Introducing nuclear-powered submarines will be one of the biggest workforce development challenges Australia has faced. It can be done, but it will need a new approach and there’s no time to waste.

The announcement of the AUKUS partnership in September last year was dominated by the plan for Australia to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. 

However, whatever submarine design ends up being chosen, we won’t be able to build and operate it locally unless we address the fundamental issue of Australia’s workforce capability gap.

Nuclear-powered submarines are some of the most complex machines human beings have ever developed. Bringing a fleet of these into service will be one of the biggest training and workforce development challenges Australia has faced. 

The United States Navy’s submarine fleet is nuclear powered. Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Our AUKUS partners expect Australia to pull its own weight and develop sovereign capability to operate and maintain the fleet. This will require the integration of military, industry, government and academia to create an entirely new sector of the economy. 

This nuclear workforce will need to include not just engineers and physicists, but also lawyers, regulatory experts, specialist medical staff, naval architects and policy advisers to decision-makers. 

The task goes beyond training the crews of future submarines.  We can’t just acquire nuclear technology without being able to provide best-practice nuclear stewardship. 

Australia has a strong international track record as a contributor to nuclear non-proliferation policy and a reputation as a responsible global citizen.  But a fundamental uplift is required to develop the nuclear mindset required to be the custodian of this technology.

Australia has the expertise and capability.  What we don’t have yet is the scale to deliver the graduates and skills in the quantities required. The time from now until the first submarine is ready to enter service gives us a window of opportunity to scale up our capacity.

This requires decisive action to be taken now so that we can be where we need to be in a decade’s time.

The strained labour market conditions we face now in 2022 will cripple us in 2032 if we don’t take urgent action now to grow our sovereign capability. Capable students, whoever they are, need to be identified and incentivised to pursue careers in AUKUS fields.

So, how can we build the AUKUS workforce? At ANU we have identified three things government should do now that will enable us to meet this challenge. 

First, to build a national nuclear enterprise, government should establish and define nuclear stewardship as a Sovereign Industrial Capability Priority, or SICP, to provide investment certainty. 

A formalised SICP for nuclear stewardship would signal the priority being placed on developing sovereign capability in nuclear education and research.  It would support the universities who will need to play a central role in building the skills and knowledge base to make the investments required to produce the graduates required. 

The introduction of nuclear-powered submarines will require substantial development of Australia’s scientific and engineering capacity. We cannot afford to drag our feet on this. 

Second, government should consider establishing an AUKUS career pathways program to harness high-achieving school-age students and provide long-term development and career progression in critical skills. 

Nuclear science should clearly be the first cab off the rank for this program, but this approach will also be necessary across the broader advanced capabilities of AUKUS including in cyber and computing, engineering, space and quantum physics.

An AUKUS pathways program, jointly developed with Defence, could feature a portfolio of tailored degree programs providing a pathway for students to gain qualifications in an AUKUS-related field and then progress to a position in Defence working on AUKUS programs. 

Degree programs with some of these features, tailored specifically for AUKUS priorities, will also assist the government as it begins the task of rebuilding the technical capability of the public sector.  

Third – and this goes to the concept of this being a national mission, rather than just a task for Defence – government should remove the barriers it has created through funding rules that prevent universities from being more dynamic in meeting national capability priorities.  

The new Government’s Australian Universities Accord process presents an opportunity to look at how universities and government can work together to tackle the challenges we face as a nation. 

The introduction of nuclear-powered submarines will require substantial development of Australia’s scientific and engineering capacity.

We cannot afford to drag our feet on this.  Australia needs these new submarines, and we need them in service as soon as possible. 

Building the sovereign, nuclear-literate workforce we need will require a pipeline of academic staff to deliver education and research at scale, and credible pathways to an AUKUS career that attract the best students from across the country. 

This is a huge workforce development challenge.  It is one we can meet but it requires government to invest in, and partner with our universities now to build the capacity we need in the future. 

This article is an extract of a speech delivered to the Submarine Institute of Australia Conference on 9 November 2022. Read the full speech here.

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