Last Monday’s release of the Defence Strategic Review turns a welcome spotlight on Australia’s National Resilience. Perhaps outstepping public perception of the role of Defence, recommendations have been made in the domain of climate change and clean energy. Defence has put a flag in the sand for a clean energy strategy by 2025. With, last month’s price increase warning by the Australian Energy Regulator, falling against the backdrop of legislation review by the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, the landscape is set to herald changes for Australia’s future energy strategy. Robert Davies, a UK authority on nuclear supply chains provides some insights on what might come next for Australia.

By Sasek (Adobe Stock)

All nations are increasingly engaged in internal and external debate on their energy strategy. The debate drivers span issues such as enhancing security of supply, cost reduction, carbon emissions reduction, maintaining national industries i.e., coal, or simply keeping the lights on. Like it or loath it, one source of supply increasingly being explored by many countries is that of civil nuclear power.

As a distant Pom, I am not going to put my toe into a national debate as to whether Australia should consider civil nuclear favourably. That is a national decision which must be underpinned by government consensus, which I acknowledge is fraught with public, political and legislative complexity. But to place cards on the table, I am an advocate.

I'm an advocate for exploring potential synergies between defence and civil nuclear that could help develop a home-grown industrial and human capital supply chain for a civil nuclear industry in Australia. I will address synergies which are of value to the debate on a desirable direction for Australia’s energy policy.

As the AUKUS partnership proceeds, we know that defence nuclear will be coming to Australian shores in one way or another. By defence, I'm referring to nuclear-powered submarines.

Defence and civil nuclear share several common attributes that can be leveraged to develop synergies and optimize their potential. These attributes include industrial supply chains, people, regulatory and standards, and a shared understanding of the nuclear sector among government and stakeholders.

I understand that some may argue that defence and civil nuclear have different owners/sponsors, security issues, cultures, procurement systems, and technologies. However, while there are certainly differences between the two, the similarities are more significant.

For instance, although it may seem simplistic, the pressurised water reactor used in a submarine has many similarities with its land-based cousin, including technology fundamentals, robust regulatory oversight, high industrial quality standards, and operating cultures that underpin both defence and civil nuclear today. They are of the same family. You may have to manufacture a pump or valve for a nuclear-powered submarine in a different factory area than that for its civil cousin, but that is an easier hurdle to surmount than for a supplier attaining the quality standards demanded by both defence and civil independently.

Once the standard is attained, the supply chain needs a pipeline to deliver consistently, sustainably and at a reasonable cost. Stop-start is the enemy of quality and sound industrial strategy. By finding that synergy between manufacturing for defence and civil nuclear, we can provide industrial value and develop a potential new supply chain for a civil nuclear industry in Australia.

It is similar for people, the workforce. Whether manufacturing, constructing or operating a nuclear plant, defence or civil, all the folk must adhere to a rigorous culture of safety and quality. In the UK we are increasingly developing partnerships between Higher and Further Education providers to build the workforces necessary for civil, and increasingly defence, nuclear at degree level and lower, more often through apprenticeships.

The commonality of regulatory robust oversight is crucial, as the regulatory systems may vary, but the underlying values and requirements are common. In general, the greater the common and mutual understanding of nuclear power, whether military or civil, the greater the opportunity for sound judgments by governments and stakeholders alike, based on understanding and informed comment.

So, as the AUKUS partnership develops, I recommend that Australia keeps an eye on how the emerging industrial structure could be used to leverage a home-grown industrial (and human capital) supply chain for a civil nuclear industry. By building on the synergies between defence and civil nuclear, and by developing the necessary regulatory and workforce frameworks, Australia could position itself to take advantage of this opportunity for the nation in its recommended clean energy strategy.

Robert Davies

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