Howard pushes for uranium enrichment


Doug Lorimer

On June 6, PM John Howard announced the appointment of former Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski, who is also a board member of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), to head a six-member task force to "review" Australia's uranium mining industry and the possibility of building nuclear power plants in Australia.

Australia's current involvement in the nuclear industry is limited to the mining and export of "yellowcake" (powderised uranium ore) and the operation of a small research reactor at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney. However, Australia has 40% of the world's known low-cost recoverable uranium reserves.

While promising that the task force would carry out an "objective, scientific and comprehensive" review, Howard argued that the establishment of nuclear power plants would be good for Australia's economy. "Energy prices and energy security are key considerations for future economic growth in a lower [carbon dioxide] emissions future", he said.

The review will begin this month, with a draft report planned for public consultation by November and the final report due by the end of the year.

The corporate media has focused on Howard's remarks since returning from Washington on May 19 about nuclear power being the solution to climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations. The government is most keen on massively expanding exports of Australian uranium, and adding value by turning the yellowcake into nuclear fuel rods. To do this, however, would require building a uranium enrichment plant.

"It doesn't seem to me to make a lot of sense to favour the export of uranium without looking at enrichment", Howard told ABC TV's June 3 Insiders program. "There is significant potential for Australia to increase and add value to our uranium extraction and exports", he repeated on June 6. He also noted that recent developments in global energy markets have renewed international interest in nuclear power as a technology that "can help meet growing demand for electricity without the fuel and environmental costs associated with oil and gas".

Australian Greens energy and climate change spokesperson Senator Christine Milne said that everything about Howard's announcement "points to enrichment of uranium as the prime minister's real agenda ... During his recent visit to the United States, Prime Minister Howard had talks in Washington with President [George] Bush about the president's desire to set up new nuclear fuel supply centres around the world with a view to having these supply centres enrich uranium and lease it with an agreement to take back the spent fuel rods."

The Bush administration is pushing a massive expansion of the nuclear power industry as the "best" solution to global warming. Last year, Bush won from the US Congress a host of "incentives" for the nuclear power industry, including tax breaks and insurance against regulatory and legal delays in constructing new plants. On May 22, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that 16 US corporations had expressed interest in building 25 nuclear reactors in the US.

Bush has also proposed that Australia and Canada — the world's major uranium exporting countries — join with the US to form a marketing cartel, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). They would enrich the uranium, then "rent" their nuclear fuel rods out to user countries and take back the waste.

According to the June 6 Australian Financial Review, before and during his visit to Washington, Howard was briefed by US officials about the role they expect Australia to play in the GNEP. This would involve "mining and enriching uranium at Olympic Dam in South Australia, exporting it to India and China via the Adelaide-Darwin rail line and re-importing the waste the same way for storage at the former nuclear test site at Maralinga ... The GNEP could create immediate profits for any private firm building an enrichment plant at or near the Olympic Dam uranium mine."

The Olympic Dam mine, owned and operated by BHP Billiton, holds the world's largest known uranium ore deposit, with about 66% of Australia's proven reserves. Under the Bush plan, Maralinga would become the world's principal site for dumping used nuclear fuel rods.

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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