The release of the fourth assessment report by UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on February 2, and the dire predictions in it of the impact of global warming on Australia, was seized on by PM John Howard to push his "solutions" to global warming. These have less to do with saving the environment than protecting corporate profits, with the main prongs being defence of the coal mining companies and support for an expanded nuclear industry.
Speaking on ABC radio's AM program on February 3, federal minister for environment and water resources Malcolm Turnbull said: "Nuclear power is really the only, really, nil emission method of generating a base load for a big city." He added: "You cannot run Sydney or Melbourne on a series of windmills or solar panels."
The Howard government's push for a nuclear "solution" to global warming began in earnest last May when, after a visit to Washington, Howard called for a "full-blooded debate" on the use of nuclear power in Australia.
A few months later, Howard set up a nuclear taskforce composed of hand-picked pro-nuclear "experts", headed by retired astrophysicist and former Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski, to investigate the "economic viability" of establishing nuclear power plants in Australia. Not surprisingly, the panel's report, handed down in November, fully backed the government's pro-nuke views, calling for 25 nuclear power plants to be built by 2050.
Nukes no solution
However, even a cursory examination of the facts about nuclear power would convince any rational person that nuclear power cannot be a solution to climate change, nor much else.
While nuclear power plants themselves do not emit CO2, this is not the whole picture. The nuclear-power cycle involves numerous stages, all of which are energy-intensive — from mining and milling uranium ore, to uranium enrichment and fuel-rod fabrication. The production of electricity needed for these processes can generate large amounts of CO2.
Construction of nuclear power plants involves the use of large quantities of steel and concrete, production of which involves CO2 emissions.
Finally, there is the problem of reactor decommissioning and the treatment, storage, transport and disposal of nuclear waste.
Then there is the question of high- versus low-grade uranium ores. According to Greenpeace, some studies show that CO2 emissions from refining processes for high-grade uranium ore are about a third that of coal-fired electricity plants. However, for low-grade ore the advantages decrease significantly, as more electricity is needed to refine the uranium to a sufficient level, the CO2 emissions can be equal or more than those from conventional power plants.
At the current levels of consumption of uranium, high-grade ore deposits will only last for about 50 years. If many more nuclear power plants are built, these reserves will dwindle rapidly and low-grade ore will have to be used. Fifty years of reserves can't compare with renewable energy sources such as the sun, which will be a reliable source of energy for another 5 billion years.
Twenty five nuclear reactors would also produce up to 45,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel, including 450 tonnes of plutonium, the most toxic substances known. This waste, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years, has to be safely stored for eons. The release of large amounts of radioactive gas from a nuclear power accident or meltdown could threaten the health of millions of Australians. These problems never seem to warrant a mention in Howard's glowing accounts of nuclear power.
The massive water usage associated with nuclear-power generation is also glossed over. The February 4 Sydney Morning Herald reported on the results of research by the federal Parliamentary Library showing that nuclear power plants use up to 80% more water than conventional power stations. In the driest inhabited continent on Earth experiencing the worst drought in 1000 years, and with water shortages expected to worsen as global warming increases, the use of billions of litres of water to cool nuclear reactors highlights Howard's dangerously cavalier attitude toward the long-term sustainability of Australia's water needs.
Finally, it is generally acknowledged that the minimum waiting time for the first operational nuclear power plant would be at least 10 years, and some suggest it could be as long as 25 years. Many scientists warn that the next 10 years represents a crucial period to avoid catastrophic global warming. That time should not be spent waiting for the construction of dangerous and unsustainable nuclear power plants.
Unsurprisingly, most Australians are not convinced by the government's shoddy arguments in favour of nuclear power. A study published in January by the Australia Institute, Who Wants a Nuclear Power Plant?, noted that a Newspoll survey conducted in December showed that 50% of respondents opposed nuclear power, 35% were supportive and 15% uncommitted.
A poll of 1200 people, commissioned by the Australia Institute and conducted by Newspoll on December 8-10, asked whether respondents would be willing to have a nuclear power plant in their local area. The big majority (66%) were opposed, 25% supportive and 9% undecided.
