Australian Antarctic Division ‘struggling’ to use $528 million icebreaker for science voyages, review says

Australian Antarctic Division ‘struggling’ to use $528 million icebreaker for science voyages, review says
  • PublishedApril 1, 2024

When the RSV Nuyina was first launched in 2021, the state-of-the-art vessel was described as a “Disneyland for scientists”.

However, an internal review that the federal government initially refused to release has raised questions about whether Australia’s only icebreaker is fulfilling its research capabilities.

In addition to its remit of transporting cargo, fuel and personnel to Antarctic stations, the $528 million ship is supposed to provide 60 days a year of dedicated marine science voyages.

But despite completing multiple resupply missions since coming into service, as well as a rescue operation, the Nuyina has yet to conduct a single expedition focused solely on marine science.

A red ship moves through broken up sea ice.
Nuyina has had a troubled, short history since coming into service in 2021.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

A previously scheduled science voyage to the marginal ice zone was cancelled last year because of delays caused by mechanical problems on the vessel.

It means the first research-focused voyage won’t occur until early 2025, when scientists take part in a marine campaign at the Denman Glacier.

The dearth of science-based voyages to date is one of several issues raised in a report the federal environment department declined to release to the ABC.

The report, which was marked as “sensitive”, was only made public after Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam successfully moved a motion in the Senate ordering the production of documents.

Prepared by the Department of Finance in February, the report said Australia’s reliance on one icebreaker to meet multiple demands is leaving some of the ship’s capabilities under-utilised.

“The [Australian Antarctic Division] is struggling to allow sufficient time on the ship to deliver marine science,” the report stated.

“This is beginning to (and could continue to) raise concerns within the scientific community.”

Two people, one wearing a mask, stand dockside next to a large ship
Nuyina docked in Hobart after its inaugural voyage from Romania where it was built for the Australian Antarctic Division.(ABC News: Andy Cunningham )

According to the report, discussions with the government were intended to take place regarding “the suitability of a single vessel operating model for AAD”.

“Given Antarctic science is an important benefit that government sought from the investment in the RSV Nuyina, there may be a need to consider whether the single vessel model is going to achieve all that is required from government in the Australian Antarctic Program,” it stated.

The report does not include comments about whether a second vessel should be considered to overcome the competing demands.

But Senator Duniam told the ABC alternative options should be on the government’s radar.

“If we’re serious about being a leader in the region — and the region is not just the Indo-Pacific, but also the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic territories — we need to make sure we do have appropriate resources deployed,” he said.

“And if it does mean we need to consider an alternative model to supplement the role of the RSV Nuyina, then we should look to that.

“There are a range of measures that could be deployed, including the chartering of vessels for certain periods of time throughout the calendar year when appropriate.”

‘Significant impact’ if risks transpire

The report is based on a review that examined eight focus areas surrounding the vessel, including governance, risk management and readiness for service.

Overall, the report said it “appears probable” the AAD will be able to realise the Nuyina’s anticipated benefits.

However, it flagged several issues that could have significant consequences.

“Remaining questions about the resolution of past propulsion system issues, as well as the incomplete commissioning work (especially in relation to science systems) brings the possibility the vessel is unavailable for key roles,” it stated.

The report also suggested the private company contracted to operate the vessel, Serco, could face increased crewing costs, and that “AAD may find itself without an operator for the vessel”.

It said the AAD was aware of the issues and had plans in place to respond.

“However, if one or several of these [issues] transpired, they would have a significant impact on the government’s ability to achieve the benefits expected from the investment,” it said.

The report also flagged “infrastructure gaps” in Hobart and at Antarctic stations that were impacting the efficiency and effectiveness of the use of the ship’s capabilities.

One of the gaps relates to the wharf where the Nuyina berths at Hobart’s Macquarie Point, which is in need of a significant upgrade.

A large orange ship approaches a bridge span
Nuyina was refused permission to go under Hobart’s Tasman Bridge due to concerns it was unsafe.(ABC News)

Another issue is that the ship is unable to refuel in Hobart because, due to safety concerns, it has not been given permission to travel under the Tasman Bridge in order to reach a nearby fuel depot.

It means the Nuyina must travel more than 600 kilometres to Burnie in Tasmania’s north-west to refuel, adding almost $1 million to the AAD’s annual fuel bill.

The review also noted that the Nuyina was “not well designed to support and re-supply Macquarie Island”, where the AAD has a research station.

Work underway to address issues: AAD

The AAD said the Nuyina was one of the most complex scientific icebreakers in the world, and that it would serve Australia’s interests for the next three decades.

“Over the past 12 months, RSV Nuyina has supported resupply activities at Australia’s research stations including, delivering personnel, cargo and equipment,” an AAD spokesperson said.

“The Nuyina has also assisted critical Australian Antarctic Program science activities, including sea floor mapping, the Southern Ocean plankton survey, the deployment of whale and krill monitoring devices and support for the Denman Terrestrial Campaign.”

The spokesman also said many of the issues raised in the report were being managed effectively.

“The gateway review found the overall delivery confidence for the project to design and build Nuyina was good,” they said.

“It also noted that the AAD has completed work, or has work underway to address all issues.”


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