Whether it’s nuclear safety or weapons proliferation, the federal government (and the Opposition and the mining companies) can be safely relied upon to exacerbate problems with irresponsible uranium export policies. Widespread safety breaches and proliferation concerns in North Asia are recent manifestations of the problem.

Those umbrellas a cool but they won't save you from corporate incompetence…

In May, five engineers were charged with covering up a potentially dangerous power failure at South Korea’s Kori-I reactor which led to a rapid rise in the reactor core temperature. The accident occurred because of a failure to follow safety procedures. A manager decided to conceal the incident and to delete records, despite a legal obligation to notify the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

In October, authorities temporarily shut down two reactors at separate South Korean nuclear plants after system malfunctions. In November, a major scandal was revealed involving the systematic use of forged quality and safety warranties for nuclear reactor parts such as fuses, switches, heat sensors, and cooling fans. The current total stands at 8601 reactor parts, 10 firms and six reactors. Plant owner Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power has acknowledged possible bribery and collusion by its own staff members as well as corruption by firms supplying reactor parts.

Inadequate and compromised regulation has been a factor behind the problems in South Korea’s nuclear industry − just as it was a key factor behind the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said Seoul needs to rebuild public trust by boosting transparency and improving regulation. According to the IEA, “recent incidents at Korean nuclear facilities should serve as a timely reminder to the government that the nuclear regulatory authority must maintain an enhanced profile, be well-resourced and able to take independent decisions.”

There is a recurring patterns: inadequate regulation and inadequate nuclear safety practices lead to accidents and scandals; public controversy and media interest ensue; expressions of sorrow and promises of reform are solemnly offered; then it’s business as usual as soon as the public and media interest die down.

Australian governments and uranium companies could help to break the vicious cycle by making uranium exports conditional on adequate safety standards and proper regulation − but they don’t.

They do nothing except react with mock indignation at any suggestion that their silence and inaction makes them partly culpable for inadequate safety standards and inadequate regulation in uranium customer countries, and for the accidents that inevitably follow such as the Fukushima disaster.

Even more troubling is the willingness of successive Australian governments to turn a blind eye to weapons proliferation concerns in North Asia. In 2004, South Korea disclosed information about a range of illegal secret nuclear weapons research over the preceding 20 years.

The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) described South Korea’s secret nuclear research as a matter of “serious concern” − but did nothing about it.

The Howard government didn’t even voice concern let alone take any action despite the fact that Australian uranium has been exported to South Korea since 1986 and may have been used in the illegal research.

Now, South Korea wants to develop uranium enrichment technology in violation of its commitments under the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea has no legitimate need for enrichment technology (there is ample global enrichment capacity) and there are serious proliferation concerns as enrichment provides a direct route to nuclear weapons material in the form of highly-enriched uranium.

Will Canberra permit enrichment of Australian uranium in South Korea? Expect uranium miners BHP Billiton and Energy Resources of Australia to inform the decision. Don’t expect proliferation concerns or common sense to inform the decision.

Australia also fuels proliferation tensions in North Asia by allowing Japan open-ended permission to separate and stockpile weapons-useable plutonium produced from Australian uranium.

The issue has resurfaced in recent months with another round of mouthing-off by Japan’s nuclear hawks. Japan’s defence minister, Satoshi Morimoto, said that Japan’s nuclear power program is “taken by neighboring countries as having very great defensive deterrent functions”. Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba recently said: “Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons.”

Japan’s plutonium program demonstrably fans regional proliferation tensions. A March 1993 diplomatic cable from then US Ambassador Armacost in Tokyo posed these questions: “Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan’s being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?”

Since 1993, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has grown and regional tensions have worsened. Yet Australia has never once refused Japan (or any other country) permission to separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Australian uranium, even though bilateral agreements give Australia the right to do so.

An argument could be made in support of Australia’s uranium industry if our export policies resulted in better safety standards and reduced proliferation tensions around the world. But Australia turns a blind eye to poor safety practices and contributes to proliferation tensions through irresponsible uranium export policies.

