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Nuclear Expansion: politics and deeper issues

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Anglican Communion Environmental NetworkAmid all the chatter over Australia's nuclear future in recent weeks was the lone voice of a clergyman. The chair of the Anglican Communion's International Environmental Network, Bishop George Browning, said there was a moral facet to the argument. If Australia was to expand exports of uranium to fuel the booming economies of China and India, the land down under also had an obligation to take back the waste.

The Anglican Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn says if China and India need to use nuclear energy, at least until they can find other more efficient and renewable energy sources, then Australia probably has an obligation to assist them.

Bishop George Browning'However, if we begin to sell we must act responsibly,' Bishop Browning says. 'Given that uranium ore can go astray, should we not take more moral responsibility for the destiny of the product by processing the rods here in Australia?'

'Given that we have one of the most geologically stable continents in the world, should we not also agree to store the waste? Moral responsibility almost certainly does not end when the raw product is sold.'

In business language, the concept is called "nuclear leasing".

One of its greatest proponents is Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile, who recently called on the government, and the general public, to keep an open mind on the issue. Mr Vaile has now been joined in the debate by a host of senior political figures, including Prime Minister John Howard. Mr Howard, who held talks on nuclear energy in Canada (the largest producer of uranium in the world, ahead of Australia) during his recent visit, says it is time for a national debate on the issue.

Nuclear Terror Threat'The scene on nuclear energy is going to change significantly in our country,' he said. 'The pressure for change is driven in part by environmental considerations, it's driven in part by the soaring price of fuel, it's driven in part by a realisation that confronting the problem of high energy pricing is one of the big economic challenges of nations such as Canada and Australia.'

'I want a full-blooded debate in Australia about this issue and I want all of the options on the table.'

It is uncertain just how serious the government is about nuclear power. If you talk to Federal Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane, you get a  decisive answer. He believes the government's energy white paper, released only 18 months ago,  will soon need rewriting to take in the possibility of nuclear power, given the  apparent change in public attitude.

'I think what is clear is that there needs to be a public debate on this and that, given the current circumstances, the opportunity is certainly with us to do something,' he says. The first plant could not get off the ground until at least 2020, he says, and only if an economic case could be proven. 'While there may be a debate and that may conclude nuclear energy is something that is acceptable to the Australian people, you still need a business case.'

But Finance Minister Nick Minchin is less confident of a quick answer. 'I'm a supporter of exporting our uranium under the safeguard arrangements we have and only to signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty,' he says.

'However, I don't really see much point to a discussion about nuclear power in this country at the moment, because I cannot see it will be economically viable for a very, very long time. We have some of the most abundant coal and gas reserves in the world and you'd have to tax them out of existence to make nuclear power viable.'

Treasurer Peter Costello has some sympathy with Senator Minchin, arguing nuclear power costs twice as much as coal power and that Australia was better off focusing on its proven resources of gas and coal, which some say will last at least another century.

Mr Costello's and Senator Minchin's argument has some backers in the Labor Party, including unions representing coal miners and Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, whose state benefits from billions of dollars in revenues from coal and is highly dependent on coal-fired power stations.

The Labor Party will debate expanding exports of uranium and nuclear power at its national conference next year. But its position is by no means clear - a sharp divide that the government is likely to exploit in coming years.

Opposition environment spokesman Anthony Albanese says it's not in Australia's interests. 'John Howard's nuclear fantasy is Australia's nightmare,' he told reporters at a recent media conference. Intractable problems with nuclear energy when it comes to economic costs, safety, disposal of waste and contribution to nuclear proliferation remain up to some 50 years."

From an electoral point of view, Mr Albanese argues it is important the Labor keep the faith with its left-leaning supporters, the green lobby and the anti-nuclear peace movement.

Premiers such as Mr Beattie, argue that making coal "cleaner", while investing in a mix of renewable energy resources such as solar and wind, may be a better alternative.

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley is adamant a Labor government would not support a nuclear power station, but he is holding his cards close to his chest on more uranium mines. He says it is up to the party's national conference to determine any change in Labor policy - which currently bans any new uranium mines. Labor resources spokesman Martin Ferguson says the party should not paint itself in a corner when it came to the debate.

'Nuclear power is a fact of life in countries outside Australia, but economically it doesn't stack up in Australia ... [but] anybody who says there is not a debate about it is just plain stupid,' he says.

He argues it also makes economic sense - and that means jobs - for Australia to take advantage of high prices being paid for uranium - which has risen from $US6.70 a pound five years ago to just over $US40 a pound today. What needs to happen now is some independent, scientific and economic assessment of the prospects of nuclear power, on a global scale, as well as a thorough and well argued moral debate.

Already there are signs that the environmental aspects of nuclear power are being overstated. It is blatantly obvious that reducing the number of coal-fired power stations will cut greenhouse gases. But scientists have argued even if there was a doubling of global nuclear energy output by 2050, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent.

And then there is the difficult question of how to store high-level nuclear waste - something even the greatest minds on the planet are having trouble with, given that it must be tucked away for about 250,000 years to be on the safe side.

As for the moral argument, Bishop Browning raises one aspect of it, but it is obviously much more complex.

Should we export uranium at all? Should we lock up the reserves and declare Australia nuclear free - setting an example to the rest of the world? What is Australia's moral responsibility when a country suddenly turns around and wants to use material from nuclear processes, fuelled by Australian uranium, for weapons?

The debate still has a long way to go, but there is an electrifying change in the air which all Australians should heed.



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Existing comments

I agree with the Bishop. Exporting uranium is morally wrong because we ignore the storing and long term problems nuclear waste involves. I wonder why countries in the Middle East which experience many sunny days and quite possibly lots of wind don't invest in alternative power. Further I think Australia should lead the way. A suggestion I have tought of is subsiding solar roof grids for house owners and businesses where appropriate. If enough take up the offer, there could be a great excess of electricity fed back to the main grids and this may eliminate the need for further power stations. Just a thought.

susan miles | 31 May 2006  

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