How exactly are we to introduce nuclear power?
Clive claims that nuclear power is “a debate Labor desperately doesn’t want us to have” and David says “our dominant politicians are determined to not even allow a debate” on the issue.
Clive and David ought to spell out exactly what they want from the government.
Is it a public inquiry to study the merits of nuclear power and other energy sources? If designed to illuminate the issues rather than arrive at predetermined answers, such an inquiry would be welcome. It would be a welcome antidote to the 2006 Switkowski report which was written by a group of nuclear advocates at the behest of former Prime Minister John Howard.
Clive bemoans Labor’s “schizophrenic platform on uranium − pro-mining, pro-exports but anti-power”. David looks forward to a future when this “stupid double-standard” is resolved.
Of course there is some overlap between the issues of uranium mining and domestic nuclear power but they turn on a largely separate set of issues and it is not necessarily illogical − let alone hypocritical − to support one but oppose the other. Most Australians agree with Labor’s argument that Australia has better energy supply options than nuclear power, and the existence of uranium deposits in Australia is irrelevant to that debate.
But the government is being hypocritical on important nuclear issues − without being held to account by the media. For example, in 2006 and 2007 Kevin Rudd issued blunt warnings about the “fracturing” of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, yet the Rudd government has done nothing to strengthen the regime and has weakened it in various ways.
The government’s support for a resumption of international nuclear trade with India − which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) − clearly weakens the non-proliferation regime. It encourages other countries to pull out of the NPT, build nuclear weapons, and to do so on the expectation that nuclear trade will not be disrupted.
Likewise, foreign minister Stephen Smith could hardly be setting the bar any lower with his proposal to export uranium to Russia with no requirement for any International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections − a proposal which hangs in the balance after the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties made the entirely reasonable recommendation that Mr Smith should insist on at least some safeguards inspections.
Climate change and nuclear power
David claims that Australia remains “hysterically opposed” to the domestic use of nuclear power. There’s no need to be hysterical to oppose nuclear power − it may help but it’s not essential.
As a climate change ‘solution’, nuclear power is a blunt instrument. Even the 2006 Switkowski report found that building six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions by just 4% if they displace coal-fired plants, or just 2% if they displace gas. Globally, doubling nuclear power would reduce emissions by about 5% but it would also result in the production of over one million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and enough plutonium to build over one million nuclear weapons.
David writes: “You can see why, in the 70s and 80s in the midst of crises such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and in the middle of an arms race against the Soviet Union, that the whole issue was a total no-go. My own views for many years were framed by growing up through that period, sitting at school in 1983 watching movies like The Day After, or thinking in 1986 when Chernobyl happened and when the US bombed Libya that maybe the entire world was actually about to end. These are now redundant arguments, the world has changed ...”
Yes, the world has changed, for the worse in many respects.
Our fears of a deadly nuclear detonation – whatever the cause – have been reawakened. In part, these fears are driven by new realities. The rise in terrorism. The discovery of clandestine nuclear programmes. The emergence of a nuclear black market. But these realities have also heightened our awareness of vulnerabilities in the NPT regime.
The acquisition by more and more countries of sensitive nuclear know-how and capabilities. The uneven degree of physical protection of nuclear materials from country to country. The limitations in the IAEA’s verification authority – particularly in countries without additional protocols in force. The continuing reliance on nuclear deterrence. The ongoing perception of imbalance between the nuclear haves and have-nots. And the sense of insecurity that persists, unaddressed, in a number of regions, most worryingly in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula.
That paragraph might sound like it was taken from a Friends of the Earth flyer but in fact it was lifted verbatim from a 2005 speech by then IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei. In the four years since that speech, we could add alarming developments such as North Korea’s emergence as the tenth country to have built nuclear weapons (and the fifth to have done so under cover of a ‘peaceful’ nuclear program), and Russia’s threats to attack some of its neighbours with nuclear weapons as US missile defence facilities move closer to its borders.
Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summarised the problem that counts most heavily against nuclear power: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”
Which brings us back to climate change. A limited nuclear exchange involving as little as 0.3% of the global nuclear weapons arsenal would not only kill thousands or millions of people immediately but would also produce unprecedented climate change and seriously worsen ozone depletion.
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