Prime Minister Howard’s call for a “full-blooded” debate about nuclear power has unleashed a flood of dangerously deceptive propaganda about the capacity of Australian uranium to save the planet from global warming.
Nuclear power, whether fuelled by Australian uranium or not, will not peg back carbon emissions in the time or to the extent required. Large amounts of energy from hydrocarbons are needed to mine and enrich uranium. It also takes about ten years to plan and construct a nuclear reactor, and several more before it has “paid back” the carbon emissions generated in setting it up in the first place.
If nuclear power is to make any difference, it must massively substitute for coal and gas-fired generators right now.
But that will not happen. A number of countries plan to build new nuclear power plants, but nowhere near enough. Certainly the world’s two biggest emitters of hydrocarbons, China and India, are building several new nuclear reactors. But they are also building much larger numbers of coal and gas-fired plants.
India, for example, must bring on line a new 1,000 megawatt power plant every month for 10 years to maintain an 8 per cent growth rate. The ratio of nuclear power in India’s total electricity production may rise, but only from 2 to about 10 per cent of the whole. The remainder will continue to be generated by a mixture of coal, gas, hydro, with a tiny percentage based on new technology, including wind, biomass and solar.
Meanwhile, China plans to increase its contribution from nuclear power to only 4 per cent of total electricity generated by 2020, and renewable energy up to 12 per cent by the same target year
These matters will continue to be analysed as Howard’s debate develops, although his panel of nuclear experts is unlikely to recommend renewable sources of energy. Here, however, I will concentrate on another aspect of the nuclear issue that I believe should be given equal consideration: the international security implications of Australian uranium exports. For several reasons I believe that this is a particularly dangerous time for Australia to be contemplating increasing them.
First is the inability of Australian or international officials to trace with certainty where already-exported Australian originating nuclear material (AONM) has gone, and what it is used for. The quantities are not small. They include over 20,000 tonnes of natural uranium, 20,000 tonnes of enriched uranium, 50,000 tonnes of depleted uranium, and nearly 60 tonnes of plutonium - one of the two nuclear isotopes from which atomic bombs are made.
The original Australian safeguards conditions of 1977, based on the findings of the Ranger Uranium Inquiry initiated by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, were among the tightest in the world. But through years of commercial pressure and government back-down, they have been diluted to the point of ineffectiveness. Book transfers, flag swaps, the doctrine of equivalence and multi-labelling have seen to this. As well, customer countries have been allowed to enrich, transfer and reprocess AONM without strict case-by-case approval.
Nor are International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards a secure back-up. The agency doesn’t have enough funding to keep all the world’s civil reactors under tight surveillance, and even if it did, a number of countries deny access. For example, at last count (April 2006), China allows IAEA access to only one of its power reactors, one research reactor and one enrichment plant. This despite a previously inflexible rule that AONM must be subject to IAEA surveillance as well as Australian safeguards in all facilities in which it is used.
Second is the probability, sooner or later, of international nuclear terrorism, and the possibility that AONM will be used in it. This could take the form of an attack on a poorly-guarded nuclear reactor fuelled with Australian uranium, a radiological bomb using conventional explosives to scatter radioactive debris in urban areas, or the detonation of a simple atomic bomb smuggled into a major city and assembled in a basement.
In his recently-published book Nuclear Terrorism – the ultimate preventable catastrophe (Times Books, 2004), Harvard academic Graham Allison supports CIA estimates that more than 20 terrorist groups are currently pursuing such weapons. They include Russian Chechens, Hezbollah and Al-Qaida.