The bustling New South Wales maritime gateway of Port Kembla has firmed as the Defence Department’s preferred location for a new east-coast submarine base which would eventually house Australia’s future nuclear-powered boats.
Last year former prime minister Scott Morrison announced Port Kembla as one of three potential options for a new naval facility, along with Brisbane and the NSW city of Newcastle.
Defence, government and industry figures have told the ABC that Port Kembla, south of Wollongong’s CBD, is now the strongly favoured option because of its deep ocean approaches, superior surrounding infrastructure, and more suited location.
A final decision is yet to be made by the Albanese government, but in recent months officials have begun carrying out initial scoping work on the site, focusing on Port Kembla’s outer harbour.
This week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will join his British counterpart, Rishi Sunak, and US President Joe Biden in San Diego, California, for the long-awaited unveiling of Australia’s “optimal pathway” for acquiring nuclear-powered submarines — but a decision on where their future base will be may not be announced for months.
One defence official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said the partial Chinese ownership of Newcastle Port, as well as its river approach, had presented difficulties for the site.
Similarly, the Port of Brisbane is considered an inferior option because submarines would have to transit across Moreton Bay, and stormwater problems caused by the flooding of the Brisbane River are considered a risk.
For many years, there has been a push by some advocates in the Illawarra region to relocate Australia’s existing main east-coast naval base from Sydney’s Garden Island to Port Kembla.
However, in Port Kembla there are also strong local reservations about turning the facility into a future naval base, with critics considering the harbour too small and already very congested with commercial shipping traffic.
Shortly after Labor’s election win last year, federal minister Stephen Jones, who represents the Illawarra electorate of Whitlam, voiced his opposition to Port Kembla becoming a submarine base.
“Port Kembla has got a big future and the question for the people of the Illawarra is whether that big future is compatible with having nuclear submarines and all the necessary infrastructure that would go with that occupying space in Port Kembla harbour when that could be given over to literally dozens of other commercial opportunities.”
“Let’s calm it down and have a serious analysis of what’s in the best interests of our national defence and of my region, and I think we can do both of those things in the cool hard light of day,” Mr Jones told the ABC in June 2022.
In a statement to the ABC, the Defence Department insisted no decision had yet been made and studies of all three shortlisted sites were continuing.
“The three potential locations for an east coast naval base are subject to detailed feasibility assessments,” a spokesperson told the ABC.
“Engagement has commenced with the New South Wales and Queensland governments to progress the feasibility work.”