No to Howard's nuclear madness

Friday, November 24, 2006

Below, Dr Jim Green, Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner, summarises the EnergyScience Coalition's critique of Ziggy Switkowski's Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review released on November 21.

The Switkowski report supports uranium mining and nuclear power but, for at least the medium term, rejects uranium conversion, uranium enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. It also all but ignores the original requirement to investigate the "business case" for establishing a repository to accept high-level nuclear waste from overseas.

The Switkowski report fails to properly account for the increasing environmental cost of uranium mining. This includes the magnitude of mine wastes, the long-term impacts on surface water and groundwater resources, the energy costs of extraction — which will invariably increase in the future for proposed mines — and the true life cycle of greenhouse emissions.

It falsely asserts that there are "well established plans" for rehabilitation at the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory. In fact, the current bond held by the Australian government is only one-fifth of the estimated cost of full rehabilitation for Ranger. For the Olympic Dam (Roxby Downs) mine in South Australia, the bond held by the SA government is only one-tenth of the estimated cost of rehabilitation. The Beverley and Honeymoon projects are not required to rehabilitate contaminated groundwater following mining.

The Switkowski report evades the issue of the large increases in greenhouse gas emissions from mining and milling uranium ore as the ore grade decreases from the current high-grade to low-grade over the next few decades.

Switkowski's recommendation to expand Australian uranium exports is irresponsible in today's political climate: the international non-proliferation regime is deeply flawed, pressures exist for nuclear weapons' proliferation, and Australian nuclear materials are increasingly likely to end up in weapons' programs.

By far the most significant and surprising aspect of the Switkowski report is that it pours cold water on the Howard government's enthusiasm for establishing a uranium enrichment industry in Australia. The report states that "there may be little real opportunity for Australian companies to extend profitably" into enrichment and that, "given the new investment and expansion plans under way around the world, the market looks to be reasonably well balanced in the medium term".

While the Prime Minister likes to compare uranium enrichment to value-adding in the wool industry, enrichment plants can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. The Switkowski report states: "The greatest proliferation risk arises from undeclared centrifuge enrichment plants capable of producing highly enriched uranium for use in weapons".

The major problem with the report is that it misses the point. The narrow terms of reference set by the federal government have restricted the Switkowski panel to a study of nuclear power, not a serious study of energy options for Australia.

A body of existing research indicates that the objectives of meeting energy demand and reducing greenhouse emissions can be met with a combination of renewable energy and gas to displace coal, combined with energy efficiency measures, without recourse to nuclear power.

But the Switkowski report asserts that: "Nuclear power is the least-cost low-emission technology". How can the Switkowski panel assert that nuclear is least-cost, when it has neither performed any analysis nor commissioned any on this topic? To the contrary, wind power is a lower cost, lower emission technology in both Britain and the US, and would also be lower cost in Australia.

The Switkowski report makes questionable assumptions that are highly favourable to nuclear power. In reality, nuclear power is likely to cost more than double coal power, and hence even more than wind power. Hot dry rock geothermal power should be commercially available within a decade and is likely to be less expensive than nuclear power as are some power stations burning biomass from existing crops and plantation forests.

There is no mention in the Switkowski report of the numerous studies that find that energy efficiency is two to seven times more cost-effective than nuclear power in reducing greenhouse emissions.

The report also fails to seriously address the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to sabotage resulting in catastrophic radiation emergencies. It is silent on known and quantified increased risks to workers in the nuclear industry, and on multiple reported and controversial clusters of childhood cancers and congenital malformations in the vicinity of nuclear reactors.

It notes that 25 power reactors would produce up to 45,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel, but is silent on the proliferation and security implications of the 450 tonnes of plutonium contained in that amount of spent fuel.

The report stresses the need for public acceptance of waste management proposals, but is silent on the federal government's draconian imposition of a nuclear dump in the Northern Territory. An expanded nuclear industry in Australia would very likely result in the further imposition of nuclear facilities on unwilling communities.

The Switkowski report floats the possibility of exporting spent nuclear fuel to the United States. In fact, the US has not the slightest intention of importing nuclear waste.

Switkowski was asked to investigate the "business case" for importing nuclear waste for disposal in Australia. The report dismisses waste import schemes with the following comment: "There are advocates of a significant international waste facility in Australia, citing commercial and geopolitical benefits. The Review found such proposals still need to resolve a number of questions."

Why does the Switkowski report fail to even pose the questions let alone answer them? During the inquiry, the PM announced that Australia would not accept overseas waste for disposal in Australia. Switkowski's secretariat was located in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Was political pressure exerted on Switkowski to ignore the terms of reference relating to importing high-level nuclear waste?

[The EnergyScience Coalition comprises academics and other nuclear and energy policy experts. Visit .]