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Now's not the time to battle phantom reactors
Now's not the time to battle phantom reactors
The combined forces of a massive earthquake, followed by a brutal tsunami, are in themselves unimaginably devastating. Thousands of people simply washed away - I struggle to comprehend the scale of the tragedy. The fact that in the wake of such calamity Japan and her neighbours are confronted with the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl only serves to illustrate the merciless nature of the risks inherent in nuclear power.
Even as the full extent of the compounded disasters continues to unfold before our eyes, there are many who are looking to revisit the debate around nuclear power in Australia.
But I'm not one of those.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suddenly in favour of reactors – I just don't think this is the time to talk about 'em. Much as some would like to leverage the worsening nuclear crisis in Japan to pre-empt the scheduled (threatened) debate over nuclear power at this year's ALP national conference, I am of the opinion that now is not an appropriate moment to be debating the detriments and disqualifications of the nuclear industry's “poison power”.
And I'm not the only one. Many prominent protagonists for nuclear power in Australia have suddenly silenced. Mining minister Martin Fergusson (last week dubbed ‘Fergoshima’ by some scallywag in his electorate) hasn’t made a peep since the first reports of radioactive leaks. In fact, his leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has been busily re-writing history, assuring voters that all Martin had ever called for was broadening Australian uranium exports. (Of course, the PM didn’t acknowledge that such a move was predicated on weakening standards and controls over those exports). In fact both the PM and her opposition counterpart were keen to insist, bare-faced, that neither party had a vision for a nuclear power reactors in Australia.
Of course, not all pro-nuke voices went quiet: some merely changed tune. While the politicians ran for cover, the industry advocates scrambled for new ground. Professor Barry Brook, a prolific, vocal and ambitious advocate for nuclear power, at first dismissed concerns over the reactors, before later admitting “my prediction that there is no credible risk of a serious accident has been proven quite wrong”. A few less circumspect apologists rolled out the same explanations and excuses that we heard 25 years ago (‘these reactors were an old design’, ‘local regulatory controls were below international standards’, ‘it could have been worse’). Meanwhile, Aussie uranium producers braced for the blow from the stockmarket, while dodging questions about just who supplied TEPCO with yellowcake anyway ...
But, most telling was long-term reactor fan Ziggy Switkowski, who decided honesty was the best policy, and glumly summed up the disaster as “a turning point for the industry.” Switkowski’s perspective is particularly interesting, given he was once commissioned by the former Howard government to run an inquiry that reviewed the prospects for nuclear energy in Australia.
So, why wouldn’t opponents of the nuclear industry act now, capitalise on the circumstances and finally put an end to any whisper of nuclear power for Australia?
Choosing our battles
Personally, I’ve never been interested in any national debate about reactors. With real minesr digging real uranium in the NT and SA; with real contaminated sites from bomb testing, bad mining and mad science experiments all around the country; and with the very real threat to impose an unwanted, open-ended nuclear waste dump on any of a number of disempowered remote communities around the country - discussions of fantasy reactors have always seemed a few steps removed from the real present nuclear threats facing Australia.
Sure, some politicians and industry advocates may be serious in their vision for Aussie reactors. But many, if not most, surely recognise that public debate over nuclear power is no more than a noisy spectacle. Useful for corralling voters (for or against), for illustrating other policy positions (be it ruthless pursuit of corporate profits or slavish support for the US nuclear alliance) or for distracting public attention from other, less well-scripted, concerns. But a credible precursor to real energy policy? Hardly.
Even the most vocal pro-nuclear politicians seemed to find more value in the process than the product of the nuclear debate. Former ‘nuclear powered’ PM Howard commissioned the Switkowski inquiry into Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy;. The report came back, predictably, supporting full immersion in all facets of the nuclear industry. But the only significant recommendations picked up were those to streamline processes and remove impediments to uranium mining. Howard routinely used the nuclear power debate to sow division among the ALP, and to demonstrate his ‘growth at all costs’ philosophy, but when it came to the crunch, he always understood that the main game for Australia was mining ore for yellowcake.
And so should we.
Australia is blessed with an abundance of energy resources - and cursed that rich deposits of uranium feature alongside our enviable wealth of renewable resources in wind, tides, hot rocks and bright sunlight. Australia bears the responsibility of custodianship for around 40% of the world’s viable fissile resource. 10% of world production comes from ERA’s Ranger Uranium mine alone.
