With Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao due in Australia early April to
announce a 10 year agreement to purchase uranium from BHP’s
Olympic Dam you’d like to think the government has its act
together on the issue of uranium mining and export. But the PM’s
comments in India on considering the sale of uranium to that nation
contradict Alexander Downer’s statement that Australia will not change
its policy (“…that has served us so well…”) of selling
uranium only to states that are signatories to the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Oh dear.

Last year it was Ian McFarlane, Industry Minister, who within the space
of two weeks had back flipped on the issue of uranium mining.
From staunch opponent to staunch supporter – all in the space of a
fortnight! You can only suppose he was taken aside and told what to
say. The muppet. This is from someone who had, apparently, given
explicit instruction to the Australian Bureau of Resource Economics, in
a study of Australian energy, not to look at uranium. Again you can
only suppose that, with his position reliant on the support of the coal
industry, he was looking out for his mates.

Clearly that other muppet, Downer, has not been briefed either. No
doubt he will get a phone call from the PM, in between trying to find
potentially problematic AWB cables, to correct his thinking on uranium.

(Poor Alexander. His Friday comments, in a moment of dangerously
independent thinking away from his handlers, included one to the
effect that Australia does not always follow the US line. This
will certainly have been picked up and reported to his idols,
Condi Rice and George W. What was he thinking?

This presents Alexander with a couple of problems. One, the egg on
hisface and two, that he has only gone and confirmed to George and
Condi
> that he
>
> is,
> really, only fair average when it comes to being foreign minister of a
> small south pacific nation. It is the latter which will cause him more
> angst.
> His
> adulation of George and Condi is well known – his President’s coffee
> cup (his favourite) and “Vote Bush” bumper sticker displayed on the
> rear of
>
> his
> Commodore are some of his proudest possessions. Clearly not having
> been briefed by the PM he now looks like an outsider. And he so
> desperately wants to be in the club).
>
> Australia, with 40% of the world’s uranium, will not be allowed to sit
> on it. Moreover, with a demand for export revenue to fund our national
> debt
>
> and
> economy we have no choice. If you haven’t been buying shares in
> uranium you may want to get in now because the resources boom is set
> to continue with an expansion of uranium mining.
>
> We are still hugely reliant on primary resources, despite various
> incarnations of the “clever country” program. In fact, in fairness to
> Ian MacFarlane, with coal being our single biggest export earner you
> can understand – issues of pollution, health and climate change aside
> – his support for coal.
>
> But why not face this uranium and nuclear issue and approach it openly?
> The
> PM and Downer are strong supporters of uranium exploitation and of
> nuclear power development. So is Brendan Nelson. So is a lot of the
> backbench.
>
> Whilst there are risks in both there are also reasons to look at both.
> Unfortunately, this covert approach to uranium sales, mine development
> and nuclear power is being brought about by concern in the government
> that public response to any such development will be knee-jerk and
> negative.
> Moreover, whilst Martin Ferguson supports a review of the uranium mine
> policy (even he appreciates how absurdly constructed the Labor
> position
> is)
> they don’t want to give Labor anything to get an advantage on the
> government, even if Kevin Rudd would advise them that compromising the
> export market of uranium to China would be, economically, very foolish
> indeed.
>
> All of this is unfortunate. A reading of comments by
> environmentalists, farm sector members, and the general public
> suggests that the attitude to uranium and nuclear power, whilst
> cautious and demanding of more information, is no longer characterized
> by an immediate “anti” stance. There are certainly still groups and
> individuals opposed to uranium use and nuclear power, either because
> of ideological positions, concerns over weapons development or safety.
> But, ideologically driven positions aside, it appears most are at
> least willing to discuss uranium exploitation and nuclear power use,
> and especially so with concerns over global warming and energy
> security now having moved front and centre.
>
> The government’s approach to uranium mining and nuclear power
> development, instead of keeping the issues low on the radar and
> addressing various concerns, is now acting to polarize positions. This
> is an unintended consequence of the strategy, informed by inputs from
> industry, but not unexpected. The government has misread the
> willingness of the wider public to consider these crucial matters and
> is now setting itself, and Australia, up for yet another divisive,
> unconstructive and destabilizing confrontation at a time Australia can
> least afford it. Chances are we will, once again, delay decision
> making until it is forced on us by events, precluding our chance of
> benefiting early.
>
> Should Australia engage in nuclear power development and, if so, how?
