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Universities eye opportunities in trilateral submarine plan


Universities in South Australia have indicated their eagerness to play a major role in the development of nuclear-powered submarines, the key component of a recent trilateral security pact entered into between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, aimed at shoring up stability in the Indo-Pacific.

“We have the population and the history of naval shipbuilding in South Australia. What we’ve always needed is a continuous pipeline of work that allows businesses to invest,” said South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas on 15 March, the day the nuclear submarine building agreement known as AUKUS was signed.

“We can deliver the workforce of tomorrow. And today’s agreement [is about] the development of that workforce into the future,” he said.

Malinauskas was speaking at a press conference in Osborne in South Australia where a naval submarine building facility will be created. He said a training academy would be created in Osborne to provide trade-level training for building nuclear-powered submarines.

He added that universities will play a big role in the project that is going to be worth in excess of AU$300 billion (US$202 billion) over 30 years.

Increase in university places

“Firstly, there is a commitment to an increase of 800 university places here in South Australia over the coming four years, in areas that are critical to the building of nuclear-powered submarines, particularly in areas of engineering and mathematics,” Malinauskas told the media.

The two leading South Australian universities, the University of Adelaide and Flinders University, dived into the submarine project even before the ink on the agreement had dried.

In a statement posted on its website on 15 March, the University of Adelaide said it is ready to help train the workforce and provide research expertise that will be required to help Australia to achieve its goal of having a nuclear-powered defence force.

It also pointed out that as a research institution with 16 discipline areas, rated in the world’s top 100, the university is at the forefront of defence research that has been pioneered in South Australia.

“The University of Adelaide is well prepared to contribute decisively to the future skills and research needs of our state and our nation,” said Professor Anton Middelberg, deputy vice-chancellor (research). “We will use our long history of engagement with the defence sector to be a driving force at the centre of the research and education opportunities that this new partnership presents.”

Not to be outdone, Flinders University released a statement on 19 March announcing they had struck a deal with two leading nuclear science and technology universities in the UK and the US to help South Australia to become a home for nuclear expertise ahead of the construction phase of the AUKUS submarines.

One of the partners is the University of Manchester in the UK, the home to Dalton Nuclear Institute, which Flinders describes as “the most advanced academic civil nuclear science and technology capacity in the UK”. Their other partner is the University of Rhode Island in the US that has a notable defence-focused university-industry partnership with the US Navy, according to the statement.

The agreement will see the launch of courses in nuclear sciences at undergraduate level, as well as nuclear masters programmes and doctoral level research training.

“Our partnerships with international leaders in nuclear science and technology will deliver a new level of skills for South Australia’s future workforce,” said Flinders University President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling.

“These historic new partnerships will bring the world’s best nuclear education and research programmes to Adelaide, equipping Flinders graduates with the high-tech skills required to build the AUKUS submarines.”

Technology collaborations

Even before the AUKUS agreement was signed, Mitre, a US-based not-for-profit corporation that operates federally funded R&D centres on behalf of US government-sponsored schemes, opened a Mitre Australia centre in Canberra in December last year.

Mitre has signed new agreements with the Australian National University, University of New South Wales (UNSW), University of Adelaide and Flinders University to build on the goals of the AUKUS agreement. This includes technology collaborations focusing on enhancing cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, maritime autonomy, quantum and other technology innovations.

In a statement published on Mitre’s parent website in the US, its senior vice president and general manager, Keoki Jackson, said that the partnerships [with Australia] play a critical role in the Pacific. “We are committed to help accelerate the implementation of the AUKUS agreement and promote stability, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Vice Admiral Paul Maddison (retired), director of UNSW’s Defence Research Institute, was quoted in an article published on the Mitre website as saying: “As a defence research and education intensive university with a decades-long formal relationship with the Department of Defence at the Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW is committed to accelerating the defence concept to capability cycle, especially in the priority capability areas highlighted by the AUKUS agreement.”

To convince a sceptical Australian public that is concerned about the high costs involved in the AUKUS project without a clear military threat to Australia currently, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, answering questions from journalists during press briefings last week, was at pains to point out that the project is not directed at China.

Political leaders have been trying to give it a spin as a great job-creating opportunity, especially in South Australia, a neglected state in the Australian federation.

According to the South Australian premier, there will be some 5,500 new jobs created when the AUKUS project is up and running, although he admits these would only materialise in about 20 years’ time .

The federal government will be funding the additional 800 university places in South Australia for engineers and scientists, with the first 200 places to commence in 2024. Malinauskas hyped up the project when he said at a press briefing that “the Commonwealth (federal government) sees in South Australia the ability to build the most complex machines that have ever been produced in the history of humanity”.

Environmental impact

But there are already concerns among conservationists about a lack of plans to dump the nuclear waste generated by the submarines. The Australian Conservation Foundation says the government has been silent about how the nuclear material powering the submarines would eventually be disposed of.

In a statement published on the foundation’s website, its nuclear analyst Dave Sweeney said Australia did not have the experience and expertise required to manage high-level radioactive waste.

“AUKUS presents by far the biggest threat yet that Australia will become a dumping ground for the world’s worst nuclear waste,” he said. “AUKUS has been developed in secret by the Defence Department. There has been no public consultation and next to no public debate.”

Both the universities and the politicians have so far been silent on whether they would be able to develop expertise – or plans – in this area.