MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Prime Minister Howard Hustles Australia Down Nuclear Path

Published by MAC on 2006-06-06

Prime Minister Howard Hustles Australia Down Nuclear Path

CANBERRA, Australia, ENS

6th June 2006

Today, Prime Minister John Howard announced the establishment of a taskforce to review the role of nuclear power and uranium mining in Australia. Currently, Australia holds 40 percent of the world's known low cost recoverable uranium reserves but has no nuclear generating stations. Critics say that resource-rich Australia does not need nuclear power and that the taskforce is weighted towards support of nuclear development.

Nuclear physicist Ziggy Switkowski, former chief of the telecommunications company Telstra, has been appointed to run the inquiry. Dr. Switkowski is a board member of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Dr. Ziggy Switkowski holds a degree in nuclear physics from the University of Melbourne, with a further six years of post-doctoral research experience in international institutions, and a business degree from Harvard. (Photo courtesy Brisbane Institute)

To date, the taskforce includes two professors from the Australian National University - George Dracoulis, head of the Department of Nuclear Physics and economist Warwick McKibbin, who is a member of the Board of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Three other members will also be named.

Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, will support the review, facilitating a peer review of the scientific aspects. The work of the taskforce will be supported by a whole-of-government secretariat based in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The review will begin this month, with a draft report planned for public consultation by November 2006. A final report will be completed by the end of the year.

While promising an "objective, scientific and comprehensive" review, Howard indicated that nuclear development would be good for Australia's economy. "Energy prices and energy security are key considerations for future economic growth in a lower emissions future," he said today.

"There is significant potential for Australia to increase and add value to our uranium extraction and exports," said Howard, noting that recent developments in global energy markets have renewed international interest in nuclear energy as a technology that "can help meet growing demand for electricity without the fuel and environmental costs associated with oil and gas."

The taskforce announcement comes shortly after last month’s controversial agreement to supply uranium to China.

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley of the Australian Labor Party says the Prime Minister wants the review to endorse nuclear power. "That is what the Prime Minister would sincerely hope from it, something to justify his position," he said.

Australian Greens energy and climate change spokesperson Senator Christine Milne said today that everything about the Prime Minister's taskforce and terms of reference and the tenor of his remarks in announcing the inquiry "points to enrichment of uranium as the Prime Minister's real agenda."

"The Prime Minister continually talked about mining and value-adding Australia's uranium, in the context of global nuclear fuel suppliers," Milne said in Hobart.

"During his recent visit to the United States, Prime Minister Howard had talks in Washington with President [George W.] Bush about the President's desire to set up new nuclear fuel supply centers around the world with a view to having these supply centers enrich uranium and lease it with an agreement to take back the spent fuel rods," Milne said.

Prime Minister Howard says he wants to engage the public in a wide-ranging debate on the issues. On ABC TV May 30, he said, "The scene on nuclear energy is going to change significantly in our country and I want a full-blooded debate in Australia about this issue and I want all of the options on the table."

While Australian environmental groups oppose any further nuclear development, Howard said today, "A growing number of environmentalists now recognize that nuclear energy has several other advantages over fossil fuel electricity generation, including significant lower levels of air pollution and greenhouse emissions."

He is referring to statements of British scientist James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis which considers the Earth as a self-regulating organism, and a member of the association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy. Lovelock wrote for the British paper "The Independent" a 2004 article entitled, "Nuclear power is the only green solution."

"Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media," wrote Lovelock. "These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources."

Still, Australian environmental groups attacked the taskforce and the possibility that Australia might build nuclear power plants.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said, "The composition of the government's nuclear power inquiry and the declared purpose of the inquiry, announced by the Prime Minister today, expose a deeply worrying lack of focus on climate change and any serious examination of clean, safe and credible energy futures."

"The Prime Minister promised us a wide ranging inquiry, but what we've got so far looks like a uranium mining, enrichment and nuclear power promotional exercise.

