16 March 2023
SUBJECTS: Paul Keating’s comments; economic benefit of submarines; nuclear industry in Australia; disposing of nuclear waste; skilling up the workforce.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy was also at that media conference, and I caught up with him a little earlier this morning.
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY, PAT CONROY: Good morning. How are you?
MITSOPOULOS: If we can just first deal with Paul Keating's comments. He says the AUKUS deal is the worst decision a Government has made since conscription during World War I. How do you respond to that?
CONROY: Oh, look, Mr Keating is entitled to his view, and he led an incredibly successful government. But that government ended in 1996 and the Albanese Government is dealing with the circumstances of 2023. Unfortunately, Mr Keating misrepresented the Government's approach and the circumstances we face today and into the future. The truth is we face the greatest strategic uncertainty since World War II and we face the greatest regional arms race we've seen since World War II as well. So the Albanese Government is obliged to act in the national interest and protect our citizens and these new nuclear-powered submarines will be an incredibly important capability for the Australian Defence Force to deter conflict and promote peace and stability in the region.
MITSOPOULOS: On that point, Paul Keating said the Chinese have never implied to threaten Australia. Is it the case that your government is talking up that threat?
CONROY: I'm not going to talk about individual countries but it’s manifestly true that there is a regional arms race going on right now and that our strategic circumstances are more uncertain than they have ever been since World War II, and we're obliged to respond to that. That's why these nuclear submarines are so important. They are the apex predators of the ocean. They will give our ADF the ability to project power further forward to deter conflict and that's ultimately what this is about. This is not about bringing on war, it's about supporting peace through deterrence. That's why these submarines are very important and, as a by-product of that, we will also be undertaking the greatest industrial undertaking this country has ever attempted -20,000 jobs, $8 billion into the West Australian economy over the next decade alone.
MITSOPOULOS: Okay, let's look at that in more detail because there is a feeling, and a lot of commentary over the last few days that the Government is overstating the economic benefits of this deal. Where is the spill-over benefit beyond building these subs?
CONROY: Well, let me give you a couple of examples. There will be 3,000 direct jobs in Western Australia upgrading and expanding the infrastructure of HMAS Stirling to accept nuclear-powered submarines. That's 3,000 jobs straight into the local economy as part of the $8 billion worth of investment. There will also be 500 direct jobs expected to sustain the nuclear-powered submarines from 2027 onwards that will be part of the rotational presence from the United States and the United Kingdom. So that's two examples of the jobs dividend for Western Australia.
These figures are actually quite prudent and conservative. For example, they don't include a single job in the supply chain, not a single job of a tier 2 or 3 supplier supplying parts into the nuclear-powered submarines. So, we're very confident in the 20,000 jobs figure, and at the end of this process we will be part of the most technologically advanced undertaking in the world, which is building nuclear-powered submarines, which will be great for Australian manufacturing.
MITSOPOULOS: Beyond that, obviously there will be jobs, as you said, in maintenance, regulation and safety, but then what? Because we're not really developing an entire nuclear industry here.
CONROY: Well, it's up to future governments, but no country in the history of the world once they've developed the ability to produce nuclear-powered submarines loses or stops ordering submarines. So I would expect a government in the future to keep ordering nuclear submarines as we need, to start retiring the older ones such as the Virginia class submarines as they reach the end of their service life.
This is an industry and a scientific establishment that is self-renewing, if a government is committed to renewing the fleet. It's not just manufacturing jobs, they're incredibly important, or maintenance jobs, there's around 2,000 engineering, scientific and technical roles. This will be the greatest boom for the Australian scientific workforce in living memory. So this is about uplifting the entire economy, not being limited to a dockyard or two, as important as they are.
MITSOPOULOS: Does this open the door to having a nuclear industry in Australia?
CONROY: No, it doesn't, and the Government has been very clear we do not support a domestic nuclear industry for power production. That's one of the key features of this acquisition is, that we will receive from our AUKUS partners the reactor module sealed and welded shut, and it will be fuelled for the entire life of the submarine, so around 30 years. So, we won't need to touch it, we won't need to open it, we won't need to develop that expertise and that's very important, that's very critical to sovereignty, the fact that once we receive the fuel and the technology for the reactor, we'll have complete control over the process.
MITSOPOULOS: In regards then to getting rid of the waste, and those nuclear reactors, what do you have to take into account when you're deciding on a suitable location?
CONROY: Well, we've announced a 12-month process to identify a location. I'm not an environmental scientist, so it would be unwise for me to go into too much detail, but some things are obvious, such as making sure that the location is seismically stable, so that obviously it’s not affected by earthquakes. But what I can assure your listeners is that the Australian Government is committed to the obligations around nuclear stewardship and we will ensure that wherever this site is, it will be on Defence land, that's a cast iron commitment, it will be on Defence land, it will be in the most appropriate and safest place to store this nuclear waste for the time that is required.
MITSOPOULOS: Tellus Holdings, a Sydney-based company, has actually been given the green light to operate Australia's first commercial hazardous waste repository so it will be taking low-level radiological waste. So kind of the door has been opened if you like.
CONROY: Well, there's obviously been a 30-year debate about where to store the low-level nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights research reactor and the low-level waste you get from the hospital and health industry. What we're doing is obviously identifying and building a very secure storage facility for nuclear waste associated with reactors, which is a very important step in this whole process.
MITSOPOULOS: So, Minister, what will the challenges then be of skilling up a workforce given that we don't really have any nuclear capabilities here?
CONROY: Well, we're already supporting a number of Australians to go through university training in nuclear science and physics and we'll keep expanding that. We've allocated $6 billion over the next four years on industry uplift and skilling, and that's part of a $30 billion package that is included in this, across the next 30 years. Which is really about training Australians for these roles, upskilling industry and companies so that they can supply, not just the Australian submarines, but submarines of our AUKUS partners and building infrastructure.
People often ask me where we are going to get the workers from because it's a really legitimate question –
MITSOPOULOS: And it's a very specialist skill. I mean, all these jobs will require university degrees.
CONROY: Some will, around obviously the nuclear sciences part, but we're also going to need thousands of tradespeople, welders, boilermakers, pipefitters, and my answer to people is the Australian Government will pay to train them. We're not trying to poach people. What we will do is train Australians for these roles. We have enough time, if we start now, and we're starting right now on this. As I said to people when we announced this, an apprentice starting their training today, or a young man or woman entering uni today, could work their entire life on this project doing the most advanced capabilities in the world and that's tremendously exciting. But we've included in the costings this training that the Australians require for these roles, and that's a really important commitment to give the Australian people is that at the end of this process, we would have had a massive economic and skills boom by training all these Australians as well.
MITSOPOULOS: Surely you will have to rely on overseas workers, too?
CONROY: Well, there may be a limited component of it but we're interested in training Australians for these roles and, in fact, one part of this program is we will be training and paying for Australian workers to go overseas and work in the US and UK submarine shipyards to develop their skills and experience, help those countries with their supply chain choke points and then come back to Australia with those skills. So, there might be a limited form of skilled migration, but the predominant source of labour will be training Australians. This is a great opportunity for young Western Australians and young South Australians to really, really build a future based on this really exciting project that's critical to our national security.
MITSOPOULOS: Minister, I'll leave it there and I thank you for your time.
CONROY: Thank you. Have a wonderful morning. Bye-bye.