Australia considered buying nuclear-powered submarines from France, which could have saved money and avoided France’s rage at the existing $90bn project being scrapped.
This week the federal government announced its decision to instead source nuclear submarine designs from the United States or the United Kingdom, and build at least eight submarines in Adelaide. French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, described it as a “stab in the back”.
Australia has spent about $2.4bn on the French project so far, and may have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for leaving the contract.
In the competitive evaluation process for the project, Naval Group (then DCNS) was pitching a conventional version of its existing nuclear submarines, but made it clear nuclear versions were on offer.
The chief executive, Herve Guillou, said in 2016 that “if, in 2050, Australia wants a nuclear submarine, they can design a nuclear submarine”.
The 2050 date was on the understanding that Australia would need time to develop a sovereign nuclear capability, but that is not a necessary prerequisite to building nuclear submarines, as the Aukus deal has shown.
Earlier reports suggested Australia could switch to nuclear as early as 2030, and that the French option was initially chosen because it could switch to a nuclear version. The Australian Financial Review reported at the time that cabinet ministers and defence officials were discussing the idea.
The 2016 Defence White Paper made it clear that the submarine acquisition program would be a “rolling build” that could change along with technological and strategic developments.
A review in the late 2020s would be conducted to consider any changes, an opening many saw as a chance to switch to nuclear-powered submarines.
At the time, the then defence minister, Marise Payne, ruled it out but on Friday the current defence minister, Peter Dutton, said they had considered the French version alongside the US and the UK options.
“We looked at what options were available to us. The French have a version which was not superior to that operated by the US and the UK,” Dutton said.
The government has consistently described the Naval Group submarine as “regionally superior”. A spokesperson for Dutton said the French nuclear technology had to be removed and reinserted, while the US reactor didn’t.
“The US tech has evolved and is far more superior to the point where the reactor is sealed and put into the submarine for the life of the submarine.”
US reactors last for 33 years, the lifespan of the submarine. The French Barracuda submarines use non-weapons-grade uranium and need to be refuelled every 10 years.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute chief executive, Peter Jennings, said he spoke to Guillou about the nuclear idea back in 2016, and thinks the government should have considered it.
“This was a conversation government should have had in a more strategic way six years ago, and they failed to that,” he said, adding that he now supports the Aukus deal.
“I’ve always said we should think about nuclear, but I think the relationship with France and the government failing to make the case about why we are engaging in this [Aukus] project has been a disaster.
“We can only hope that doesn’t happen with the new one.”