"With no disrespect to the individual members, the deck looks stacked - the inquiry is being chaired by a nuclear physicist and ANSTO board member and is being supported by the Chief Scientist, a proponent of nuclear power.

Professor Ian Lowe AO, who heads the Australian Conservation Foundation, is emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University in Brisbane, an adjunct professor at Sunshine Coast University and QUT, an honorary research fellow at the University of Adelaide and a consultant to the CSIRO Division of Sustainable Ecosystems.

Lowe was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2001 for services to science and technology, especially in the area of environmental studies.

In an address to the National Press Club on October 19, 2005, Lowe said, "Nuclear power is expensive, slow and dangerous, and it won't stop climate change."

"I wonder how much the current debate about nuclear power has to do with BHP Billiton's planned expansion of the Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia," Lowe told reporters. The company has applied to the Commonwealth and South Australian governments to take five times more water than it currently does from the Great Artesian Basin to develop its uranium mine.

Lowe warned that this massive water extraction "could threaten the fragile Mound Springs ecosystem in the desert" and he said BHP Billiton "will not get away with making a big mess in the South Australian outback."

The concern about bombs fueled with radioactive waste is not something being whipped up by fringe-dwelling extremists, Lowe said, pointing out that a few days previous, President Bush claimed his security forces had foiled a plot by terrorists to detonate a "dirty bomb."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in the desire of terrorists to get hold of nuclear material presented a much greater problem than any "rogue state."

"You won't hear people worrying about terrorists getting hold of wind turbine parts or making dirty bombs out of solar panels. The only clean energy is renewable energy," Lowe said.

"It is safe, plentiful and lasts forever. It is better environmentally, economically and socially. It will take us toward a sustainable future, whereas nuclear energy would be a decisive step in the wrong direction, producing serious environmental and social problems for little benefit."

Other Australian environmental groups agree.

WWF-Australia says the country is "blessed with abundant clean and renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and natural gas. Consequently, Australia does not need nuclear energy, which is fraught with problems associated with waste disposal and the threat of accidents."

"Australia has more renewable resources per person than any other nation on Earth - we do not need nuclear power plants in this country," WWF-Australia CEO Greg Bourne said in May.

WWF-Australia spokesman Andy Whitely said today that the group does not support uranium mining but adds, "We don't campaign on it. Our primary focus is on climate change."

The Wilderness Society said, "Uranium mining causes widespread environmental damage, particularly through its use in generating nuclear power, and members of the Australian environment movement remain totally opposed to it."

Greenpeace Australia says that despite claims of the uranium and nuclear industries, nuclear power is not a solution to climate change. "The nuclear industry claims that nuclear energy is a clean alternative to fossil fuels. It is not. Nuclear power did not suddenly become safe and clean. It is just as radioactive and dangerous as it always was," the group says on its website.

"Nuclear power is risky at every stage of development, from mining the uranium to producing the energy to the dangers of transporting and storing radioactive waste," Greenpeace said, adding that the best investment for our planet's future is "clean renewable energy, such as solar and wind, combined with technologies that vastly improve energy efficiency."

Taskforce Terms of Reference

The nuclear energy review will consider the following matters:

Economic issues

The capacity for Australia to increase uranium mining and exports in response to growing global demand. The potential for establishing other steps in the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia, such as fuel enrichment, fabrication and reprocessing, along with the costs and
benefits associated with each step. The extent and circumstances in which nuclear energy could in the longer term be economically competitive in Australia with other existing electricity generation technologies, including any implications this would have for the national electricity market. The current state of nuclear energy research and development in Australia and the capacity for Australia to make a significantly greater contribution to international nuclear science.

Environment issues

The extent to which nuclear energy will make a contribution to the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The extent to which nuclear energy could contribute to the mix of emerging energy technologies in Australia.

Health, safety and proliferation issues

The potential of ‘next generation’ nuclear energy technologies to meet safety, waste and proliferation concerns.
The waste processing and storage issues associated with nuclear energy and current world’s best practice. The security implications relating to nuclear energy. The health and safety implications relating to nuclear energy.

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