Why did PM John Howard pre-empt his own inquiry, and a universal Australian corporate view that it makes no economic sense, to declare himself "very strongly" in favour of nuclear power last week?
His own answer was concern about global warming. Research published by the environmental movement, however, clearly shows that the burden of constructing and fuelling a rapid growth of nuclear power stations is a hugely energy-intensive activity, and that this energy will be provided mainly by burning coal or other hydrocarbons. That is, in the short- and medium-term, nuclear power uses energy to produce energy.
For Howard, the nuclear power argument works well at several levels, none of which have anything to do with concern for the environment.
1. Appearing to be doing something about global warming has become a political necessity. Recently accentuated weather patterns around the world are affecting Australia as the worst drought in a century hits.
2. The environmental claims of nuclear power are astounding, but if it is believed it will drive a huge wedge into the environmental movement. The nuclear industry claims that new and clean nuclear energy generation will be delivered within a few years, and that we have come a long way since Chernobyl. The reason that we have experienced only minor nuclear accidents since Chernobyl is that after that disaster the global nuclear power plant industry effectively shut down. Instead of the planned thousand or so new plants we have had almost none.
3. It gives Howard a free kick against Labor's hypocrisy. Labor defends the export of uranium, so to be consistent should support the rest of the nuclear cycle in Australia.
4. It sets the stage for the expansion of an Australian nuclear industry in the future. At present Australia has only limited infrastructure, such as scientists, engineers, research environments and training facilities, to seriously develop any of its nuclear options. These include nuclear power, uranium enrichment, nuclear weapons' production, nuclear waste reprocessing and nuclear waste storage. By proposing an industry in 10 years or so, the Howard government can begin funding of university departments and other necessary infrastructure today.
The prizes at the end of the path are large: a never-ending demand (well, until it runs out) for Australian uranium; massive short-term profits from importing fiendishly toxic radioactive waste; and even the option of Australia's own nuclear weapons. While this would make the government's recent criticism of North Korea even more hypocritical, the connection between an Australian nuclear power industry and Australian nuclear weapons has been considered at least since 1971.
The October 17 Australian Financial Review published an extract from a 1971 cabinet paper on this: "We consider that the opportunities for decision open to the Australian government in future would be enlarged if the lead time for the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability could be shortened. We recommend regard to this ... in the future development of Australia's nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes."
Of course there is a down side to Howard's approach:
Australia will be further contributing to nuclear proliferation, and the possibility of the end of humanity;
Australia will be contributing to the increase in radioactive exposure of the world's population, which is already resulting in ongoing damage to the human genetic pool, and creating global health damage;
Australia will be assisting in the creation of nuclear waste which must then be contained for tens of thousands or millions of years (there is no way of "disposing" of it); and
The real and urgent problem of global warming will be left unaddressed.
But these are long-term problems, for the next parliament or the next generation. Howard could never be accused of taking a long-term view.