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.
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.
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Prime Minister Julia Gillard can use her trip to India this week to undo the damage she has done to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Until the December 2011 Labor National Conference, the government maintained Australia’s long-standing position of banning uranium sales to countries that refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is the central pillar of the global nuclear regime − it commits nuclear weapons states to pursue disarmament and other countries to refrain from building weapons.
Kevin Rudd explained the previous position: “No-one in Australia wants a nuclear arms race aided by us in the Indian sub-continent or between India and China because we’ve failed to properly ensure the upholding of the NPT and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards regime under it.”
You don’t have to oppose uranium mining to oppose exports to nuclear-armed India. All it takes is a strong desire not to have an atomic bomb dropped on your head ... or anyone else’s.
Thus critics of the plan to sell to India include uranium mining advocates Ron Walker, a former Australian diplomat and former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency; Paul Barratt, former Secretary of the Defence Department; and Kelvin Thomson, a member of Labor’s Right faction and Chair of Parliament’s treaties committee.
The main concern is that India has not signed, and will not sign, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Needless to say, that sets an alarming precedent. If the response to the India’s nuclear weapons program is to reward it with sales of uranium and nuclear technology, then others are sure to follow.
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When Julia Gillard rises at the ALP national conference Sunday week to urge uranium exports to India she will anger some of her closest supporters - women.
She will also rile the ALP left who will argue against yellowcake to the sub-continent, but it is a long time since Julia Gillard has been considered a leftie.
Of greater importance might be the response of women voters in general, a significant number of whom have stuck by Gillard since she toppled Kevin Rudd, bungled an election campaign and scraped together a ragged agenda of her own.
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The option of using nuclear power to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation has been raised from time to time during the national debate on the carbon tax and climate change.
Although nuclear power it is not currently on the government’s energy agenda, Australia is a major supplier of uranium to the global nuclear industry which produces 14 per cent of the world’s electricity from four hundred and forty reactors in thirty countries. Their combined fifty year experience provides a basis on which to consider the deployment of nuclear power here.
As memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe receded, a global nuclear power renaissance seemed likely as climate change concerns mounted. Then came the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster following a massive earthquake and tsunami.
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Prime Minister Julia Gillard would do well to consider some bigger issues than the praise of conservative political insiders when it comes to plans to sell uranium to India, a country not bound to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Aptly enough on the same day she announced her position reversal, the Times of India reported on a trial of a nuclear-ready Agni 2 ballistic missile, capable of traveling over 3000 km to reach its target.
We know that the more uranium India can source from foreign exporters, the more its own uranium supplies can be directed toward its rapidly expanded weapons program, fueling already simmering regional tensions in East Asia.
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The Labor Party is set to backflip on dealing uranium to countries that have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. At the upcoming ALP conference, Prime Minister Julia Gillard will push to lift the ban on selling to India - and chances are it will go through.
The move has upset the Greens, and some in Labor’s left faction, who argue that even though India may not use Australian uranium for weapons, it could free up uranium from other sources to be used by the military.
The Punch spoke to Professor Stephen Lincoln from the University of Adelaide, an expert in uranium, nuclear power and climate change, about what it all means.
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The Paydirt 2011 Uranium Conference was held at the Adelaide Hilton on Monday and Tuesday. Bad timing.
The image of uranium industry executives sipping cocktails at the Hilton as the Fukushima crisis entered its second week could hardly win the public’s hearts and minds.
Likewise, Paladin CEO John Borshoff’s description of the Fukushima crisis as a “sideshow” will do nothing to quell public concern.
Efforts to cool the nuclear reactor cores have met with mixed success; there have been deliberate and uncontrolled radiation releases and several explosions; 200,000 people were evacuated and the exclusion zone was repeatedly widened; a fire led to spent nuclear fuel releasing radiation directly to the environment; radiation monitors detected alarming jumps near the reactors and low levels of radiation have been detected in Tokyo and beyond; and food restrictions are being implemented because of radioactive contamination.
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And so now we’re selling uranium to the Russians. Juggling the morning madness of kids, breakfast, dogs and work, the news item relayed via my tinny trannie was easy to miss and at first didn’t register. And then the irony of it all hit me like a shovel between the eyes.
It is very, very, hard to convey to Gen Y what it was like coming of age in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties - before we were called Gen X, before mobile phones and before the internet.
It’s hard to make them understand what it was like living everyday thinking that it could be your last, thinking you were seconds away from being annihilated in atomic cataclysm launched by those Godless Soviets.
The connection between power and proliferation is the inconvenient truth of the nuclear industry.
Articles in The Australian in recent weeks by Ziggy Switkowski and academic Andrew O’Neil trivialise the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. O’Neil in particular had me choking on my cornflakes (and spluttering them all over Greg Sheridan’s mugshot, as luck would have it) with his contention that “every nuclear weapons program since and including the US Manhattan Project has been the product of dedicated military reactors rather than an offshoot of civilian programs.”
O’Neil seems blissfully unaware that uranium enrichment provides a pathway to nuclear weapons without the need for a reactor of any description. He points to North Korea, claiming that “no one − including high-level International Atomic Energy Agency experts − was in any doubt ... that North Korea’s nuclear reactor program was military in its focus and intent.”
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The Australian Greens want to stop all uranium exploration, close all of Australia’s existing uranium mines, oh, and while they’re at it, they’d also like a nuclear free world.
Guess what: It’s not going to happen. It’s bad policy, naive politics, and exhibits an undergraduate response to federal politics which is unbecoming in a party soon to hold the balance of power in the Senate.
Added to that, it’s a stance which assumes that the debate about the utility of nuclear power for climate change reduction is over, and that it’s been found wanting. This is far from the case.
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The year is 2025. The national growth figures have confirmed that, for the seventh consecutive quarter, South Australia is the fastest-growing state in the land, its economy fuelled by three key decisions which have transformed what was once regarded as an industrial wasteland into a beacon of opportunity.
The first decision was to end the hypocrisy and contradictions surrounding the mining of uranium – and the continuing ban on its use as a domestic energy source – and go forward with the creation of a world’s best-practice nuclear industry which involves both the processing of uranium and the storage of nuclear waste.
The arguments which were put to allow this policy shift started, first and foremost, with the need to eliminate a stupid double-standard – whereby our nation will happily dig up yellowcake at three, four, (now) five and (probably soon) six uranium mines for sale and processing overseas, while remaining hysterically opposed to its domestic use.
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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.
OK, so I know the drill is that we’re meant to dust off our LPs and find the angriest Midnight Oil lyric about uranium mining or nuclear war, present it as a damning tearsheet, and then use a photograph such as the one below - taken at the Sydney protests against French nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1995 - to declare that Environment Minister Peter Garrett is the mother of all hypocrites.
It was certainly the position Malcolm Turnbull took last night after Garrett signed off on the Four Mile Uranium Mine in South Australia. Turnbull might be our alternative, conservative prime minister but he sounded for all the world like some campus Trotskyist as he led the sell-out charge against the former Oils frontman.
“What this approval just shows today is that Mr Garrett is as big a phoney as the Prime Minister,” Turnbull said, happily side-stepping the fact that, in endorsing Australia’s fifth uranium mine, Garrett has done the exact thing the Liberal Party has been urging him to do.
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