...And Labor should nuke its hypocrisy on uranium
NOW that we’ve all accepted Peter Garrett is a monstrous sell-out, can we get back to the real debate _ should we develop a nuclear power industry in Australia?
It’s a debate Labor desperately doesn’t want us to have. Note how quickly Penny Wong and Wayne Swan yesterday shut down the suggestion from Rio Tinto _ admittedly the owner of our biggest uranium miner _ that Australia should start using nuclear energy to help meet its carbon reduction targets. ``We don’t agree with Rio Tinto on that point,’’ was the Treasurer’s curt response.
Unfortunately, the government’s blanket refusal to accept nuclear energy as a potential solution the planet’s greenhouse woes is fatally undermined by Labor’s own schizophrenic platform on uranium _ pro-mining, pro-exports but anti-power.
It’s a platform that is unlikely to change at next week’s national conference. But, honestly, if Labor’s so worried about the risks of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, why is it okay to mine and export Australian uranium to feed overseas reactors?
Why not just ban the lot?
Even the Labor states _ granted the power to make their own minds up on uranium mining _ can’t get their story straight. South Australia’s Mike Rann is decidedly pro-uranium _ two of the nation’s three operating uranium mines are in his state, with a fourth and fifth due to start next year. Queensland allows uranium exploration but no mining, while in NSW and Victoria you can’t even look for the stuff.
Only Western Australia with its Liberal-Nationals government is unambiguous about uranium mining _ the more, the merrier. According to The Australian, federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson will today announce a $110m plan for a new uranium mine, the first in the state, at Lake Maitland about 950km northeast of Perth.
The only place where all the states stand together is their steadfast opposition to the development of a nuclear energy industry. Unfortunately, any debate on whether this is actually the correct stance is quickly shut down before either side can warm up.
The reason is simple: not many voters want nuclear reactors in their electorates.
As John Howard discovered when he commissioned nuclear boffin Ziggy Switkowski to look into the issue in 2006, it’s pretty easy to run a scare campaign against a party that even hints it might be a good idea to maybe, one day, you know, have a bit of a think about going nuclear.
As such, it’s an issue nobody in any position of power will touch. This political cowardice is disappointing because it’s a debate we need to have as much of the world embraces nuclear power as a solution growing energy needs and environment issues (64 nuclear reactors are being built over the next six years).
There many arguments against the use of nuclear power but they generally come back to a few core concerns _ the risk of Chernobyl-like catastrophes, the spread of nuclear weapons, the management of nuclear waste and NIMBYism (no working family wants a reactor in its backyard). All fair concerns, although it is worth pointing out that more people died mining coal between 1969 and 2000 than in nuclear accidents (and that includes the thousands still likely to die from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster).
But do these concerns outweigh the potential benefits of replacing dirty coal-fired energy with clean nuclear energy? And aren’t we already contributing to some of these problems, such as generating nuclear waste, by mining and exporting uranium?
Nuclear power, although it uses huge amounts of water, is considered a clean source of energy, with negligible carbon emissions from the mining stage through to the decommissioning of reactors.
It’s far better than so-called clean-coal. In fact, it’s up there with wind and solar power. And like windy days and sunshine, we’ve got plenty of it _ about 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves are in Australia.
Switkowski’s 2006 report, commissioned by Howard, reckoned nuclear energy would be a ``practical option for Australian electricity production’‘. It would be the ``lowest cost, safest and cleanest’’ source of electricity, he said, albeit with two important provisos; It would take a significant change in community thinking to make it palatable, and it would only become viable if other power sources, such as coal, were hit with penalties under a carbon-reduction scheme.
Ross Garnaut, Kevin Rudd’s climate change expert, was less certain, saying in his own report last year it was ``not obvious that nuclear is an important part of our answer’’ to climate change issues. Before he got to his own caveats, Rudd and Wong jumped in and thanked him for his contribution.
But read on, and even Garnaut could see a nuclear future if reactors weren’t too expensive, if we got better at storing radioactive waste, if technologies such as ``clean coal’’ failed to live up to expectations and if ``community disquiet eases’‘. That’s a lot of ifs, but ``in these circumstances, there would be reason for the Australian government to engage with community disquiet on the issue, and to seek a change of policy’‘.
The commonwealth’s own atomic body, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, says it’s time to give ``active consideration’’ to nuclear power. The government pays ANSTO for advice. Take it.
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