Renewables now! Nuclear not an option

Protesters against storing nuclear waste at Muckaty outside Parliament House in Darwin in 2011.

The radioactive exposure tour — the RadTour — organised by Friends of the Earth and the Anti-uranium and Clean Energy collective (ACE), was on again this year from June 27 till July 8. Twenty-five people travelled from Melbourne through south and western NSW then onto South Australia.

Green Left Weekly's Rachel Evans caught up with the RadTour at Lucas Heights and spoke to Dr Jim Green from Friends of the Earth.

* * *

How has the campaign to make Australia nuclear free been going?

Well, we have lost ground in the last decade unfortunately, with the ALP repealing the ban on uranium mining and several state governments overturning bans on uranium mining. In NSW they have started uranium exploration mining so that’s been a disaster.

Meanwhile, the economics of nuclear power are getting worse and worse, with fewer countries building nuclear reactors. The Fukushima disaster has given the industry a massive hit. So there is less demand for Australian uranium and mines keep closing.

Uranium mining has come to an end in Kakadu National Park after 40-odd years of massive controversy, so all they are doing at the Ranger mine at the moment is processing what has already been mined. In the past couple of weeks ERA has given up on the proposed expansion of the mine on the back of the famous campaign that stopped the Jabiluka mine.

So all of that is really extraordinary.

The other uranium mine is Roxby Downs. BHP Billiton cancelled the planned mega-expansion of Roxby and a bunch of others have been stopped as well.

Last year’s uranium production was the lowest in 16 years. Globally we have been hearing about this so-called nuclear renaissance, but there are actually fewer reactors now than there were a decade ago. So if that is a nuclear renaissance then I say bring it on.

The recent victory in the anti-nuclear campaign was the Muckaty win. Can you explain the ramifications of that win?

Well, it is very significant. We are also celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta win over having a waste dump imposed on their land.

On the significance of the Muckaty victory, the question of Aboriginal rights is crucial. If they had succeeded in trampling on the rights and land of the Kungka Tjuta or the Muckaty traditional owners then that would have just encouraged government and industry to go on. The traditional owners winning these battles means Aboriginal people have relief, momentum and strength.

It is a real kick in the guts for the nuclear power lobby because they would see getting a supposedly low-level nuclear waste dump up and running is relatively straightforward. Certainly it is a lot easier than getting a nuclear power reactor up and running. Even people like Senator Nick Minchin, a former Liberal Senator, are saying if we can’t get a low-level waste dump, then what chance do we have of storing the high-level nuclear waste that nuclear power reactors would produce?

The Gillard and then Abbott governments have signed onto a uranium mining deal with India. Where is that now?

Australia and India signed a uranium export agreement, but it has been scrutinised by parliament’s treaties committee — the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties — and they usually rubber stamp these things but not always. For example the treaties committee said no to uranium sales to Russia, even though that recommendation was ignored.

Now the treaties committee is in an extraordinary situation whereby the proposal to sell uranium to India is being bitterly opposed not only by Friends of the Earth and the Australian Conservation Foundation, but also by the former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, who also sits on the expert panel of the South Australia Royal Commission. It is also opposed by an Australian guy who used to be the head of the board of governors of the International Atomic Agency, and by a former secretary of defence in Canberra.

So all these people with thoroughly conservative pro-nuclear credentials are actively opposing it. So we don’t know how that is going to be resolved, but it was an incredibly irresponsible deal.

One of the bizarre things was that even if Australia were to sell uranium to India it would only increase exports by perhaps 3% so there is not even any money in it.

It was the uranium companies who were lobbying for it. It was a bilateral political deal, which is looking pretty dodgy now.

What about the new South Australian royal commission into the nuclear industry?

South Australia has a nuclear industry the government wants to expand. There is uranium enrichment, but that is an economic non-starter, and then there is nuclear power, which is theoretically possible but very expensive and controversial.

The nuclear lobby is driving the idea that if you import other countries’ high-level waste, those countries would pay billions of dollars to get it off their hands. So there is all sorts of nonsense flying around South Australia, especially in the Murdoch press, that these billions of dollars would cover the entire cost of building nuclear reactors and would also allow the abolition of all state taxes.

But even with that sort of propaganda being circulated in the Adelaide Advertiser — a Murdoch tabloid — they found that fewer than one in six South Australians want a high-level nuclear waste dump.

It is a massive challenge, as the royal commission is stacked by pro-nuclear lobbyists. So it will issue a pro-nuclear report and we are doing the best we can to dull their enthusiasm.

We are building a separate campaign against the expansion. Traditional owners held a meeting in Port Augusta in April and this is the starting point to building an ongoing campaign.

A lot of these traditional owners have already experienced a track record of the industries of pollution and lies and they don’t want to be a part of it. They have seen the outrageous divide and rule tactics used by Heathgate against Adnyamathanha traditional owners. Then there is the long history of Olympic Dam uranium mine, and attempts to dump nuclear waste on Aboriginal land despite their ferocious opposition. Or go back to the Maralinga bomb tests in South Australia — there is a lot of history with people still suffering the varied impacts of that.

There is a lot of campaign strength in South Australia. Certainly we are putting in submissions to the royal commission but we don’t want to get sucked into their campaign too much because it is a fraud and the more important thing for us is to build campaigns and support Aboriginal people who want to build campaigns.

Is renewable energy the clean answer to the energy question in Australia, not uranium?

In Port Augusta they are going to close down the coal-fired power plant. So now there is a debate over whether it will be replaced by a solar thermal plant with storage or a nuclear power plant. They seem to be roughly equivalent in cost in which case it’s a no-brainer that you would go solar thermal because you won’t get the legacy of high-level waste.

But the threat really is that they might go for a fossil-fuelled power station instead because it is even cheaper. They might build a gas-powered plant at Port Augusta or somewhere else to replace the retired coal-fired power plant.

But more generally there is fantastic research being done by Energy Australia and the University of NSW. To give a feel for the sort of mix they are proposing, it would be roughly 45% wind power, 25% solar thermal and 25% solar photovoltaics. The remaining 15% would be a mix of hydro and also bio-energy fuel gas turbines.

They have modelled this with all of the data that is available and it gives a reliable electricity mix. The cost would be somewhere around 50% more than Australia's current fossil fuel production, so it is affordable and achievable. Nuclear does not solve any of those problems at all. With the most generous estimates it would be the same cost as renewable energy and probably more expensive.

The only logical reason why you want to go down the nuclear path is that you want to have the nuclear industry here as a stepping stone to developing nuclear weapons at some stage in the future. But not even the nuclear fuel lobby or the right-wing military types are proposing that.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.