2005 has seen the Federal Government reverse its position on climate change, accepting that its impact is severe and serious, and that fast action is imperative.
But the government has diverted attention away from real solutions and Australia’s poor performance on curbing emissions by insisting that Australia consider domestic nuclear power generation. In short, the government proposes something which is currently illegal, inordinately expensive, relying on government-subsidised capital investments and too slow to respond to the immediate challenge of climate change. Now Brendan Nelson and Ian Macfarlane (science and industry and resources ministers) want to waste more time and money on a high level inquiry into the feasibility of a nuclear power industry in Australia.
The nuclear debate has been based on a false claim: that nuclear power is “greenhouse-free”. Significant emissions are produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle - nuclear power can only reduce greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with fossil fuels, rather than renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. As a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is further limited because it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which is responsible for less than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. A doubling of nuclear power output by 2050 would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about five per cent - less than one tenth of the reductions required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Nuclear power relies on an exhaustible energy source. High-grade, low-cost uranium ores are limited and will be exhausted in about 50 years at the current rate of consumption. The estimated total of all conventional uranium reserves is thought to be sufficient for about 200 years at the current rate of consumption. But in a scenario of nuclear expansion, these reserves will be depleted more rapidly. Most of the Earth's uranium is found in very poor grade ores, and recovery of uranium from these ores is likely to be considerably more greenhouse intensive.
And to this problem we must add the risk of accidents at nuclear plants; routine releases of radioactive gases and liquids, the intractable problem of nuclear waste and risks of terrorism and sabotage.
Safety concerns at reactors are not limited to the ex-Soviet states. For example, the Japanese nuclear power industry has been in turmoil since revelations in August 2002 of 29 cases of false reporting on the inspections of cracks in numerous reactors. There have also been a number of serious accidents, some of them fatal, at nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities in Japan in the past decade.
Commercial pressures and inadequate regulation have clearly played some part in the flawed safety standards in Japan. Such pressures are by no means unique to Japan; they will intensify if liberalisation of electricity markets proceeds.
Furthermore, there’s another hazard associated with nuclear power expansion on a global scale and it’s of such concern that alone it must lead to a rejection of the nuclear proposal. As the government plans to increase Australian uranium exports, it’s time we considered the established pattern of “peaceful” nuclear facilities being used for nuclear weapons research and production.
The proliferation problem is profound:
of the 60 countries which have built nuclear power or research reactors, over 20 are known to have used their “peaceful” nuclear facilities for covert weapons research and or production;
four or five countries have produced nuclear arsenals under cover of a “peaceful” nuclear program - Israel, India, South Africa, Pakistan, and possibly North Korea. Others have come close - most notably Iraq from the 1970s until the 1991 Gulf War;
nuclear power programs also provide pools of expertise for weapons programs in the five major nuclear weapons states - the US, Russia, the UK, France and China. These five countries account for almost 60 per cent of global nuclear power output;
the “peaceful” nuclear power industry has produced sufficient plutonium to produce about 160,000 nuclear weapons, each with a yield similar to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If 99 per cent of this plutonium is indefinitely safeguarded against military use - a monumental challenge - the remaining plutonium would suffice to produce 1,600 nuclear weapons. Australian uranium has resulted in the production of over 78 tonnes of plutonium - sufficient for about 7,800 nuclear weapons, and
the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has considered a scenario involving a ten-fold increase in nuclear power over this century and calculated that this could produce 50,000 - 100,000 tonnes of plutonium. The IPCC concluded that the security threat would be "colossal".
The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards system still suffers from flaws and limitations despite improvements over the past decade. Statements from the IAEA and US President George W. Bush about the need to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology and to establish multinational control over sensitive nuclear facilities, are an effective acknowledgement of the limitations of the international non-proliferation system.
The NPT enshrines an “inalienable right” of member states to all “civil” nuclear technologies, including dual-use technologies with both peaceful and military capabilities. In other words, the NPT enshrines the “right” to develop a nuclear weapons threshold or breakout capability.
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.