>
> We are already engaged in it by virtue of uranium exports. Because we
> don’t make much and we have failed to invest in education and
> infrastructure in the way needed to develop our intellectual property
> base, we have little choice but to mine as much uranium as possible
> and sell it. We have a small population, geographically large and
> diverse continent and small wealth base. We also have an insatiable
> demand for high standards of living and consumption. We can only pay
> for the latter two by selling stuff. We can wring our hands about that
> state of affairs as much as possible but it will do us little good. We
> are, in effect, the Arabs of the south Pacific. We
>
> are
> largely reliant on natural resource exploitation and when that is gone
> we are probably in trouble.
>
> The NPT really means very little given Bush’s approach to India and,
> subsequently, Howard’s. In one fell swoop Howard has made redundant
> the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office. Of course,
> they are part of DFAT and we have already seen how well informed
> Howard keeps that Ministry (or they him if you take his word on AWB).
> And ANSTO just runs a small research reactor – like the Philippines
> and other busted-arse countries – to quote our foreign minister – so
> they really aren’t important in the scheme of things.
>
> More importantly. the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
> Mohamed El-Baradei, has supported Bush’s approach to India saying that
> it will at least open up their civilian program to international
> inspection.
> Perhaps this makes the weapons issue a moot point. If they can’t do it
> through diversion they will simply do it through other means. And
> Australia has about as much importance and influence as, well, a
> busted arse country.
>
> It is the issue of a civilian nuclear power program for Australia that
> is really the critical consideration.
>
> Around 17% of global electricity is now generated by nuclear power.
> France
> generates around 80% of its power through nuclear. There are some 100
> reactors in the US and China is busy building an additional 30 or so
> as you read this.
>
> Nuclear power is not without its problems. There is the issue of
> treatment and storage of waste. The issue of plant safety and
> decommissioning. And there is the argument of whether or not the
> economics stack up.
>
> But there are also increasingly compelling reasons to consider nuclear.
>
> Alternative and renewable energy is hugely attractive and will,
> hopefully, one day be the primary power source. Unfortunately, at this
> time, it is simply not possible to provide sufficient baseload
> electrical power on a national, domestic and industrial basis using
> alternative and renewables.
> They can contribute to peak power supply but cannot underwrite baseload.
> Electricity is a wonderful thing but, aside from small battery banks,
> cannot be stored unless converted to another energy form (eg:
> hydrogen, hydro potential etc.) Storage technologies, including
> thermal block storage, are being developed but appear to be some way
> off. Electricity, once generated, has to be used. It also has limits
> on how far it can be efficiently carried.
> 400 km or so is about the economically viable limit. All this means a
> requirement for power stations relatively near industry and urban areas.
>
> Australia currently relies on gas and coal fired power stations. Gas
> is relatively clean. Coal, with improvements in combustion and
> ignition technologies, is also being cleaned up. But both still
> contribute to CO2 emissions and global warming. Coal also produces
> significant amounts of radioactivity. A coal fired power station will
> produce relatively large amounts of radioactive ash and particulates,
> in addition to other polluting components. In a given year a nuclear
> power station will produce no external radioactive product.
>
> For Australia, nuclear would be useful in that it would free up gas
> and coal streams for export and generate desperately needed revenue.
> The coal industry exports large amounts to China and India. With
> nuclear power programs moving ahead rapidly in those nations the coal
> market may be seen as having a limited lifespan, or at least a
> contracting future. In China, whose coal supplies are dirty compared
> with Australian coal, the cost to
>
> the
> national health budget through exposure to coal particulates is
> appalling and getting worse. Morally we may, on that ground alone, be
> justified in selling China uranium. We could probably also argue that
> we should sell them as much coal as possible while we can, and while
> they make the transition to nuclear, replacing dirty coal with
> relatively clean coal. Similarly India.
>
> A nuclear power program in Australia would also force us to develop
> suitable technological, engineering, mathematical and industrial
> resources to underwrite such a development. Such a development would,
> over the longer term, probably have greater benefit to Australia than
> the ability to provide energy security. We are already being left
> behind in terms of tertiary sector development by nations previously
> seen as education clients. MBA demand from overseas nationals coming
> to Australian universities has dropped dramatically. Other courses are
> likely to follow. China is currently the leading provider of foreign
> US PhD graduates. The intellectual base of India is already well
> known, especially in Silicon Valley. We have some catching up to do.