Given that sad reality, and given that uranium accounts for a minuscule 0.02 percent of Australian jobs and a paltry 0.21 percent of export revenue, there’s a strong case for leaving it in the ground.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDT.

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43 comments

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    • Gratuitous Adviser says:

      06:22am | 13/12/12

      It is my opinion that the world’s exponentially increasing population and the repercussions will not be provided for adequately, without nuclear power.  Flannelette shirts, expensive unsightly propellers, expensive heat plates and shorter showers just aren’t going to make it.

      Sure supervision, engineering, legislation and compliance has to be of the first order but there is no other electrical power source that can do the job in the time needed.  It’s a race unfortunately.

    • marley says:

      06:45am | 13/12/12

      Fukishima:  an example of bad planning, inadequate regulation, sloppy management - but in spite of that, the system was robust enough to prevent a nuclear meltdown. 

      South Korea:  people being charged with criminal offences for their mismanagement of the nuclear program.

      Australia:  selling uranium to countries that use it to provide power to their populations, and which have never had a major nuclear accident.


      I don’t see any of this as a compelling argument to stop mining and selling uranium, which is the point the author is really pursuing.  What we’re seeing is nuclear power is clean, safe and effective, and even little brown people can operate it without blowing themselves and the world up.  It is not our job to tell sophisticated economies like South Korea how to run their power plants.  We can’t even run a Queensland dam properly.

    • Nathan says:

      08:23am | 13/12/12

      just because countries we sell our Nuclear power haven’t had an accident yet doesn’t mean they wont. It a little late after the fact to look into how its regulated then.  I think Australia needs to look closely at India in particular.  I agree we shouldn’t stop selling Uranium but there clearly needs to be strict conditions.

    • Robert from rural SA says:

      09:50am | 13/12/12

      So often safety measures are by-passed by “workers” being lazy. Maybe nucear plants would be run by computers, a dog & a man/woman

    • Smoke Crack - Worship Satan says:

      10:06am | 13/12/12

      Smithers: Sir, that nuclear waste concealment unit that was supposed to last a thousand years is full.

      Monty Burns: Hmmm. Have you tried stamping it down?

      Smithers: It just popped up in another place. We need a place to get rid of this plutonium.

      Monty Burns: Just pick the biggest idiot in the plant and put the plutonium in his bag.

      [Sees Homer and his new Duff bag through the surveilance cameras]

      Monty. Burns: That’s a bingo.

    • marley says:

      10:26am | 13/12/12

      @Nathan - I’ve read Green’s views on nuclear power elsewhere. It wouldn’t matter if the Indians had French or German standards, he’d still be opposed to selling uranium. 

      It’s my view that India, South Korea and the rest are grown-up countries and have to take responsibility for their own well-being.  The kind of post-colonial paternalism Green is proposing doesn’t sit well with me at all.

    • PJ says:

      06:48am | 13/12/12

      According to US Energy reports, In 2016 the US will embark on a Nuclear Plant building program to see it’s energy requirement met for a further 15 years.

      A Global Energy report shows that thanks to Developing Nations, Coal, Gas and Oil, which hold 30% each of the energy market now, will still hold 27% each in 2030. We should be looking at a Nuclear program to combat these predictions.

      We are already trusting nuclear. Julia Gillard is selling uranium to India.
      The tensions between India and Pakistan are real.
      The threat of nuclear war is real.

      Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/gillards-uraniumtoindia-play-is-a-dangerous-sellout-20111120-1np95.html#ixzz2Es5rxMla

      In the ‘Existential List’, which lists by threat risks to life on Earth, Nuclear war is right up the top of the scale compared to Climate Change.

      In Australia we have reached an impasse regarding our energy and face real dangers of black outs and Fuel Poverty, because of the inertia and lack of leadership in this Government.

      In essence, the Gillard Government talked a Green strategy, to wow the Green support for Government and later to get it’s hand on carbon tax money, which has less green credentials than my Big Dog.

      When the Gillard Government realised that Renewable Energy was truly unable to meet Australia’s Energy needs and so expensive as to make it untenable, it backflipped on the ‘Cash for Coal Power Station closure’ scheme.

