Author: Anthony Albanese MP is Shoadow Minister for Environment, Heritage and Water
One of the world’s leading nuclear advocates has declared, “Thank God for nuclear energy, the safest, cleanest energy there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipedream”.
Whilst this could have come from a member of the Howard Cabinet, in this case the advocate is of course Homer Simpson.
In truth John Howard’s “full blooded debate” on nuclear power is just as narrow and dogmatic – almost as sophisticated – but nowhere near as humorous.
For this is not a new debate.
The Prime Minister was at it again on Monday with his speech to CEDA which promised a grand forward looking agenda.
It was all there.
The selective leaking to sympathetic journalists – the grand build up, the creation of expectations and then …. Nothing.
Not a single new initiative.
It had all the climax of a Peter Costello leadership challenge.
If that’s all he’s got, it is time the Prime Minister moved on.
He did repeat the mantra – “nuclear power emits virtually no greenhouse gases” - ignoring the intensive energy use required to establish the nuclear fuel cycle. I don’t know why he bothers with his Claytons nuclear inquiry. John Howard’s nuclear fantasy is there for all to see.
The truth is that nuclear advocates do not want a debate.
They want – or more accurately, they demand – a capitulation to the ideological belief that nuclear is good and they don’t really want to discuss cost, safety, waste or proliferation.
Any response other than compliance is met with the statement “You don’t want a debate”, as a method of actually avoiding debate of these outstanding issues.
Saying they want a “debate”, while really advocating a position, is a tactic to avoid answering the hard questions about the intractable problems of the nuclear fuel cycle.
In truth this is a debate about values.
For me it comes down to whether we have responsibilities to future generations. Whether it is acknowledged that, “coming events cast their shadow before”.
It is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of environmentalists, concerned about tomorrow, next year, next decade and next century – not just today – believe Australia should not be further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle.
I consider myself to be a pragmatic politician. But after 60 years of debate, the failure of the nuclear industry to come up with solutions to cost, safety, waste and proliferation means I will withhold my support.
The nuclear advocates position was perhaps best put by then Science Minister, Brendan Nelson, on 27 November 2005, when he said:
“In terms of high level waste, if it were ever to be
produced from an Australian nuclear industry, well
that will be a matter for the governments of the day”.
That says it all.
Climate change imposes a responsibility on today’s generation to act for the sake of the generations to come. This same responsibility means we must find solutions that do not create more problems for others to solve.
Tired, Old Debate
This is not a new debate. It’s a tired, old debate that gets trotted out time and time again.
Conservatives have always had nuclear fantasies.
John Gorton was in favour of Australia developing both nuclear weapons and a nuclear power industry.
Just like John Howard, Malcolm Fraser waited until he was in the United States before declaring to a New York dinner on 8 July 1981:
“I think before the end of the century you are going to see nuclear power in Australia.”
In 1997, the Howard Government identified 14 sites suitable for a nuclear reactor, but according to a confidential Cabinet Submission, decided not to tell local communities because “release of information about alternate sites may unnecessarily alarm communities”.
This is the same old debate, with the same old secrecy.
Whenever the Prime Minister is asked the critical question of where the nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps will be located, he says that’s putting the cart before the horse.
But you can’t work out the economic, environmental or social cost of nuclear reactors until you know where they’ll be located.
It’s like a real estate agent giving a quote for a house without knowing where the house is located and how many bedrooms it has.
Stacking the Task Force
Not only have they restricted the scope of the inquiry, they have restricted membership to nuclear proponents and there will be no public hearings.
Getting a bunch of nuclear insiders to conduct a nuclear inquiry is like asking the AFL Commissioners to determine the best football code for Australia.
The Government had three goes at releasing the ANSTO report Introducing Nuclear Power to Australia: An Economic Comparison.
The Minister initially failed to disclose the author of the report, Professor John Gittus, heads up Lloyds of London’s nuclear insurance group, which could potentially have a direct financial interest in the introduction of nuclear power to Australia. The ANSTO report makes a series of questionable assumptions on the marketability of the next generation of nuclear reactors against the marketability and utility of the next generation of renewable and clean coal technologies.
