I knew Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes during his activist days in Sydney — he knew nothing about uranium mining or nuclear power then, and it seems nothing has changed. His speech to the Sydney Institute last night comprised a string of howlers and detracts from informed debate.

Howes falsely claimed that nuclear power is undergoing a “renaissance”. In fact, nuclear power has been stagnant for the past 15 years. It accounted for 16% of global electricity generation in 2005, 15% in 2006 and 14% in 2007. The global fleet of reactors is middle-aged and the industry will be kept busy just maintaining current output over the coming 20-30 years let alone expanding output.

Howes promoted nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source, but even the Switkowski report found that six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia’s emissions by just 4% if they displaced coal-fired plants or just 2% if they displaced gas. Energy efficiency and conservations measures can generate much greater reductions, much more quickly and at a tiny fraction of the cost of nuclear power.

Howes stated that Australia’s share of the world’s uranium market is “greater than Saudi Arabia’s share in the planet’s oil”. However, the value of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports is 325 times greater than Australia’s uranium exports (which account for about one-fifth of global uranium demand). Even if factoring in a growth in demand and a sustained, high price for uranium, the comparison with Saudi Arabian oil exports would still miss the mark by a couple of orders of magnitude. A better comparison would be with Australia’s cheese exports. Cheese and uranium have been in an ongoing tussle for export value supremacy in recent years. Cheese is winning — and it tastes much better and can’t be used to produce weapons of mass destruction.

Howes provides a figure on the uranium resource at Olympic Dam which differs from BHP Billiton’s figure by an order of magnitude.

Howes claimed that the cost of nuclear power “is not significantly higher than current coal power generation”. But the Victorian Department of Infrastructure, the Energy Supply Association of Australia and the National Generators Forum all put the cost of nuclear power at 1.7 to 2.3 times the cost of power from coal plants.

Howes noted that Finland is building its fifth nuclear plant. He might also have noted that it is A$2.9 billion over budget, construction is 3.5 years behind schedule, and construction company Areva and Finnish utility TVO are locked in protracted dispute and arbitration over the project.

Howes pointed to new reactors being built in Europe. However, the 146 reactors operating in the EU is well down from the 177 reactors operating in 1989. Four reactors are under construction in the EU but dozens of reactors are ageing and are expected to go offline in the coming decade.

Howes detailed the findings of the Lenzen report without noting that it was funded by the industry-funded Australian Uranium Association.

Howes said that “international agreements, technology and the development of 4th Generation fusion reactors will lower … proliferation risks.”

However, Kevin Rudd has repeatedly warned about the “fracturing” of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. All existing and proposed nuclear fuel cycles pose WMD proliferation risks. Five of the ten countries to have produced nuclear weapons did so under cover of a ‘peaceful’ nuclear program.

Fusion power has yet to generate a single watt of useful electricity but it has already contributed to proliferation problems, e.g. in the 1980s when Iraq took advantage of an IAEA fusion training program to further its covert nuclear weapons program.

Howes referred approvingly to a nuclear waste dump in the Champagne region of France. In fact, it was revealed in 2006 that the nuclear dump had been contaminating groundwater — albeit at low levels — for 10 years as a result of a cracked waste storage container.

Howes falsely claimed that there have been millions of movements of nuclear materials and nuclear waste “with no accidents affecting people”. To give one example, Angela Merkel (now the German Chancellor) suspended nuclear waste shipments in Germany in 1997 after elevated radiation emissions and exposures.

Howes falsely claimed that a high-level nuclear waste repository project is underway in the USA. In fact, the Yucca Mountain project was a $10 billion fiasco which was 23 years behind schedule when President Obama permanently abandoned the project earlier this year. There is not a single repository for high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.

Howes proposed a domestic uranium enrichment industry without noting that BHP Billiton and the Switkowski report have unequivocally rejected that proposal on economic grounds, and without noting that the Howard and Rudd governments have been actively engaged in and supportive of international initiatives to stop the spread of enrichment technology because of its WMD proliferation potential.

Howes approvingly cites a claim that there are no credible nuclear-free scenarios for reducing greenhouse emissions. In fact, there are dozens of detailed reports which do just that.

Regurgitating industry propaganda might go down well at the Sydney Institute but it is no substitute for informed debate.

Dr Jim Green is a national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition.