By Bevan Ramsden 

Nuclear power plants inside Virginia class submarines harbour potential environmental threats (Screenshot via YouTube)

New legislation seeks to exempt nuclear power plants onboard submarines from crucial environmental protection acts.

THE Albanese Government has a bill before Parliament which, if passed, would exempt nuclear power plants on nuclear-propelled submarines from the requirement of two other acts: the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The bill is called the Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023. The amendments involve inserting an additional paragraph in parts of each act to exempt ‘a naval nuclear propulsion plant related to use in a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine’ from the requirements in the parts of either of those acts which refer to nuclear power plants.

This must be of considerable concern to the Australian community as it is totally illogical to make a distinction between the nuclear plant providing the power to propel “conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines” and that of a land-based nuclear power plant in relation to controls and protections as it is indeed still a nuclear power plant.

The nuclear power plant on board a submarine needs the same or more requirements for control and protection as a nuclear power plant on land. Indeed, the uranium to be used in these proposed SSN submarines is enriched to the level that is used in nuclear weapons.

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It also presents more danger than conventionally uranium-fired nuclear power plants to the naval staff operating inside a nuclear-propelled submarine as they live and work in very close proximity to the nuclear power plant powering the submarine. When in port, residents in the vicinity of the port are potentially exposed to the toxic impact of possible radiation leaks from the submarine’s nuclear power plant.

To pass these amendments exempting nuclear power plants on board a nuclear-propelled submarine from the requirements of these two acts would be a betrayal by Parliament of its responsibilities to the naval staff operating the submarines and to the wider Australian public, especially those in proximity to the ports which service nuclear-powered submarines.

The Federal Parliament has never had the opportunity to vote on Australia joining the trilateral AUKUS security treaty through which the nuclear-powered submarine technology is to be transferred to Australia.

Nor has it had the opportunity to vote on the decision for Australia to buy/acquire nuclear-propelled submarines.

Here is one, possibly the only, opportunity for Parliament to vote on an aspect of the nuclear-propelled submarine procurement and step in and take some responsibility in maintaining the controls and protection of the nuclear power plant on board a submarine by not exempting it from the requirements of these two acts.

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