Virginia-class submarine.
New laws and a new regulator will protect Australia's path to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Image by Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Sub-par nuclear compliance to carry 25 years in prison

November 16, 2023

Criminal penalties will be put in place to protect Australia’s pathway to nuclear-powered submarines and a new regulator stood up to ensure safety and compliance.

Acting Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles introduced the new laws to parliament on Thursday.

The independent Australian Naval Nuclear Power Safety Regulator will oversee a licensing regime to ensure compliance with Australia’s international obligations, including nuclear non-proliferation.

Those who breach their duties face a maximum of 25 years behind bars while companies face fines of $31 million. 

The existing nuclear regulations are not designed to handle nuclear-powered submarines and don’t account for the entire program, such as the submarine platform, infrastructure, facilities and supporting systems, Mr Marles said. 

” The powers of the regulators and its inspectors are comprehensive and are first directed towards promoting nuclear safety,” Mr Marles told parliament.

“The new regulator will work with existing regulators to promote the safety of our submariners, Australian and international communities and the environment.

Richard Marles
 Defence Minister Richard Marles has introduced new nuclear submarine provisions. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

The regulator’s independence means while it sits within the defence portfolio it doesn’t answer to the defence force chain of command or take directions from the department or the Australian Submarine Agency.

The minister will have limited powers to give the regulator a direction when it’s in the interests of national security and to deal with an emergency.

Australia will receive nuclear-powered submarines from the US in the next decade.

The defence minister said Australia would still meet its previous nuclear non-proliferation commitments with the arrival of the nuclear submarines.

“We will maintain Australia’s long standing position of not possessing or seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and we will ensure Australia is a responsible nuclear steward and maintain the highest level of nuclear safety,” he said.