      But this Government has initiated no program to convert those Stations to Gas, or to build Nuclear Plants. In consequence Australia is on course for an Energy crisis.

      Figures from the UK suggest:
      It costs 2.3p to produce one unit of electricity using gas,
      it costs 2.5p to produce the same electricity using nuclear energy
      It costs 2.9p using coal.

      It costs 9.8p using inefficient Renewable Energy.

      In the face of such figures, most reasonable people interested in cleaner, sustainable energy would surely go off and build carbon-free, Nuclear power stations or Gas-Fuelled ones.

      We must trust Nuclear Energy. Other nations are with whom we share the Globe.

    • PJ says:

      07:10am | 13/12/12

      Earth has a 50-year history of civil nuclear power generation and in that time only 3 incidents.

      Thats a definition of SAFE in anyone’s language.

      - 1979. At Three Mile Island in the US the reactor was damaged but the radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences
      - 1986. At Chernobyl a steam explosion damaged the reactor and fire killed 31 people. In this instance there were significant health and environmental consequences. Deaths after the incident itself numbered about 5.
      - 2011. At Fukushima there were three old reactors were affected by a tsunami and were inadequately contained and some radioactivity was released. But containment and control was achieved.

      These three Nuclear Plant accidents occurred during more than 14,500 reactor-years of civil operation. What a statistic.

      Only the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents resulted in radiation release that posed a greater public threat than those from Natural sources. 

      Apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident.

      Nuclear power is cheap, a blessing given our electricity bills are rising at at a ridiculous rate. The energy itself is very efficient compared to Renewables and it has minimal impact on the environment compared to Wind Power, where kilometres of precious farmland are required and migrator birds are at risk. There is also reports of migranes and other ill health effects from Wind turbines.

      If we are to avoid blackouts and Fuel Poverty, we need to start building Nuclear facilities now, because it takes 10 years to bring them online.

    • JP says:

      07:13am | 13/12/12

      Labor = everything bad that has ever happened in Australia. Liberal = everything good that has ever happened.  Simple concept for a simple mind.

    • Nathan says:

      08:26am | 13/12/12

      “It costs 9.8p using inefficient Renewable Energy.”
      Not trying to dismiss your points but i would ask what was the 9.8p at 5 years ago? With technology in this area getting better and more affective and with economies of scale i would expect that number to continue to decrease and pretty quickly as well.

    • Philosopher says:

      09:15am | 13/12/12

      PJ: I read your description of the consequences of these three nuclear accidents with my jaw agape. Then it came to me: you were being satirical! Excellent, very funny, although I doubt if the Ukrainians or Japanese are laughing quite so hard. Still, the ramifications of radiation poisoning over generations are so grim, what can you do but laugh? Good work, my friend.

    • marley says:

      10:29am | 13/12/12

      @Philosopher - far be it from me to support PJ’s comments on just about anything, but the fact is that the worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, has so far accounted for fewer than 70 deaths.  The only long-term effect to date has been a big spike in treatable thyroid cancer (which could have been avoided if the bloody Soviets had handed out iodine pills at the time).  I’m not discounting the seriousness of what happened, but the kinds of numbers pulled out of a hat by Greenpeace and its ilk are scaremongering of the worst kind.

    • Expat Ozzie says:

      12:01pm | 13/12/12

      @marley: An interesting side effect of Chernobyl has been a boon to the wild life within the exclusion zone. It’s sort of become a quasi national park if you like. The interesting thing is it’s not a waist land as some would like to paint the picture. 

      There are also some people still living there who refused to leave during the evacuation. The funny thing is they haven’t grown another head yet.

    • Colin says:

      06:52am | 13/12/12

      @ Gratuitous Adviser

      It isn’t nuclear power we need. As you pointed out in your first sentence,
      “...the world’s exponentially increasing population…” is the real problem.

      Addressing energy or food shortages in anyway can never make any sense without first addressing the population problem. But, then, the Greens, the Libs, Labor, they never, ever tackle that one, do they..?

    • marley says:

      08:12am | 13/12/12

      The world’s population is not increasing exponentially, and based on current projections, will stabilise around 2050 and then begin to decline.

