John Howard’s inquiry into nuclear power
is a “radioactive red herring – for two reasons,” Peter Hartcher comments in The
SMH
today.
“First was its conception. The Prime Minister announced his intention to call
the inquiry during a trip to Canada.
Why? Because he faced growing criticism that his 12-day tour was an indulgence,
and because he was anxious to change the subject of national conversation. Second,
the inquiry does not address the real national policy problems. Australia,
one of the world’s great energy exporters, does not have an energy shortage.”

True – but is this level of analysis, as
much as the debate itself, a red herring? It’s not as if nuclear is a new issue. Brendan Nelson, the then science minister,
spoke out in favour of nuclear power 12 months ago:

The
Howard government has invested $1.8 billion in its climate change strategy. At
least a further billion dollars is leveraged from the private sector in low
emission technologies, photovoltaics and renewable energies. But
in addition to this, is it not time to consider in the longer term the most
obvious power source, nuclear power?

For a
million years CO2 levels were between 200 and 300 parts per million. They have
risen to 380 ppm in 150 years. Although
much hysteria surrounds global warming, it pales into insignificance compared
to that surrounding nuclear power.

We
are a part of the nuclear cycle. About a third of the world’s uranium is at
Olympic Dam in South Australia. As Australia’s science minister I have
had to deal with the crippling parochialism of the South Australian government
refusing to allow the safe storage of low level waste at Woomera. Now it is
making arrangements to store its own low and medium level waste in South Australia.

Simultaneously
the same government enthusiastically eyes the economic potential of its massive
uranium deposits. Australia already accounts for 19%
of global uranium production earning us $427 million in 2002-03… Some
people seem happy to tuck themselves into bed at night comfortable in the
knowledge that we earn money from exporting uranium and that it generates power
in an environmentally friendly way. But they will then man the barricades if
any by-products are to be shipped and stored, let alone be even considered a
future fuel source here at home…

“Australia
has an advantage as an exporter of fossil fuels,” Hartcher says. “They account
for a quarter of exports; it is how we make our living in the world. Our
uranium exports are worth 2% as much. Howard stridently defended Australia’s
vast fossil fuels industry in the Kyoto debate. He needs to defend this interest now by advocating
technologies that will improve the cleanliness and viability of fossil fuels.”

And will that be the happy compromise that
results from all of this?

Will we see increased uranium mining – but
is this really all about a “rediscovery” of what we can do from existing energy
sources and a massive assault on Kyoto and its political supporters in Labor
and the minor parties?

Peter Fray

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