>
> Whilst disagreement remains over global warming and climate change
> data interpretation it seems increasingly likely that we cannot take a
> chance on compromising the planet. Whilst on a global scale we
> contribute relatively little by way of greenhouse gases, on a per
> capita basis we are front-runners. It is only because we are a small
> population that we don’t mimic the US in this regard. We are arguably
> as self indulgent in our consumption however. A move to a nuclear
> program would address much of this concern. Importantly, there is just
> no way that the world will support, on a pollution or consumption
> basis, the rise of another two equivalents of the United States in
> China and India. We are in no position to argue against conspicuous
> consumption or the use of automobiles. We can at least provide a means
> of generating less polluting electricity. The argument to export
> uranium to India on these grounds alone is compelling.
>
> Global warming is certainly affecting biodiversity and species
> viability. We are, of course, subject to the effects of natural
> selection, in everything we do – ideas, polices and actions included.
> We may decide that species decimation at our hand is simply natural
> selection at work. We are a part of the natural world after all. But
> we may also want to be a little cautious and pull back from that, if
> only for the reasons that species diversity is arguably a healthy
> thing – even if only to provide access to beneficial molecules and
> designs we have not thought of.
>
> A civilian nuclear power program in Australia would also underwrite
> national energy security. We seem blithely content to absorb rising
> petrol and power costs but at some point there will be a limit. That
> limit will not come from exhaustion of reserves, or even from
> political instability in strife torn nations that hold oil reserves.
> It will come from energy market demand by Japan, India, China, the US
> and EU. We will not be able to afford to buy
>
> oil
> resources. They have more money than us. So we better look for
> alternatives.
> We might try to fall back on coal and gas but, as has been noted, we
> have to sell something to get an income and we need to flog that lot
> pretty quickly whilst there is a market for it. (South Korea is
> pushing ahead to a hydrogen economy and others are likely to adopt a
> similar approach. The Koreans intend to generate H2 using nuclear
> generated electricity. LPG may eventually go the way of coal and
> Australia may also need to look to a hydrogen based energy
> structure). Of course, it would be embarrassing to have India and
> China bitching at Australia because we, and an assortment of third
> world countries, are the only ones reliant on coal.
>
> Economically we probably cannot ignore nuclear power. It is expensive
> to build and decommission. But over operating periods, the
> amortization and returns on a nuclear station are now very competitive
> with current coal, gas, wind and solar power strategies – and it is
> the now we are talking about. There is a requirement to build very
> safe nuclear stations, to consider the whole of operation costs
> (including waste disposal), and to decommission safely. Over the sort
> of period noted, whole of cost consideration of coal fired stations,
> when you account for mining, rehabilitation of mine sites, transport,
> processing, community health, operation, decommissioning and global
> warming (carbon) contributions, and to a lesser degree gas fired
> stations, becomes problematic in any comparative assessment with
> nuclear.
>
> Safety is, of course, a concern with matters nuclear. (Whilst somewhat
> flippant, the Chinese can already nuke us with what they have so a few
> more probably won’t matter. India ditto. Delivery systems they can
> ramp up and Indian subs are not foreign to our waters. Why they would
> want to nuke us is anyone’s guess and probably not likely, but no
> doubt the issue has exercised minds at ASPI and Defence in their
> endless search for grants, budgets and enemies).
>
> The more realistic concern over safety with civilian nuclear rectors
> is their integrity. The new, fourth generation, modular pebble bed
> reactor designs provide multiple redundancies in all systems and,
> importantly, are designed so that by virtue of the laws of physics,
> are self contained and unable to go critical (melt down). Three mile
> Island and Chernobyl are always raised by the naysayers but Chernobyl
> occurred in a culture where risk management and transparency were
> thoroughly compromised, where the technology used was problematic and
> where a state apparatus did not want to recognize failures or
> concerns. It was an accident waiting to happen.
> Three
> Mile Island was a fuel accident and was contained. Moreover, it was
> subject to intense scrutiny and follow up, contributing to on-going
> developments in reactor safety.
>
> There is always reason to have concerns over any human designed system
> of course but, for that reason, reactors are initially expensive to
> build.
> Those risks are eliminated, so far as possible, and then worst case
> scenarios designed for. Current reactor design is arguably very safe.
>
> Concerns are also raised regarding nuclear waste. In and of itself
> this waste is problematic, no doubt about that. However, developments
> in processing the trans-uranics and actinides have pushed half life
> storage down to around 300 years and further developments are likely
> to push this lower, perhaps even to around 100 years. There is still a
> requirement to store the stuff safely but let’s put this in context
> with a quote from Theodore Rockwell.