    • Colin says:

      08:27am | 13/12/12

      @ marley

      Whatever.

      You’d say, “Black” if I said, “White” hey, Marley?

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      09:17am | 13/12/12

      Yes the No 1 global problem is the increasing population. Each FOUR months the increase in World population is greater than the TOTAL population of Australia.

      The assumption that the world population will stabilize around 2050 is based on what has happened in the Western world and Japan, Korea and Taiwan. But it can be proved wrong in Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent and South America by religion and culture.

      There is an interesting new movie, Back to 1942, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_to_1942. It describes how human behavior degenerates in a major famine and become no different from wild animals. In fact worse in some ways. This movie is about a famine in central China when 3m people perished.

      In the looming critical food crisis in Asia before 2050 hundreds of millions of people may perish. It is the No 1 threat to the survival of Australia if we do not destroy NOW the popular belief in Asia that Australia welcomes boatpeople.

    • Gotrek says:

      09:52am | 13/12/12

      Colin That’s because the only sane approach is to be in opposition to whatever opinion you hold.

    • Colin says:

      10:24am | 13/12/12

      @ Gotrek

      Oh there you are, Gotrek; still using that old “psuedonym” (or was it suedonim)..?

      LOL

    • Philosopher says:

      10:32am | 13/12/12

      marley doesn’t actually address the main thrust of Colin’s argument, but instead focuses on a superficial contention of fact, of which does nothing to negate Colin’s proposition, to whit: that over-population is a more pressing issue than food or energy shortages.

    • Gotrek says:

      11:33am | 13/12/12

      You still don’t seem to have worked out why I chose it.

      From ‘The First Global Revolution’: The book was intended as a blueprint for the 21st century putting forward a strategy for world survival at the onset of what they called the world’s first global revolution

      Because of the sudden absence of traditional enemies, “new enemies must be identified.” “In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill….All these dangers are caused by human intervention, and it is only through changed attitudes and behavior that they can be overcome. The real enemy then, is humanity itself.”

      You bought the lie.

    • marley says:

      12:44pm | 13/12/12

      @philosopher - alright, then I’ll address the point. Historically, fertility rates drop as prosperity increases and not the other way around. The most effective way to reduce burgeoning population growth in Africa in particular is to improve their economies - and that means reliable power sources, a vibrant agricultural industry and the abandonment of tariffs preventing Africa goods from entering the EU and elsewhere.  Get the economies up and running, and the birth rates will fall.

    • expat says:

      06:54am | 13/12/12

      The world needs nuclear technology and all technology takes time to develop.

      in 100 years we have gone from a aircraft that could barely fly the distance of a football field to modern, efficient jet aircraft. What is to say that by adopting nuclear technology now, the same advancements in technology will not occur?

    • Don Paul says:

      11:41am | 13/12/12

      You raise a (I believe) a valid analogy, expat.

      But the nuclear technology exists right now to remedy every major concern that nuclear has. The problem has been irrational opposition by career anti-nukers such as the author and his colleague Ian Lowe.

      These are the people that helped shut down R&D projects like the integral fast reactor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_Fast_Reactor

      The problem is not a technical one, it is social. And that resistance is fed by fear-driven, unscientific obfuscations from the likes of ACF and Greenpeace.

    • expat says:

      04:29pm | 13/12/12

      You are right Don Paul.

      A vocal minority are doing everything possible to stop nuclear from happening across the board. 

      Short term the only solution would be to continue to increase electricity prices until the vast majority of the population tell the greenies where to stick it.

    • murray says:

      04:57pm | 13/12/12

      If governments ran the nuclear power stations I would say yes to nuclear power. And I agree @expat that technology will get better and better.
      However, our major political parties seem to have a belief that privatisation of industry is a better (ie: cheaper for them) option.
      The major problem with this is that private owners are always looking for ways to improve “margins” and “productivity” - as per the overseas experience that can result in dangerous practices and I for one, could not agree with a private operator in charge of a nuclear power plant.

