Aug 19, 2009

Paul Howes’ u-propaganda is radioactive

Regurgitating industry propaganda might go down well at the Sydney Institute but it is no substitute for informed debate on nuclear power, writes Jim Green.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Paul Howes’ u-propaganda is radioactive

  1. Roger Clifton

    If this sort of rhetoric work were instead applied to eliminating carbon power, we might avoid a more dreadful future that is becoming increasingly certain. Where have all our environmentalists been when we need them? Could it be that they have been accepting money from the gas industry?

    If the world’s environmental groups were to apply the courage of their convictions to rejecting funding from the fossil fuels industries, an entirely different rhetoric might emerge. Yes, “fossil fuels” does include gas.

  2. paddy

    “Cheese is winning”. Yay!!!
    Wallace *will* be pleased. 🙂

  3. Evan Beaver

    I think there’a technical problem around the middle there.

    Jim refers to ‘4th generation FUSION’ reactors are yet to generate a single watt of useful power, presumably following Howes similar error.

    The 4th Gen reactors usually referred to are the 4th Gen FISSION reactors, or so called “fast breeders”. These reactors have the advantage of ‘burning’ different fuels and consuming the fuels that could be used to create nuclear bombs. They also ‘fail safe’ and are not susceptible to the run away reactions that caused Chernobyl to let go. As far as I know 4th Gen reactors are not commercially operating just yet.

    FUSION power is entirely experimental and probably 25 years away from even a demonstration plant. But goodness, if we crack that one, a lot of problems will vanish.

    None of this explains why people keep banging on about a nuclear industry in Australia. The Switkowski report was in my opinion pretty unequivocal on the topic; more expensive, too slow to be implemented and negligible CO2 savings. Further, it’s politically impossible. Sqitkowski advocated 15-25 reactors would be required to make the system cost effective; which party would go to an election with a “20 nuclear reactor” policy???

  4. Liz45

    ROGER CLIFTON – Like Dr Jim Green, we’ve been around for years. But experts like Jim have been overlooked by those with other barrows to push. I also understand, that if all other methods of providing electricity were changed over to nuclear, the available uranium would last less than 20 years. Then we’d have to look for alternatives – wouldn’t it be smart to do that first? Also, when the cost of nuclear power is quoted by pro people, they don’t include the costs of security (police to accompany transport or uranium and waste); transport; health or ill health of uranium miners; damage to the environment (or cleaning up the mess?); the fact that a third of the energy in a nuclear power plant is wasted via evaporation(into the air?); uses heaps of water per hour; and the dismantling of nuclear reactors usually has to involve government finances, that is our money! The cost is usually underestimated, and the end cost is huge. Even then, you can’t just build a sports field where a nuclear reactor has been?

    There’s no safe storage of high level radioactive materials anywhere in the world. The storage on site/s is building up each year, and it’s a wonder there hasn’t been another serious ‘incident’ with the dangers of Chernobyl. The recent practice of the US in using depleted uranium in bombs is just horrific. There’s plenty of evidence of increases in birth deformities and cancers in many countries in recent years, and will only grow in the future – it’s just horrific – Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia etc.The way our cities and towns are organised around this country means that the nuclear plants would be situated close to communities – they require access to large sources of water. Port Kembla, in the Illawarra, NSW, has been given as a possible site for a reactor? What? Next to Blue Scope Steel or the oil storage depots? Great stuff! We’ve already had a serious incident some time ago that thankfully didn’t involve a nuclear reactor, but a man died, and it was a very serious situation for some hours. The site was removed of all workers? One of my sons was working in the area, and it was frightening! We have a serious shortage of water, it’s just ridiculous to engage in any activity that would worsen this situation.

    The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is in need of a serious overhaul. We have a situation where some countries have nuclear weapons without any accountability(Israel, Pakistan and India) but countries who’ve signed the Treaty, and have the right to enrich uranium for power generation are threatened with military action(Iran)? Pakistan gained their facilities some years ago, and even though a senior person sold materials and gave information to other people/countries, because it was useful and a ‘friend’ of the US, very little happened. Now we have a situation where those who we purport to be fighting against(Taliban & Al Qaeda)could get their hands on nuclear weapons in that country.Scary stuff!Iran was offered nuclear weapon information and assistance when the US ‘planted’ the Shah to power – thank goodness it didn’t happen!