In fact, solar thermal technology being developed by CSIRO and solar sliver technology being developed at the Australian National University are both showing significant potential for addressing base load capacity.
Construction of the first large-scale commercial solar thermal power plant in Europe will soon begin in Spain. The power plant is designed to generate electricity continuously to the grid when in operation.
So instead of a full blooded debate, we have an old-fashioned, one-sided debate riddled with conflicts of interest, secrets, distortions and distractions.
The truth is the nuclear fuel cycle fails on many grounds – economic cost, safety, waste and proliferation.
The economics of nuclear power simply do not stack up. Of all the energy options, nuclear is the most capital intensive to establish, decommissioning is extremely expensive and the financial burden continues long after the plant is closed.
On 30 March 2006, Britain estimated it will cost $170 billion to clean up their 20 nuclear sites.
Nuclear power is not possible in Australia without substantial taxpayer subsidies. This may be why the Finance Minister has said nuclear power would not be viable in Australia for 100 years.
ANSTO’s report suggests the Government may need to provide up to 53% of the funding for the first nuclear power plant, to make nuclear power competitive. That also failed to properly include the cost of decommissioning and waste disposal.
No wonder the Minister held a press conference, but wouldn’t release the Report.
The safety of nuclear power remains a significant problem.
As Mikhael Gorbachev stated in April; “Chernobyl opened my eyes like nothing else: it showed the horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when it is used for non-military purposes”.
The Industry Ministry, Ian Macfarlane, recently put the spotlight on nuclear safety in his own unique way.
Fleeing the Canberra winter, on 6 July Ian Macfarlane was spotted visiting the ageing Torness nuclear reactor in Scotland.
The same day, the Guardian newspaper reported the reactor has cracks in the graphite bricks in its core. According to confidential papers obtained by The Guardian, “the company does not know the extent of the damage to the reactor cores, cannot monitor their deterioration and does not fully understand why cracking has occurred”.
Hopefully, Ian Macfarlane has got the message that safety is a central concern at all stages of the nuclear cycle.
Recent accidents include April 2005 in Sellafield, in 2004, at Fukui Prefecture, Japan where four workers were killed and in 1999, at a uranium enrichment facility in Tokaimura, Japan, which led to 439 people being exposed to radiation, with two people killed.
Nuclear accidents occur at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle.
In 2004, workers at Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory were exposed to drinking and washing water with uranium levels 400 times greater than the maximum Australian safety standard.
The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor has recorded 13 safety breaches in the past 18 months.
I was disturbed to hear the Head of Safety at Lucas Heights reactor tell 2SM on 20 June 2006:
“the fact they get into the press worries us because our local community starts to get concerned for no good reason”.
So much for open debate!
The storage of nuclear waste remains a public policy black hole.
In Australia, we have been unable to find a solution to low-level waste, let alone the high-level waste created by nuclear reactors.
All too often, the proponents of nuclear power wish away the problem.
Australians are right to be cautious about the suggestion that we can store waste for tens of thousands of years and be assured that geological, political and climate changes will not disturb this highly toxic material. It is arrogance of the highest order.
Last month, former US Vice President Al Gore stated that “for eight years in the White House, every weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program”.
In the era of terrorism this threat is more acute.
This is the cold, hard reality that must shape the nuclear debate.
We know the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney has been targeted by terrorists. The establishment of nuclear power plants would increase this risk.
Howard’s Real Agenda
So what is John Howard’s real agenda?
While the Prime Minister would like a domestic nuclear industry, the more immediate agenda lies in uranium enrichment and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), proposed by President Bush.
At the core of GNEP is the concept of nuclear leasing -one country providing enriched uranium to another country for use in nuclear power, with the high level nuclear waste being returned to the leasing country.
Under this plan, Australia would be the quarry and the dump. It would mine and enrich uranium, and become the world’s nuclear waste dump.
We know from evidence provided to Senate Estimates in May 2006, the Howard Government secretly established an Interdepartmental Committee to look at this specific proposal.
We also know the matter was discussed with the Bush Administration and Canada’s conservative Harper Government during John Howard’s recent visits there.
The then Acting Prime Minister, Mark Vaile, lifted the lid on the Government’s real agenda when he told the Sunday program on 14 May 2006, “we need to keep an open mind” on bringing nuclear waste home.