Last night I watched Uranium Association chairman Michael Angwin squirm when questioned on TV about Australia’s role in fueling the current crisis. Both ERA, who operate Ranger mine within Kakadu National Park, and BHP, who run Olympic Dam in South Australia, have adopted the familiar NCND - Neither Confirm Nor Deny - policy, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’ and ‘security concerns’ to justify their reluctance to fess up. But with TEPCO on the public record as a consumer of Aussie uranium, we know that one, or both, of these suppliers may well have been the source of the uranium which has been at the centre of this month’s crisis.
In the wake of the Tsunami, as fires and explosions broke out in one reactor after another, old news resurfaced regarding falsified safety inspections and inadequate maintenance of TEPCO’s fleet of nuclear reactors. Some nuclear advocates pointed to the poor maintenance of aging reactor models as an explanation of the crisis. Presumably, this is meant to excuse new reactors that are better maintained. Yet in reality, these articles further condemned our uranium export regime. The reports of falsified safety records and slackened maintenance standards were not news: Australia had been well aware of these concerns for years, but in that spirit of ‘growth at all costs’ we continued to export the yellowcake irrespective of the operating standards of our customers. And despite these known issues, Japan’s reactor program may have been seen as a safer gamble than some of our other customers.
This blind-eye to operational standards is, to some extent, understandable. After all, once you start getting choosy, where do you draw the line? Last year, a Newspoll survey found that over 60% of Australians opposed the export of our uranium to nations that still cling to nuclear weapons. If we add to this blacklist those nations with sub-standard safety regimes, there’d be no-one left.
The Federal Labor Government has successively weakened Australia’s export controls, so that we now allow exports to China (who refuse to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and Russia (who even the Howard regime refused access to bomb fuel). More recently, Martin Fergoshima (catchy, isn’t it?) has pressured to further weaken Australian standards to open up nuclear trade with both India (who remain embroiled in a nuclear arms race with neighbouring Pakistan) and the United Arab Emirates. Alarming as these developments are, they merely illustrate the reality of an export regime predicated upon the wilful ignorance of the clear safety, security and public health risks inherent in this industry.
Backlash over Fukushima has literally wiped billions in value from the stock of uranium producing companies, and will almost certainly be the end of plans for new projects in the NT. Projects such as the Angela / Pamela deposits on the outskirts of Alice Springs, and the spoils of the old Rum Jungle uranium province that lies between the rural town of Batchelor and the popular Litchfield National Park, now seem very unlikely to proceed. Uncertainty over future demand, coupled with devaluation of mining stock, should conspire to ensure that new uranium projects will have a tough time generating investment dollars - at least here in the NT.
But despite this backlash, our big existing uranium mines are still in expansion mode. ERA’s Ranger mine in Kakadu is poised for two major expansion projects. ERA already have approval to build an underground shaft under the Magela Creek, which feeds the internationally listed wetlands downstream. This approval paves the way for obvious plans to convert the existing open cut operation into a larger underground mine. Another proposal, pending approval, would import an experimental technique for extracting uranium from lower grades of ore. Meanwhile, after many years of prevaricating, BHP continues to develop plans for an expansion that could see Olympic Dam grow into the world’s largest mine, with daily trainloads of uranium bearing ore planned to travel by rail to Darwin for the next 80 years.
These plans represent a precarious moment for the nuclear industry in Australia. Expansion of either of these mines would solidify our participation in the industry for decades to come. Once approval is granted, governments will find it very difficult to rein in an industry that’s become very used to having its way. But in the same way, failure to expedite expansion of these aging projects would have to get the major miners reconsidering their role in uranium mining in this country. Even before the Tsunami hit, investors spooked by the mounting water management crisis at Ranger, which has become so bad that it is interfering with production, were mumbling darkly. Back then, financial commentators were querying when Rio Tinto would cut off funds to ERA, precipitating a retirement of the site and commencement of the long road to rehabilitation. Post-Fukushima, ERA’s prospects are looking even dicier. This next twelve months could literally be make or break for ERA.
So no, now is not the time to focus on reactors. Australia doesn’t have any; we don’t build them anywhere else; they were never imminent. With more pressing nuclear threats on our doorstep, reactors shouldn’t monopolise our thinking on the industry. Sure, let’s make the most of the renewed attention and reawakened concerns about nukes. But in doing so, let’s not spend too much energy attacking phantom reactors. I'd rather leapfrog over any questions of hypothetical reactors to confront the reality of uranium mining. I don't know that we can do anything about earthquakes and tsunami, but we have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to act now to avoid the risk of another Fukushima.