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Nuclear power: don't 'minchin' the waste

By Jim Green - posted Friday, 18 December 2009

Will the Liberal Party blow itself up over nuclear power? Party leader Tony Abbott seems alert to the risks and his position is a definite maybe: "I'm not saying I'd never push it, it depends on the circumstances, but I'm not pushing it now," he said recently.

But Abbott will struggle to contain the enthusiasts in the Coalition - including quite a few who don't believe in climate change but want to solve it with nuclear power anyway. Abbott himself has flirted with that line of argument, taking pot-shots at people who are concerned about climate change but are also opposed to nuclear power.

There's no contradiction, as University of New South Wales academic Dr Mark Diesendorf recently pointed out: "The two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does."


Abbott is playing wedge politics, claiming that resources minister Martin Ferguson supports nuclear power. But Abbott is more likely to wedge himself, budgie smugglers and all: the Coalition is far more divided on nuclear power than the Labor Party.

For the moment, Abbott can distance himself from nuclear power while claiming he supports a debate on the issue. But early in the new year he will present a climate change policy which will either include or exclude nuclear power.

How will newly-appointed shadow energy minister Nick Minchin handle this contentious issue? Minchin has consistently argued against the development of nuclear power in Australia on economic and political grounds. In 2005, Minchin told a Liberal Party council meeting that "we must avoid being lumbered as the party that favours nuclear energy in this country" and that "we would be political mugs if we got sucked into this". The following year he said: "I think we could waste a lot of time and hot air debating nuclear power, when really it's just not going to be on the horizon economically for a very long time."

Minchin is alert to the political perils of dealing with the nuclear waste that would arise from a nuclear power program. If Ziggy Switkowski gets his way, 50 nuclear power reactors will be producing 1,500 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste in Australia each year and the uranium feeding them will be responsible for 36 million tonnes of low-level radioactive tailings waste each year.

Minchin was one of a succession of Howard government ministers in charge of the failed attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia from 1998-2004. He said: "My experience with dealing with just low-level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around the management of the high-level waste a nuclear reactor would produce."

Liberal Senator Judith Troeth said on ABC's 7.30 Report recently that high-level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants could be dumped in the Northern Territory. Several sites in the NT are currently being investigated for a national repository for low- and intermediate-level waste. The plan is being strongly contested by many Traditional Owners and other Territorians and the NT Parliament has passed legislation attempting to ban the imposition of a nuclear repository. Troeth's comments are likely to harden opposition.


In 2006, following a meeting with then US President George Bush, John Howard became a crazy-brave nuclear power convert. He said in Parliament that he wouldn't rule out nuclear power anywhere - and went on to list numerous electorates that might host a nuclear plant.

As the November 2007 election loomed closer, the Howard government tried to avoid mention of nuclear power, but the issue was bubbling away in local electorates. During the election campaign at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distanced themselves from the government's policy of supporting nuclear power.

Nuclear power supporters were furious when the Australia Institute released a report identifying the most likely locations for nuclear reactors; it was "childish" to talk about potential sites, said foreign minister Alexander Downer. In March 2007 Newspoll found that only 25 per cent of Australians would support a nuclear power plant being built near them.

Local communities were promised a right of veto over nuclear power plants by Howard - but only months earlier the government was seeking legal advice as to whether it could override state and local government opposition to nuclear power. The government's position also sat uneasily with its plan to override NT legislation banning the imposition of a national nuclear waste repository and legislation rammed through federal Parliament which gave the government the power to impose a dump on Aboriginal communities with no consultation or consent.

After the 2007 election, the Coalition quietly dropped its policy of supporting nuclear power. Very quietly - there was no announcement of the policy shift.

Minchin's sceptical attitude towards nuclear power will likely prevail with Tony Abbott but there will be an ongoing dispute within the Coalition and more than a few Coalition MPs and Senators will continue to publicly promote nuclear power. Ironically, the loudest will be climate change sceptics such as Barnaby Joyce and Western Australian MP Dennis Jensen.

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First published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on December 11, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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