An entrepreneur can either come up with a new idea or create a demand for an idea that already exists — and in the latter lies the key to the so-called nuclear power debate that the Prime Minister is striving to ignite, albeit in a highly tendentious manner.
A Newspoll in March indicated that long-held resistance to a fully fledged nuclear industry in Australia is weakening. Under the all too convenient guise of reducing Greenhouse emissions, the push by noted Kyoto sceptic John Howard is little more than a money-making scheme for his rich mates like Ron Walker.
Would, one wonders, the Prime Minister be so keen on pursuing the nuclear option under government rather than private control? After all, given the safety requirements of any nuclear operation, is it really something that should be left to private enterprise, with its focus on cost containment and profits rather than safety? One has only to look at the railways in Britain — once the world’s safest — and even the privatised suburban trains in Victoria and their braking problems to see how public safety is easily compromised in the relentless drive for profit and the satisfaction of shareholders.
Magnify this a few hundred times in the handling, processing and disposal of nuclear materials (not to mention the still intractable problem of nuclear waste) and the temptations to cut costs, no matter how strict the regulations, would be strong indeed, and the commensurate risks that much greater.
One does not have to look further than the AWB involvement in an international scandal — a classic example of commercial cowboy culture being applied to an area of public policy once contained and constrained by government agency regulations, apparently all jettisoned in the act of privatisation (and the Government, whatever its involvement, so conveniently at arm’s length).
Even with the existing limited mining of uranium in Australia, the safety risks are already apparent, as are unsafe or negligent practices along with alarmingly lax regulatory enforcement powers. It was only five years ago that concern over a series of incidents led the Senate to set up an inquiry into the environmental regulation of uranium mining.
The 2003 report cast grave doubts on the effectiveness of both self-regulation in the industry and the various legislative frameworks of Commonwealth, state and territory governments. The report, however, has had little effect, and its extensive recommendations have largely been shelved.
More than 130 reported leaks and spills have been reported at Ranger in the Northern Territory, and as recently as 2004, ERA pleaded guilty to three charges of having breached the Northern Territory Mining Management Act following a series of radiation accidents. The same year, workers at Ranger were exposed to drinking and washing water with uranium levels 400 times greater than the maximum Australian safety standard. In a separate incident, approximately 150,000 litres of contaminated water leaked into a feeder-creek system of Kakadu’s World Heritage listed wetlands.
In November 2004, the Commonwealth Government’s Supervising Scientist reported that a general inspection of the Ranger mill revealed “leaking pipes were common, valves were broken and corroded, temporary hose connections were present and the colour-coding of pipes was in many instances obscured by dust and grime”.
This sounds a long way from world’s best practice, which the Prime Minister would have us believe already applies in both industry behaviour and government environmental regulatory policing.
What passes for a nuclear debate — one with a largely predetermined outcome, like the farcical republican referendum — does not appear at any stage to have looked at the concept of public ownership as an option should Australia venture down the risky nuclear road.