Defence Minister Richard Marles revealed the location of Australia's future $10 billion east coast nuclear submarine base will not be chosen until the end of the decade, further delaying the decision amid dissent from Labor rank and file.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who is currently in the United States for a high-level AUKUS meeting and announcement on Saturday, also said the "huge decision" about the disposal of the nuclear reactors would take even longer than the east coast base decision.
Depending on electoral fortunes by 2030, these may not be decisions federal Labor will have to make.
Mr Marles spoke about the further delay, designed to manage public expectations about a looming choice between Port Kembla, Newcastle and Brisbane, during an interview with ACM, publisher of this masthead.
There has been some community opposition to the prospect of housing the new submarines in the Illawarra with the steel town of Port Kembla deemed an early favourite.
The three shortlisted locations were announced by the previous Morrison government, and the Albanese government was expected to make a decision some time after the next federal election, due at least by May 2025, or potentially a decision could be made by the election after that.
No particular date had ever been announced by Labor.
Asked by this masthead when a decision on a location would be made, Mr Marles said the government had other more pressing AUKUS priorities.
"End of the decade," Mr Marles stated about the east coast base timing.
"Yes, we will have our first flagged [AUKUS] submarine in the early 2030s, but as we ... get numbers of nuclear-powered submarines and their interaction with the Collins, and then the ones that we construct ourselves which will roll off the production line in the early 2040s, that's the kind of timeframe by which having an east coast base is going to be useful.
"And so, we don't need to do that now.
"When we are operating the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and a different shape of the fleet is in the late 2030s into the 2040s."
Under AUKUS plans, Australia requires an east coast submarine base to complement the one at HMAS Stirling (Fleet Base West) in Western Australia. AUKUS partner the United States will forward deploy some submarines in the west this decade.
There is concern, including in Labor ranks, a nuclear submarine base could make the chosen location a target.
Heavily-unionised Port Kembla has been pushing back.
Asked about a location at the National Press Club last week, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy indicated Labor was not running along the same track of the former Coalition government and Australia had to prove it was "sovereign-ready" first.
Mr Marles accepted it would take substantial time to get a new defence base designed and up and running, but he insisted the massive project had sequential steps, including an operational start in the west.
"Operational capability evolves out of Stirling," he said.
"Now there will be a sustainment element to that. So there is a kind of industrial component to that, but fundamentally, Fleet Base West is where submarines are initially going to be operating from and then the industrial, in terms of the construction capability, evolves out of Osborne [Adelaide].
"That's what needs to that's the immediate challenge. That's what needs to be done."
The Defence Minister told ACM the site for storing spent high-level fuel rods from the submarines would be a decision even further down the track, beyond 2030.
"Obviously the disposal of the nuclear reactors. Huge decision," he said.
"But in the sequence of things it's down the track as well and it's probably further down the track."
"We've got big decisions. We've got time to make the decision about where that disposal will happen. Big decision but we do have time to make it in terms of where the east coast base will be in the sequencing of things. They are not the immediate challenges."
An east coast base would strategically place a nuclear sub home on either side of Australia, with the new base servicing the Pacific Ocean and HMAS Stirling, home to the outdated Collins Class submarines, remaining the Indian Ocean facility.