    • marley says:

      06:54pm | 13/12/12

      @murray - the government ran Chernobyl.  Thanks, but no thanks.

      Who runs the facility is not relevent: proper regulation and inspection are.  And I’d trust private enterprise over government to actually run a facility with competence and efficiency.

    • gerry w says:

      07:44am | 13/12/12

      Lucas heights nuclear plant in Sydney has had leaks and it took weeks to tell the public. Can not trust the operators or governments to protect civilians it was also proven in the Japanese disasters. Nuclear may be cheaper but it can wipe out millions of people in an instant. Say no more.

    • morrgo says:

      09:40am | 13/12/12

      Nuclear might theoretically “wipe out millions in an instant” but it hasn’t, and there have been some pretty big accidents, first up Chernobyl.  Even the nuclear bombs in WW2 did not wipe out millions.  A smallish dam failure from Japan’s latest earthquake killed many more than the nuclear accidents.

      Meanwhile, countless thousands of coalminers are killed around the world every year and countless millions are affected by pollution from coal-fired plants (many also dying from respiratory illnesses and cancer).

    • Jim Hopf says:

      11:45am | 13/12/12

      Millions in an instant?!  And where, praytell, might that notion have possibly come from?

      At Fukushima, we just had the worst concievable event for an LWR (non-Soviet) reactor occur at not one but three large reactors.  And yet, no immediate or short term radiation-related deaths occurred, and no measurable long-term impacts on public health are projected.

      Some conservative (pessimistic) theory suggests that there may be ~100 deaths that occur over several decades (an excess that is far too small to measure).  The very highest estimates (from experts/researchers opposed to nuclear) approach ~1000 total eventual deaths.  But even that number is about equal to the number of deaths caused every single day (worldwide) by coal combustion, along with global warming.

    • FINK says:

      08:02am | 13/12/12

      ” but it can wipe out millions of people in an instant”
      Well that’s not such a bad thing in an over populated world now is it.

    • Gerry W says:

      08:48am | 13/12/12

      Yes in some respects FINK but the area is uninhabitable for over 1000 years dependent on the type of nuclear emission.

    • Jim Hopf says:

      11:33am | 13/12/12

      Most of the area is already habitable (i.e., has radiation levels low enough so that no measurable health impacts would occur), but the Japanese govt. is not allowing people to move back in, for inexplicable reasons.

      Almost all of the radiation level is due to Cs-137, which has a ~30 year half life.  Radiation levels will fall far faster than that, however, due to natural dilution and removal (rain, etc..) as well as cleanup efforts.

      Almost all of the area will be habitable in a decade or so.

    • Kassandra says:

      11:06am | 13/12/12

      All the same kinds of issues of dodgy construction work, dodgy operators, short cuts, poor safety practices etc can potentially happen in any large project or facility whether it’s a dam, a coal mine, a bridge or a commercial nuclear power plant. It’s no argument against nuclear power per se. As has been pointed out many times considering the number of nuclear plants in operation around the world for more than half a century this has been a remarkably safe industry by any standard.

      The real agenda here is just plain anti-nuclear, especially uranium fuel cycle nuclear power. Any conceivable risk is seized on as “evidence” that the end of the world is nigh any minute if we go nuclear in Australia. The extent of the anxiety surrounding this topic in some people is completely irrational.

      Nuclear power, the power unleashed by the forces that make and break the bonds binding particles in the nucleus of atoms, is what powers the universe. It’s where solar power comes from - nuclear fusion in the sun. Instead of becoming blinded by exaggerated superstitious fears of the radioactive materials and nuclear reactions involved in producing nuclear power, and fear-mongering about nuclear war which has no relationship to nuclear power (commercial reactors cannot produce weapons grade material), we should be embracing research into developing newer and better methods of harnessing this source of power which is infinitely preferable to dirty coal-fired power stations and dystopian wind farms. The way of the future will be in thorium fuel cycle molten salt nuclear reactors and ultimately fusion power. Get on board or get left behind.