>
> “A 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant, supplying all the
> electricity used by a million people, produces 8 million tons of
> carbon dioxide, which can contribute to global warming; 100 thousand
> tons of sulfur dioxide, which
>
> can
> cause acid rain; nitrogen oxides equivalent to 200,000 automobiles;
> benzpyrene and other carcinogens; and 250,000 tons of ash containing
> enough uranium to make several A-bombs; and airborne particulates that
> could cause respiratory problems. This does not include the mountain
> tops pushed into valleys to get at Appalachian coal seams. In
> contrast, a nuclear reactor producing the same amount of electricity
> produces two cubic meters of waste.”
>
> Bob Hawke revisited the issue of Australia acting as the world
> repository for nuclear waste. Not a new idea but worthy of
> consideration. Some have suggested that nuclear waste can simply be
> released in sufficiently small amounts over a large enough area (eg:
> into the oceans of atmosphere), diluting it so that it is no higher,
> per unit volume, than natural background radiation. This is a
> technically correct, but somewhat tongue in cheek, suggestion. Deep
> vitrified storage in a remote, geologically stable repository
> following processing to reduce half lives, is arguably the safest way
> to handle the global nuclear waste stream. Morally we would be
> offering the world a way of embracing cleaner energy, reducing
> exposure to particulate carbon and nitrox pollutants. With energy
> security there could be a lessening of international tensions. And
> Australia could benefit hugely. Financially we could charge very large
> amounts. Similar to the Alaskan oil revenue disbursement scheme, each
> Australian could receive a cash cheque annually. Communities living
> closer to the repository could receive proportionally more. Specific
> revenue streams could go to Aboriginal communities and payments be
> arranged on the basis of a series of concentric regions, moving away
> from the repository. Positioned well this could benefit remote and
> rural Australia significantly and keep much of the revenue stream out
> of Canberra (frankly, an added bonus). Security measures for
> transport, handling and guarding are able to be established and the
> nature of the repository can be made such that, even in the event of
> complete social breakdown or failure, it is able to maintain secure
> storage.
>
> There are a lot of compelling and good reasons to look seriously at
> nuclear power. And that requires an open, national, public debate
> based on rigorous science, verifiable and peer reviewed fact. It
> cannot be a debate hijacked by agendas or emotive, factually incorrect
> statements. As a nation we cannot afford that. Unfortunately, at this
> time, the government, which does not trust the public in such a
> debate, appears intent on moving uranium sales and any nuclear power
> development through the back door, quietly, for reasons of “national
> security and commercial confidence.” That is the one way guaranteed to
> undermine support for such moves – support which must come from an
> informed public. Alexander Downer, whilst the responsible minister, is
> not equipped with the requisite intellectual prowess to drive this
> and, while he holds the plebeian ranks in contempt, is no patrician,
> which such an attitude clearly reveals. In short, it is too serious a
> matter to leave to government alone.
>
> Possibly the one real concern over nuclear power is that its adoption
> may delay development and emplacement of alternative and renewable
> energies.
> We
> might argue that we simply do not have the luxury of time to allow
> such technologies to develop to the point where we can adopt them at
> baseload levels. This is probably the case. We might argue that
> nuclear power be seen as a transition mechanism for energy provision
> until such technologies are developed. This might be more reasonable.
> Unfortunately we don’t have access to alternative and renewable
> technologies, nor the requisite economic settings, where we can simply
> go out and build the massive baseload infrastructure needed, or all
> become domestic, independent, micro-generators. We could I suppose do
> it, but the cost, and resistance to such cost, would be enormous. The
> amortisation and infrastructure replacement charges would also be
> difficult to support as technologies evolved. (Think computers here.
> The first, incredibly expensive. A few generations later, cheap as
> chips).
>
> It would, alas, be too much to think that Peter Costello would use the
> budget surplus, so accurately predicted, to underwrite the
> establishment of suitable economic circumstances allowing for a
> comprehensive national energy program development (a la Germany), in
> conjunction with a push on the necessary education programs to
> underwrite such. That would require vision, not something he, the
> government or Labor are renowned for.
>
> It appears at the moment that we have, through a failure of planning
> and government policy development , set ourselves up to having to
> consider nuclear power with some unseemly haste. Australia is one of
> the few western nations not to have a dedicated Minister for Energy.
> The Howard government (and Labor opposition) exemplify their approach
> to energy as one of casual attendance, if any at all, apparently
> relying on skewed advice, market responses and heads in the sand
> where, in fact, it should be the most senior of all ministries.
>
>
> Contact the writer: [email protected]

Peter Fray

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