The Guardian 15 June, 2005

The push for profits
and the nuclear "debate"

Bob Briton

The Howard government and sections of the Labor opposition are now pushing for a national "debate" on energy. The Murdoch papers are obliging with lots of coverage. Former global warming sceptics like the PM are now encouraging the image builders of the nuclear industry to put their case for their brand of "emission-free" power in Australia and a much-expanded uranium export industry with more mines. The government has dropped its election promise of an offshore nuclear waste dump and is looking again to build it on the mainland — possibly in the Northern Territory.

All over the world, the nuclear industry is seeking to rehabilitate itself. In the US — where not a single reactor has been built since the 1970s — there is talk about using Toshiba’s mini nuclear plants to power remote settlements like Galena in western Alaska. Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore is often cited for his very public rethink on nuclear power. A lot of PR effort has gone into talking down the potential of solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy.

Even so, the current nuclear "debate" being whipped up in Australia has much in common with the abortion "debate" the Howard government sought to open up recently. The public was not clamouring for a review of women’s reproductive rights; it was the religious Right acting through spokespersons like Health Minister Tony Abbott.

The call for a debate on nuclear issues being echoed by John Howard, NSW Premier Bob Carr, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Science Minister Brendan Nelson, ALP resources spokesman Martin Ferguson et al does not have its origins in public concern at climate change. The public is concerned at climate change but the investigation of the nuclear "option" is a response to pressure from powerful vested interests.

As Leslie Kemeny of International Nuclear Energy Academy points out, Australia has more than 40 per cent of the world’s economically recoverable uranium fuel. Growing demand for energy has seen the spot price for a pound of uranium oxide increase by US$4 in May to a previously unimaginable US$29. Some forecasters predict the world uranium price could surge upwards by a further 43 per cent over the next 12 months.

The excitement at these potential profits led BHP Billiton — an important global exploiter of hydrocarbon fuel — to make a $9 billion takeover of WMC, which owns the world’s largest uranium resource at Olympic Dam in South Australia.

A gathering of the Australian Institute of Energy at Sydney’s Tattersalls Club last week was symbolic of the sort of "debate" being promoted by the federal government. The seminar — entitled "Nuclear Power for Australia: Irrelevant or Inevitable?" — was stacked with heavyweights from the nuclear lobby. Only one token, clearly anti-nuclear speaker was invited to address the gathering. Dr Clarence Hardy, a speaker on the day and secretary of the Australian Nuclear Association, pointedly pushed away a leaflet from a protestor outside the very one-sided event.

The protest was organised by the Greens and was addressed by Senator Kerry Nettle, who had a message for those inside:

"Nuclear energy is a ‘fools gold’ which simply cannot solve the serious problem of climate change and the energy challenges of this century", she said.

"The reality is that if we replaced the world’s fossil fuel power stations with nuclear power stations tomorrow the world would run out of uranium in around 10 years and we would be left with a catastrophic radioactive waste problem.

"Advocates of nuclear power are asking Australians to back a massively expensive technology that is dangerous, non-renewable, cannot solve global warming problems but leaves us with a 250,000 year hangover of radioactive waste management."

The Senator also pointed to the very real contribution of renewables. South Australia is now producing over 10 per cent of its energy with wind power while Denmark is generating an impressive 30 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. However, the federal government is giving very little encouragement to innovation in this area. Protest organiser Damien Lawson noted in his comments that the Howard government has withdrawn its incentives for the wind energy sector prompting a major producer to leave Tasmania with more set to follow.

It appears that Howard is arguing all sides of the energy issues it raises. It favours coal mining and coal-fired electricity generation, it opposes the greenhouse gas targets contained in the Kyoto protocols, it clearly favours a massive expansion of uranium mining and nuclear power for Australia. The constant factor in all these gyrations is that it will back anything that will deliver nice big, juicy private profits for its mates and backers.

A timely reminder of the dangers of these policies was delivered in a Darwin court last week. Energy Resources Australia was fined $150,000 for exposing workers to water contaminated with uranium at their Ranger mine in the world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. Twenty eight workers became ill; more charges are pending.

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