    • Jim Hopf says:

      11:28am | 13/12/12

      Pollution from coal causes hundreds of thousands of deaths annually (worldwide), and is the primary cause of global warming.  That’s ~1000 deaths every single day; 1000 being more than the most pessimistic estimates of the total eventual deaths from Fukushima, the only significant release of pollution in the entire 40+ year history of non-Soviet nuclear power.

      In other words, coal is orders of magnitude worse than nuclear, all experts agree.  Despite all the issues/mismanagement the author describes (and hypes), nuclear has had a negligible impact on public health and the environment, over all the decades of its use; compared to fossil fuels, certainly!

      Given the above, a far more defensible, valid argument would be that Australia shouldn’t export any coal to any countries that don’t employ the absolute best available pollution controls (used anywhere in the world) at all of their coal plants.  In other words, forget about any coal exports to either China or India, or anywhere else in the developing world.

      The hypocrisy of this article is blatant; almost comical.  Wonder if the author has any ties to the (very powerful) Australian coal industry, whose coal exports would be threatened by the expansion of nuclear power in various countries.

    • Gordon says:

      11:30am | 13/12/12

      We trust bus drivers with our children. We trust leaders with our money and our military. We trust bridge-builders and airline pilots with our lives daily. All fallible, possibly stupid, possibly negligent people. As a society we work to minimise the risk, cope with the disasters, learn and move on.

      Oh, and nuclear proliferation is now our fault somehow? This on the day after North Korea flys a ballistic missile. Wonder what they are planning to put in them hmm? flowers?

    • Modern Primitive says:

      12:02pm | 13/12/12

      Ironic that you’re a member of friends of the earth, Jim. One would think that adopting nuclear to reduce emissions from coal power generation would be a good idea, but apparently not.

      If you’re against nuclear you’re pro climate change.

    • TheRealDave says:

      12:27pm | 13/12/12

      Given that we’ve had a working Nuclear reactor 31km from the Sydernee CBD in a litle place called Lucas Heights, for over 50 years without a single accident/meltdown/death etc in whats now a populated area - then my trust is with those running and overseeing such a plant because they’ve earnt that trust, more so then sensaltionlist claptrap delivered to the public by ‘journalists’ and professional protestors.

      These professional scaremongers are the ones holding us ALL back from far cheaper power bills and cleaner energy

    • Gordon says:

      04:55pm | 13/12/12

      Yes, this is one of the ironies of this debate. The anti fraternity claim it “will take too long to build to be of any use”, knowing full well that it is only their own agitation & ceaseless protest that would cause the delay in the first place.

    • tez says:

      12:56pm | 13/12/12

      The big question is after we have decided if we can trust the operators WHERE would they be built?  20 years later still asking the same questions.
      We can’t even get our act together to build a very fast train or a second Sydney Airport. All we are good for is digging big holes and shipping off our dirt, Sorry not even our own ships.

    • TheRealDave says:

      02:12pm | 13/12/12

      Time for the new ‘Building Australia Party’ or BAPs to get up and running - Big Projects that Benefit All of Australia. We’d rather build something for 20 years than take 20 years to make a deciision!

      wink

    • tez says:

      02:58pm | 13/12/12

      But what we do build Dave is pulled down in 20 years the Sydney Entertainment Centre can’t we build thing to last a bit longer than that?

    • Mikeymike says:

      02:58pm | 13/12/12

      So the argument is “Don’t export uranium because the people using it may have an accident / flout international treaties on its use.” 

      Right?

      The examples you give regarding bribery and corruption show that the system works.  People have been charged and prosecuted. 

      By the way, some links to back up your piece might have been nice.  If you had included links, we might have been able to discover that the reason the IAEA did not sanction South Korea was because they enriched a total of 200mg of uranium. 

      I could go on about the other points that you have raised but since I’m not a professional lobbyist I don’t have the time.  Suffice to say, you have focused on a few news reports about dodginess in nuclear power, linked it to Australia’s exports (as if we are somehow responsible for other people’s actions?) and called for a ban.

      Why not do the same for coal?  After all coal has been responsible for many more deaths,  it degrades the air quality and leads to climate change.  What about oil?  Again, death and destruction of the environment; far worse than anything nuclear power has done.

 

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