Martin Ferguson and the nuclear debate


Jim Green

Labor's resources spokesperson Martin Ferguson is leading the charge for the ALP to drop its opposition to new uranium mines. This is despite the fact that a recent Newspoll found that 78% of ALP voters, and 53% of Coalition voters, oppose more uranium mines.

A number of Ferguson's arguments in favour of new uranium mines are circular. He argues that with or without a change of ALP policy, Australia is likely to become the world's largest uranium supplier with the planned expansion of the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia.

That is true, but it's hardly an argument for supporting new uranium mines. Ferguson ignores the options of phasing out, or immediately stopping, the uranium mining and export industry. He argues instead that Labor's no-new-mines policy is "half pregnant" and illogical. But it is logical as a phase-out policy which avoids potential legal challenges and compensation claims that would arise if a future Labor government immediately stopped uranium mining.

Ferguson claims that the existing policy discriminates in favour of existing uranium mining companies and against other potential uranium miners. He ignores the option of levelling the playing field by putting an end to uranium mining altogether.

In a March 20 briefing paper, which Ferguson is circulating within the ALP and to trade unions, he states: "State and Territory Labor governments which have knowingly allowed uranium exploration, will come under pressure to allow the development of discoveries within the next few years: if they reject mining applications, it will raise questions about sovereign risk for mining investors in Australia."

But uranium exploration companies are well aware of Labor's policy of opposition to new uranium mines. Labor state governments or a future Labor federal government face no legal risk. Further, state Labor governments could put an end to the current situation whereby they allow, and sometimes subsidise, uranium exploration.

Clean energy options

In the January 13 Australian, Ferguson stated that, "Abandoning traditional base load power in favour of renewables would result in an indefinite global economic depression condemning hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people to starvation".

Rubbish. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concedes that small-scale renewable energy sources are the most appropriate options for the billions of people living in rural areas of Third World countries. A phased transition from dirty and dangerous energy sources — fossil fuel and nuclear power — to renewable energy sources can be achieved at modest cost. While the costs will accrue over the decades, renewables are in some cases cheaper than the dirty and dangerous energy sources (especially if externalities are accounted for), and the expense of renewables can be off set by savings made through energy efficiency and conservation measures.

A vast body of research gives the lie to Ferguson's claims on the economics of clean energy.

For example:

  • A 2003 report from AEA Technology to the UK Department of Trade and Industry calculates that annual abatement costs of about 0.5% GDP will suffice to achieve greenhouse emissions reductions of 60-70%, and that over a 50-year period annual growth of GDP will only be reduced by about 0.01% p.a.

  • The Australian Ministerial Council on Energy has identified that energy consumption in the manufacturing, commercial and residential sectors could be reduced by 20-30% with the adoption of commercially available technologies with an average payback of four years.

  • Energy efficiency measures are shown in a US study to deliver almost seven times the greenhouse gas emissions reductions as nuclear power per dollar invested.

  • A May study by AGL, Frontier Economics and the World Wide Fund-Australia shows that Australians could pay as little as $250 each — or 43 cents per week per person over 24 years — to achieve a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity industry by 2030.

Ferguson frequently cites growing energy demand in China and the Chinese regime's plan to expand nuclear power. In fact, it is planning to increase nuclear's share of electricity generation from 2% to 4% and to increase the share of renewables to 15%. Wouldn't it make sense to encourage China to abandon its nuclear expansion plan and to increase its renewables target to 17% instead?

Social and environmental impacts

Ferguson has been largely silent on the negative impacts of uranium mining on Aboriginal communities. At a public debate in Melbourne on June 5, he was repeatedly asked to explain what he intends to do to redress the indefensible situation whereby the Roxby Downs mine is exempt from the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act. He avoided the question.

In his March 20 paper, Ferguson states that, "Not all uranium suppliers enforce the same world class safety and environmental standards as Australian State and Territory Governments".

