Budget Resources

Dr Adam Broinowski and Dr Robyn Prior

Australia has a long-standing, though small, nuclear industry that supports nuclear applications in areas such as medicine, research and agriculture.

In September 2021, the Australian Government announced a new Trilateral Security Partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS). This partnership will catalyse a significant capability shift to enable the design and implementation of the nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) program. The AUKUS arrangements are discussed further in the Budget review 2023–2024 article, ‘Defence’.

To support the initial implementation of the SSN program, $4.5 billion will be provided over 10 years from 2023–24 (and $482.7 million per year ongoing, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2023–24, pp. 94–96). The Budget provides a breakdown of this amount, which will fund a range of specific measures across multiple portfolios. This article will discuss some of these measures.


Australia faces a distinctive set of circumstances and challenges in the design and implementation of the nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) program.

These challenges include:

  • establishing and maintaining the distinction between civil and military functions, technologies, regulatory regimes and personnel in Australia’s nuclear industry to deliver a nuclear submarine program through multiple national agencies and their counterparts in the UK and US. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) oversees the management and operation of a single nuclear reactor, which is used for nuclear medicine manufacture and other scientific purposes.
  • building the full suite of skills, facilities and institutions along with appropriate regulatory and legislative architecture to support sufficient stewardship of nuclear technologies and materials involved in both defence and non-defence activities. Australia’s nuclear science workforce is small, and has to date needed to manage the storage and disposal of only low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The trilateral SSN program requires a large, skilled and capable workforce to design, deliver and operate nuclear submarines (including Virginia-class and SSN AUKUS boats, while phasing out the Collins-class submarines) and their naval ports and shipyards. Overall management of the program also involves the sensitive issue of siting, both of a naval submarine base and high-level radioactive waste storage and disposal facilities.
  • managing the diplomatic complexities with respect to the wide-ranging strategic implications of the AUKUS agreement (Pillars I and II) and Australia’s relations with its partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • satisfying Australia’s obligations under international and domestic law.

While the Coalition supports the AUKUS SSN program overall, some Coalition senators and members have made site recommendations for nuclear waste and naval submarine ports. Some Independents and non-government organisations (NGO) are more critical of the AUKUS SSN program. Independent positions have focused on the costs of the nuclear submarine program, including contingencies, and argue for an existing tax package to pay for it. Some relevant NGOs have expressed concerns over perceived proliferation and safety risks incurred from the program, as well as the diversion of monies that could otherwise be used to assist with the cost of living, improving education, securing energy transition and avoiding a long-lived nuclear waste burden.

New entities and regulatory frameworks

As announced on 6 May 2023 and described in Budget paper no. 2 (p. 94), a new Australian Submarine Agency (ASA) will be allocated $4.2 billion over 10 years from 2023–24 (and $482.7 million per year ongoing) to support the initial set-up and ongoing operation of the ASA in managing Australia’s acquisition of a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability from ‘cradle-to-grave’. The ‘Public sector: new entities, and equity investments in companiesBudget review article provides further information.

The Budget will also provide $87.2 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to support initial regulatory activities and the development of regulatory standards and frameworks, as well as non-proliferation and safeguard arrangements. Specific measures include:

  • $21.9 million over 2 years from 2023–24 for the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office to support non-proliferation and safeguard arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95). Australia will continue to require capacity to negotiate proliferation concerns in respect to AUKUS. These concerns have been expressed by several countries (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95). This may entail establishing a clear ‘firewall’ between military and civil aspects of its nuclear program.
  • $25.2 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) for nuclear licensing, advice and services in support of the SSN program (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95)
  • $3.1 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to the Department of Health and Aged Care for radiation health and safety advice and regulatory review relating to the SSN program (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95)
  • $16.3 million over 2 years to ANSTO to provide advice and support (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95)
  • $7.9 million in 2023–24 to the ASA towards a new Australian Nuclear-Powered Submarine Safety Regulator and the development of nuclear regulatory standards and frameworks (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95)
  • $7.6 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water to conduct environmental regulation and assessments based on legislation relating to the SSN program (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95).

The Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill (2023) has been introduced to maintain the existing regulatory framework to manage Australia’s civil nuclear industry, while not limiting the performance of regulatory functions in respect to nuclear-powered submarines.

A full discussion of the relevant domestic legislation and international treaties and obligations is beyond the scope of this article. Further guidelines in international nuclear law could assist Australia’s nuclear program with respect to regulatory development, and with particular attention to potential liability and compensation in the case of accidents involving nuclear submarines and supporting infrastructure.

Additional budget measures include:

  • $52.7 million over 2 years from 2023–24 for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for international policy advice and diplomatic support for the SSN program (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95)
  • $2.4 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to the Attorney-General’s Department for legal and policy advice for the SSN program, including treaties and international agreements (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95)
  • funding over 2 years from 2023–24 for ANSTO to develop a business case for a new facility to support Australia’s sovereign nuclear security science capability (Budget paper no. 2, p. 167, amount ‘not for publication’). The ANSTO research infrastructure decadal plan 2022–2032 describes the establishment of a Nuclear Security Science Facility as a potential priority area of nuclear stewardship (p. 106).

