Australia faces a moment of truth with regard to its uranium reserves.
Media coverage of the Switkowski report into Australia’s nuclear future concentrated on one startling option: the possible development of up to 25 nuclear power stations in Australia by the year 2050.
Quite apart from Australia’s chronic and worsening balance of payments deficit, which has pushed the country’s foreign debt over the $500 billion mark, there are other important reasons why Australia faces a moment of truth with regard to its uranium reserves.
For the past 30 years, Australia has strictly limited uranium exports, despite the fact that we have about 40 per cent of the world’s easily recoverable uranium oxide, the necessary mineral for most of the world’s nuclear power industry.
Soaring prices of alternative fuels, particularly coal (which is used not only for electricity generation but is an essential ingredient in steel-making), as well as uncertainty over future supplies of petroleum and natural gas, have made nuclear power far more economically feasible and politically attractive around the world.
Fears that the world will run out of carbon-based energy sources have also fuelled the nuclear debate internationally, particularly as some types of nuclear power stations (fast-breeder reactors) can produce more nuclear fuel than they consume, so that they generate both electricity and more radioactive fuel.
Additionally, nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, and is therefore seen by some people, including the Prime Minister, as the solution to widely-expressed concerns about the greenhouse effect and global warming, caused by rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
As far as the development of nuclear power stations in Australia is concerned, the Switkowski report made clear that, for Australia, nuclear power is at least 50 per cent more expensive than the cheapest alternative, coal, and can be justified only if the prices of carbon-based fuels are artificially inflated by carbon taxes and the like.
(Other countries such as Japan and France, which have virtually no coal, find nuclear power a feasible alternative at the present time, and most of their electricity is now produced from nuclear power.)
It may be that the Federal Government’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy is not so much prompted by concern about global warming – on which John Howard, at least, is a sceptic – but is based on the potentially huge revenue stream which will accrue from carbon taxes on coal and petroleum, and which will dwarf even the GST.
The burden of such taxes will not be felt by the rich who can afford them, or corporations which will pass them on in higher prices, but by the poor, the farmers and small businesses.
In the present debate, the real danger is that decisions will be reached on the basis of imponderables such as global warming – on which scientific opinion remains deeply divided, where Australia’s actions are almost completely irrelevant to the global output of CO2, and where the energy requirements of countries such as China and India and many other developing countries are such that nothing can or will be done in the foreseeable future anyhow.
If Australia can do nothing about global CO2 emissions, the argument for nuclear power stations in Australia collapses. In fact, to meet rising demand for electricity we should be expanding power stations fuelled by coal, which remains abundant in most parts of Australia and which has become a relatively clean source of energy as a result of technological improvements over the past 30 years.
There are, in fact, at least six separate nuclear options open to Australia:
• expanding Australia’s uranium mines,
• “value-adding” uranium oxide through chemical processing,
• uranium enrichment and producing nuclear fuel rods for overseas reactors,
• reprocessing of nuclear wastes from Australia and overseas,
• waste storage, and
• developing nuclear power reactors.
Every one of these deserves at least as much attention as the establishment of nuclear power stations in Australia.
Significant uranium deposits have been discovered in most states of Australia, and could be developed to produce uranium oxide with little effort. The current “three mines” policy – which has been in place since the 1970s as a trade-off to appease the anti-nuclear lobby and to minimise the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation – is now irrelevant because of international and Australian safeguards.
(In any case, uranium is now readily available on world markets, with far fewer safeguards than Australia imposes on countries which it supplies.)
The current policy should be abandoned in favour of an orderly marketing arrangement to make Australia’s uranium available to the world.
In the meantime, an expert committee consisting of leading Australian industrialists, nuclear scientists and overseas experts, should examine in detail the other options, including uranium enrichment, reprocessing, waste storage, and the development of alternative nuclear energy sources, particularly thorium, which Australia also has in abundance.
– Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.