The seemingly insurmountable safety, environmental and political problems associated with nuclear power have prompted some to ask whether the "full-blooded debate" is really a red herring.
Speaking to the National Press Club in December 2005, Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said: "I suspect the real motive of many who have called for a debate about nuclear power is to soften up the Australian people to accept a possible expansion of uranium mining", in particular, BHP Billiton's planned expansion of the Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia.
BHP is Australia's most profitable company, and recently announced a record half-year profit of $8 billion. Its profits have been made through the ruthless exploitation of Australia's natural resources and environment and through generous amounts of corporate welfare provided by state and federal governments.
According to a Friends of the Earth May 2006 briefing paper, the Olympic Dam mine uses 33 million litres of water each day (which BHP pays nothing for) and consumes a full 10% of South Australia's total electricity production, making it the biggest greenhouse-gas producer in the state. The mine has already produced 60 million tonnes of radioactive tailings and this is increasing by 10 million tonnes a year.
BHP stands to massively increase its profits, as well as its environmental impact, if the planned four-fold expansion of the mine goes ahead.
Ironically, Howard's key environmental policy initiative — the $8 billion plan to place the Murray-Darling Basin water resources under federal control — could result in BHP having to pay for the water it currently uses for free.
South Australian Premier Mike Rann's Labor government is currently lobbying Howard to contribute one third of funds to construct a desalination plant to provide BHP with an alternative source of water for its Olympic Dam mine (Rann has already committed his government to cover one third of the cost).
As well as using the nuclear power issue to split the ALP (which has an inconsistent position of supporting uranium mining, but not nuclear power), another motivation for playing the nuclear card is simply to stall the hard decisions that need to be made to move toward phasing out of operation Australia's super-profitable, and super-polluting, coal industry.
In the 2005-06 financial year, Australia exported 230 million tonnes of coal (half of it thermal coal for use in power plants), reaping BHP and a handful of other coal-mining companies earnings of $24.5 billion and making coal Australia's biggest export earner.
While the debate about climate change is bogged down in the irrelevant discussion about nuclear power, the coal industry is let off the hook, opening new mines, increasing production and allowing Australia's 24 coal-fired electricity stations to continue pouring 280 millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year (half of all Australia's emissions).
Turnbull's dismissal of the possibilities for using renewable energy sources is another indication of the irrational, profit-driven approach of the Howard government. In a February 7 interview on ABC TV's Lateline program, "Australian of the Year" and leading environmental scientist Tim Flannery, who has previously endorsed nuclear power, argued that there are "better options" than nuclear power for Australia. In particular, he highlighted the use of vast geothermal, or hot dry rock (HDR), resources in South Australia's Cooper Basin.
According to the September 9 Australian, the HDR in the Cooper Basin could be used to produce enough electricity to meet all of Australia's current consumption needs for 450 years, at a similar cost to natural gas but with no greenhouse-gas emissions.
One of the biggest challenges to the development of this resource is the ability to transmit the power across the country. Cooper Basin is about 500 kilometres from the nearest section of the national power grid and it would cost between $700-800 million to link up a HDR-driven power station to the grid.
Other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power are similarly proven but face the same challenge of securing substantial financial backing.
In his Lateline interview, Flannery noted that the scale of the global warming problem now necessitates massive government investment and management, akin to a war effort, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. He said: "When you are faced with a dire crisis … [economics are] not the first thing that we address. For example … [if] you've got a serious disease, you don't ask, 'How much is it going to cost me to get cured?' You ask, 'What are my chances of a cure and what do I do to make sure the cure happens?' That's the situation I feel we're in. We've got to address this issue, even if it means a sacrifice at this time for a better future."
Flannery also advocated the eventual shutting down of all coal-fired power stations, saying: "The social licence of coal to operate is rapidly being withdrawn globally, and no government can protect an industry from that sort of thing occurring. We've seen it with asbestos. We'll see it with coal."