But the safety and environmental standards at Australia's uranium mines are inadequate. The Roxby Indenture Act, which exempts Roxby Downs from the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act, also exempts the mine from the South Australian Environmental Protection Act and the Water Resources Act.

A 2003 report by the Senate References and Legislation Committee, endorsed by the ALP committee members, found "a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance" in the uranium mining industry. It also identified "many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment", and it concluded that changes were necessary "to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage".

It's difficult to understand Ferguson's promotion of the nuclear industry given that he is well aware of the intractable waste management problems. In a speech to a uranium conference on October 11, 2005, he said: "We do not even have a solution for the safe disposal of low and intermediate level nuclear waste generated in our own country, let alone a clear view of the solution for high level nuclear waste generated around the globe from nuclear power operations."

In his March 20 paper, Ferguson states Australia "has the opportunity to lead the world as a responsible supplier of uranium for peaceful purposes" by, among other things, "stewarding uranium from cradle to grave". It's hard to know what he means other than Australia accepting high-level nuclear waste produced in nuclear power reactors around the world, in particular from countries using Australian uranium.

Export revenue and jobs

Ferguson also states that, "States and Territories, particularly South Australia and the Northern Territory, are dependent on new mines, including uranium, for future jobs, economic growth, exports and revenue".

No they aren't. Uranium exports account for less than one half of 1% of Australia's export revenue. Even with the proposed tripling of uranium production at Roxby Downs (which will double Australia's overall exports from the current level of 10-12,000 tonnes annually), it is highly unlikely that uranium would account for more than 1% of export revenue.

Ferguson argues that permitting new uranium mines will allow unions like the Australian Workers Union to pursue coverage and ensure mines are world class, open up more mining jobs for members, and ensure the safety of workers.

Uranium mining makes even less of a contribution to employment than it does to export revenue. Uranium mining companies are notoriously anti-union. There is limited union coverage of uranium industry workers, and none at all at Roxby Downs.

There will be more jobs — and safer and unionised jobs — by pursuing a clean energy future. As Neale Towart wrote in Workers Online in February: "For workers, the scope for decent and rewarding work in the renewables sector far outstrips the potential employment in the current energy industry regime. Job creation in Europe through various renewable energy scenarios developed in 2002 show the vast potential. Greener energy sources in general employ far more people than more polluting sources. Nuclear power sustains around one sixth of the jobs sustained by wind energy, per unit of power produced. Wind energy is four times better than coal at sustaining jobs."

Nuclear weapons' proliferation

At the June 5 debate, Ferguson conceded that there are many serious problems with the IAEA's safeguards inspection system, which attempts to prevent the military use of ostensibly peaceful nuclear facilities and materials.

There are several sets of problems with the IAEA's safeguards system:

  • A range of technical and practical problems, such as the routine accounting discrepancies arising from factors such as the unavoidable imprecision in estimating the rate of production of plutonium in nuclear power reactors.

  • The safeguards system is chronically under resourced. IAEA director-general Dr Mohamed ElBaradei recently complained that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department".

  • According to ElBaradei, the IAEA's basic safeguards inspection rights are "fairly limited" and the system "clearly needs reinforcement", and he has complained about "half-hearted" efforts to strengthen the safeguards system.

  • The NPT enshrines an "inalienable right" of member states to all "civil" nuclear technologies, including dual-use technologies with both peaceful and military applications. In other words, the NPT enshrines the "right" to develop a nuclear weapons "threshold" or "breakout" capability.

Ferguson did not challenge these arguments, so it's difficult to see how he can support Australia's uranium export industry.

Ferguson said last August 23 that "Australia is one of the most responsible exporters of uranium in the world". But Australia's uranium is as likely to be diverted to the production of weapons of mass destruction as any other country's uranium. All uranium exporting countries are entirely reliant on the inadequate and under-resourced safeguards inspection system of the IAEA.

[Jim Green is an anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth. See the new FoE publication, Yellowcake Country: Australia's Uranium Industry, at <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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