    Paul Howes can’t give any guarantee, that those who have access to nuclear materials today, will be the same people in power in a few years time; but more importantly, there’s no guarantee that they can be trusted anyway? It’s irresponsible to even contemplate putting more dangerous radioactive materials into the environment, when the amount there now is almost at crisis point; to take a chance on these materials being lost or stolen(plenty of incidents in the past); that there’ll be no long term damage to either humans or other life, either flora or fauna; that companies can be trusted to clean up their mess, and that governments can be trusted to tell the people the truth. I recall during the Howard Govt, when the then Minister, Julie Bishop was asked many times about the alleged leaks from Lucas Heights. She had to be ‘dragged’ to the despatch box with a half answer, which ultimately meant – yes! It took weeks!

    When all these factors are taken into account, coupled with the fact that the source of nuclear power won’t last forever; that solar power for base load use is perhaps only a few years away, it would be madness to even entertain the idea of nuclear power. There’s enough energy derived via the sun in this country in one day, to supply the world’s energy needs for one year. (Professor IanLowe, ACF 7.30Report ‘o7?)If I had my way, there’d be no uranium mines in the country. Leave the damned stuff in the ground, and slowly close down nuclear reactors for solar or wind or ??When Bob Hawke gave the green light to another uranium mine in the 80’s, he gave the ‘middle finger’ to the hard working and committed members of the ALP – I never went to another meeting, nor did I work on a polling booth again! Such was my disgust with his arrogance over ‘no more uranium mines’ policy that had taken years to bring about!

  5. Jim Green

    No point responding to the sillier comments typically made on these website discussion sites but I will note that Friends of the Earth gets no funding from any fossil fuel industries. To the best of my knowledge we get no funding from any industries whatsoever.
    Evan B – yes, Howes is confused about ‘4th generation’ nuclear power. Articles on 4th generation fission posted at

  6. asdusty

    It has to be remembered that Paul Howes is just a meat puppet for the Right of the Labor Party (oh how I wish those mongrels would just bugger off and join the Liberal Party – Thats where they really want to be!), and the Right have just realised how much MONEY can be made for them and their mates by hopping into bed with the Nuclear lobby. You will be seeing more from members of the right advocating Australia build nuclear reactors, just so they can feather their own nests. Any other explanation just doesnt make sense. Until Australia explores every possible avenue other than nuclear we simply shouldnt be having this debate. Why is it not law that every home has to have solar electricity panels installed? What happened to the subsidy to purchase solar panels? Why is a population based nearly exclusively on the coast not investing in wave/tidal power generation? Without seriously exploring all the alternative, renewable sources of power any discussion of nuclear will be just a desire for a few to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest, and our children.

  7. john2066

    I’m as green as they come, but the arguments against nuclear power as expressed in this article are rubbish.

    – There is a nuclear planning and building boom at the moment in the world. Its true that the current share of nuclear power is declining slightly, but the amount of nuclear thats about to come on board is quite large.

    – The comparison Paul Howes makes between Australia and Saudi Arabia is valid – he is talking about the PROPORTION of exports that we have, which is roughly analogous

    – I agree with comments about that the 4th generation reactors, these are extremely safe and can be rolled out in a standardized way.

    – Its really really tragic, with global warming accelerating around the world, that so many greens have turned their backs on the genuine clean baseload power solution we have – nuclear power. In fact, on going to many green rallies I know that many people secretly do think nuclear is valid, but are afraid to speak out because of the luddite way its been stigamatized in the green community. Its really time to grow up and welcome nuclear power.

  8. Roger Clifton

    I thank Liz45 for laying out some of the public concerns about nuclear. If the questions can be spelled out, the answers can also be brought out into the open.

    The question of limits of uranium resources I can answer immediately. Uranium is plentiful. (Search for “availability of uranium deposits”). Unfortunately, hydrocarbons are also available in overwhelming supply. Even oil can be made from coal, with yet more CO2 emission.

    The problem is not with our inputs but with our outputs. The article tries to terrify us with visions of radioactive pollution amounting to a small variation in natural radioactivity. At the same time, there is already 1.6 kg of CO2 pollution above every square metre. There is plenty of room to store spent fuel, but the atmosphere is full!

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