Expanding Australia’s sovereign workforce capability

Education, training and skills in nuclear science are a central priority for the Australian nuclear-powered submarine program. The Government is developing an AUKUS submarine workforce and industry strategy to support the delivery of SSNs to the Australian Defence Force, which is anticipated to create around 20,000 jobs over the next 30 years. Current budget measures to support education, skills and training in this sector include:

  • $128.5 million over 4 years from 2023–24 to the Department of Education. This includes $127.3 million over 4 years from 2023–24 for 4,000 additional Commonwealth-supported higher education places, including at least 800 places for South Australian universities (Budget paper no. 2, p. 94). The Portfolio budget statements 2023–24: budget related paper no. 1.5: Education portfolio (p. 17) further states these places will focus on STEM disciplines in engineering, computer science, mathematics, chemistry and physics, and psychology and management, to support the AUKUS initiatives. Additionally, $1.1 million over 2 years from 2023–24 will be provided to support the development and delivery of education, skills and training initiatives for the SSN program (Budget paper no. 2, p. 96).
  • $3.9 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations for a dedicated defence vocational skills taskforce (Budget paper no. 2, p. 95; Portfolio budget statements 2023–24: budget related paper no. 1.6: Employment and Workplace Relations portfolio, p. 16)
  • an unpublished equity injection over 5 years from 2023–24 to Australian Naval Infrastructure Pty Ltd for early-stage design and works on a submarine construction yard, as well as for the design of a Skills and Training Academy to be located in South Australia (Budget paper no. 2, p. 96).

While Universities Australia, Group of Eight and the Australian Technology Network of Universities have welcomed funding to support additional higher education places, Dr Edward Obbard from the University of New South Wales suggests it will be ‘incredibly difficult’ to meet a schedule that may require more than 8,000 people with nuclear training to build and service nuclear-powered submarines. He estimates that more than 200 subject matter experts will be needed at the requisite security levels for high-level decisions with respect to SSN-AUKUS.

The above portfolios will need to accommodate a major recruitment, training and retainment effort to ensure Australia’s safety, success and credibility as a nuclear operating nation. As announced by Defence Minister Richard Marles on 22 March 2023, $6 billion will be invested over the next 4 years in skills and development, which will include embedding Australian military and civilian personnel in the Royal Navy (UK), US Navy, and within UK and US SSNs. It has been suggested that more than double the staff required for the current Collins class submarines will be necessary to support and operate new submarines. Furthermore, as observed by a former Royal Navy Commander and naval engineer, to attract and retain competencies over multiple generations, the Royal Australian Navy and associated agencies would need to clearly demonstrate viable career pathways to potential submariners and marine engineers.

Radioactive waste management

Under the AUKUS agreement, the military reactors for AUKUS SSNs are to be manufactured in and procured from the UK and incorporated into the Australian-built and operated nuclear submarines as permanently sealed units. These compartments will reportedly remain unopened for the operational life of the submarines, after which time they will be dismantled and all radioactive waste generated through the nuclear submarine program will be separated and graded, and then stored in appropriate repositories in Australia.

Currently, Australia’s radioactive waste is generated from a variety of medical, industrial, scientific and agricultural applications. This low-level and intermediate level radioactive waste is being temporarily stored in over 100 locations around the country. The Parliamentary Library publication, Radioactive waste management in Australia 2012–2022: a chronology, describes the efforts over many decades to establish a Commonwealth facility for the permanent disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

The Australian Radioactive Waste Agency (ARWA) was established in July 2020 to manage radioactive waste. This includes the planned establishment of the National Radioactive Waste Management (NRWM) Facility for permanent disposal of low-level radioactive waste and temporary storage of intermediate-level radioactive waste. The Budget will provide $304.5 million over 7 years from 2023–24 (and $38.7 million ongoing from 2030–31) for ARWA, $162.2 million over 7 years from 2023–24 to establish the NRWM Facility and $9.7 million over 5 years from 2023–24 to develop a long-term disposal pathway for intermediate-level waste (Budget paper no. 2, p. 166).

Australia does not create or store high-level radioactive waste. Under the AUKUS agreement Pillar 1, Australia has committed to manage all radioactive waste generated from the SSN program in Australia. As stated by the Defence Minister Richard Marles, the disposal facility will be needed in the 2050s at the end of the operational life of the first of the SSNs and will be located on Defence land. As described in Budget paper no. 2 (p. 95), ARWA will receive $5.2 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to support the ASA to develop management, storage and disposal arrangements for spent nuclear fuel (high-level waste) and radioactive nuclear reactor components (high and intermediate-level waste).

There is currently no operating, permanent disposal solution for high-level radioactive waste anywhere in the world. The world’s first permanent high-level waste repository is being constructed in Finland.


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