or British companies. Australian entities would only be able to contribute in that field much later and via licensing rights commercial agreements, or around specific assets: training simulators and land-based nuclear reactor.
Human capacity building and development in the IAEA milestones
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has created a pathway for countries, like Australia, who would be willing to become operators of nuclear reactors but starting from the blank page.
Several streams need to be set:
– at the governmental level with a regulatory body, to will set up framework and governance, so that the nuclear operations can be safely implemented at any stage of the life cycle,
– At the operator level (navy) to drive the nuclear reactors,
– At the industry level, both for submarine nuclear propulsion and shipyard/facilities stewardship.
These streams will share common People and Culture (P&C) topics to address:
– HR strategies, policies and requirements,
– Workforce planning,
– Education and training infrastructures,
– Recruitment, training and authorisations.
Both the streams and the P&C topics will be paved with milestones across four phases.
Phase 1 is pre-project, familiarising with the demands of a nuclear mindset and exploring the options for infrastructures: a feasibility study.
Phase 2 is about the project development and making choices in terms of technological and organisational solutions.
Phase 3 addresses the construction and commissioning of the facilities (land-based) and assets (submarines).
Phase 4 finally takes place with the operations on shore and active service at sea before a decommissioning.
Three-tier approach for nuclear knowledge
Developing a workforce for nuclear-powered submarines will require different levels of skills and qualification.
Most of the workforce will need to be nuclear aware: staff with no nuclear background but with strong nuclear safety culture, such as manufacturing and maintenance of non-nuclear systems.
In lesser numbers, the nuclearised staff will have sound nuclear knowledge and know-how, such as plant engineers, operation managers and nuclear personnel.
Finally, a few will be nuclear-only staff, experts working on primary circuit and nuclear core design, safety and research. It is unclear if Australian citizens would get to that level or if such experts will be imposed by either the US or the UK.
Any nuclear training comes on top of the primary qualifications gained by the workforce.
An awareness course can take a few weeks with on job training, but a nuclearised engineer would need a minimum of one year of full-time training (if not more) whilst a nuclear expert will come from the nuclearised after 10 or 15 years of practice.
In terms of simple numbers, for the Australian Navy operators, each reactor will need a minimum of 50 sailors and officers, but that number could easily double if not more.
For the industry and governmental bodies, the UK nuclear sector for Defence encompasses more than 20,000 people for 11 nuclear powered submarines.
Which workforce development model for Australia?
After the AUKUS announcement in September 21 and the disclosure of the pathway to nuclear submarine in March 23, the wheels are in motion.
With an overall budget of 368 billion and the flurry of announcements, all interested parties are pledging their support to the undertaking, and registered training organisations are no exceptions.
Fortunately, Australia can boast universities with relevant pre-existing capabilities in nuclear physics and engineering and naval nuclear propulsion, such as Australian National University, the University of New South Wales, or the University of Adelaide. They would address most of the needs for nuclearized personnel and could team-up or partner with other vocational entities (TAFE for instance) for the nuclear awareness part.
These entities would, in the Phase 1 of the IAEA model, work in the Education and Training of the workforce.
However, a HR strategy needs to be established: the custodian remains unknown at this stage, or maybe it will be in the remit of the Nuclear Submarine Task Force.
This point is crucial due to the timeline: Phase 2 states the need for the national and organisational workforce planning, and the subsequent adaptation of the academic and vocational Infrastructures and programs.
However, if Phase 3 gives an opportunity for Operator Training Centre establishment, such as a nuclear reactor training facility (both simulator and actual (small scale?) reactor), it is not before Phase 4 that the trained workforce will be able to put into practice the newly acquired skills.
These Phase 1 to 3 are expected to last at least 10 years, before Australians get to operate and maintain an overseas built submarine and 20 years to commission a locally built submarine whose nuclear reactor will be shipped from overseas.
The risk of sending trainees overseas is also to lose people to a very hungry industry for qualified personnel.
To boldly go where no one has gone before
Australia has burnt all the bridges and there is no plan B.
Training personnel from now on is the logical next step to acquire the “nuclear mindset”, but in a era of hyperactive professionals, the eternal question remains “what do we do next?”
Eric Fusil is an associate professor at the University of Adelaide, director of the Shipbuilding Hub for Integrated Engineering and Local Design, and is Submarine Design postgraduate courses coordinator. He is a naval architect by background and had his experience crafted by a variety of roles covering the full spectrum of a boat lifecycle (design, build, test and activation and sustainment) and worldwide (USA, France, Australia) including submarine shipyard facilities.