It’s also worth noting the head of the Howard Government’s Uranium Industry Framework, Professor John White, has called for Australia to support nuclear fuel leasing. He told the Australian Financial Review on 7 June 2006 nuclear fuel leasing “will elevate Australia’s strategic standing in the world to unprecedented levels”.
The Federal Liberal MPs Wilson Tuckey, Barry Haase and Dennis Jansen are all on record supporting a global nuclear waste dump in Western Australia.
An Admission of Failure
The great irony is that the push for nuclear fuel leasing is a clear demonstration that after 60 years the nuclear industry has failed to solve the intractable issues of nuclear waste and proliferation.
It is a self admission of abject failure by the nuclear industry’s strongest supporters.
Nuclear leasing is perceived to be needed because the non-proliferation regime isn’t working and no-one has provided a long term solution to the storage of high level nuclear waste.
Nuclear power fails Australia on the grounds of cost, safety, waste and proliferation and all the while Australia’s energy and climate change policy is left in a holding pattern.
If you exclude land use changes, our greenhouse emissions rose by 25.1% between 1990 and 2004.
Nuclear energy is not a solution to climate change.
Think of this - if we doubled the global use of nuclear energy we would use all known reserves of uranium in 25 years. We would achieve emissions reductions of only another 5% compared with the 60% reduction that is required to avoid dangerous climate change.
At best, the nuclear debate is a distraction, being promoted by the very forces that are the most sceptical about climate change.
John Howard’s speech on Monday was delusional and contained many simple errors of fact.
His opposition to Kyoto continues to be based on distortions. The most important is his argument that it is a “flaw” that a distinction is drawn between developed and developing countries.
Australia, like other countries which signed Kyoto in 1997, recognised that for the First Commitment period from 2008-2012 the countries that had created the greenhouse problem, should show leadership in reducing their emissions.
Howard then goes on to bizarrely suggest that Australia’s $25billion LNG deal with China would be threatened if we had ratified Kyoto, even though this will lower China’s emissions by some 7 million tonnes.
Putting aside the fact that Australia will meet our Kyoto target, the Clean Development Mechanism of Kyoto provides for economic incentives for developed countries which assist non industrialised (Annex 1) countries such as China to reduce their emissions.
Far from being a constraint, our failure to ratify Kyoto excludes us from the economic incentives available.
Australia should be leading the world in the adoption of clean energy. Australia is in a great position to seize the economic benefits of the worldwide push to cleaner energy and more renewable energy.
There is a trillion dollar industry emerging globally in carbon-friendly technologies.
During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to Australia, a $300 million deal was signed by renewable energy company Roaring 40’s to provide three windfarms in China. Roaring 40’s announced after the Budget last month they would not be proceeding with projects in Tasmania and South Australia because of a lack of Government support.
These projects were worth $500million, the same level as the total exports of uranium last year.
It is appalling that Australian renewable energy innovation is welcomed in China, but not Australia.
Instead of fantasising about nuclear energy, we should support our clean energy industries and cut our greenhouse pollution.
It is still argued by conservative commentators that our anti-nuclear position holds us back electorally.
Does anyone seriously believe that there are a group of people in marginal electorates whose position is, “I would change my vote to Labor if only they would change to a pro uranium and pro nuclear policy?”
As Newspoll and other polls have shown, the opposite is certainly true. There are many Australians who would be extremely disappointed by a shift in our position and who may consider changing their primary vote.
The intractable problems of cost, safety, waste and proliferation have not been resolved. For that reason I continue to oppose an expansion of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia, including the opening up of new uranium mines.
It is clear that John Howard is not up to the fundamental challenge of ensuring that Australia cuts its greenhouse pollution and is protected from the threat of climate change.
It’s also clear that the nuclear debate will continue to be dominated by secrets, distortions and distractions.
I began with The Simpsons, so I’ll conclude with a quote from Charles Montgomery Burns, in responding to a question concerning difficulties with the nuclear fuel cycle:
“Oh, ‘meltdown’. It’s one of those annoying
‘buzzwords’. We prefer to call it an unrequested
I prefer Australia taking a much more cautious path, not just for ourselves, but in the interests of generations to come.