Nuclear Features

Howard launches Australian nuclear energy debate

By Rich Bowden May 31, 2006, 5:21 GMT

Coming shortly after last month’s landmark but controversial deal to supply uranium to China, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has significantly raised the stakes in the question of his country’s production of nuclear power by calling for a “full-blooded debate” on a nuclear energy industry in Australia.

Speaking on a tour of Canada, where nuclear energy was a prominent issue of discussion between the first and second largest producers of uranium Howard said,  

“The scene on nuclear energy is going to change significantly in our country. I want a full-blooded debate in Australia about this issue; I want all of the options on the table, Howard said in Ottawa.

“I have a very open mind on the development of nuclear energy in my own country, and that includes an open mind on whether or not Australia should in fact process uranium for the purposes of providing fuel for nuclear power in the future in Australia if that becomes desirable.”

Howard continued to talk up the benefits of nuclear power, including its environmental advantages relative to fossil fuels, during the next stop of his overseas tour in Ireland.

“It is a different world from what it was a few years ago, if not only because of the price of oil. Nuclear power is cleaner and greener…” he said.
Dismissing concerns of the prohibitive cost of establishing a nuclear industry he added,

“[Nuclear energy production] is governed by the laws of arithmetic and the laws of economics. [However] until you have a proper examination and a proper testing of assumptions, you can't be certain that the economics haven't shifted from what we thought they might've been only a short while ago.”

The proposal to shift Australia away from its traditional reliance on a coal-based economy has divided the nation with some critics emerging from Howard’s own ruling conservative ruling party.

Senator Nick Minchin, Finance Minister and influential frontbencher of the Howard government has criticised the proposal saying it could take a nuclear industry 100 years to become economically viable. “We have some abundant coal and gas reserves and you’d have to tax them out of existence to make nuclear power viable,” he said to reporters.

Scientists have also questioned the environmental benefits of nuclear energy saying the time taken to establish a nuclear power plant could be as long as ten years – too long to have any short term effect on global warming.

The debate over nuclear power has a long a bitter history in Australia with many environmental groups dismissing the notion that nuclear energy has the potential to be the world’s saviour from fossil fuel - induced climate change.

“Nuclear is too dangerous, too dirty, too expensive and too slow to provide any legitimate answer to climate change or to energy security for the developing world,” said the respected environmental group the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in a press release.

“Uranium is inextricably linked to very serious environmental and health problems via nuclear weapons and radioactive waste,” said the ACF.

However some green groups have supported the introduction of nuclear energy citing the continued threat of global warming caused by use of fossil fuels warrants the establishment of a nuclear power industry.

Professor James Lovelock – originator of the Gaia theory – shocked environmental groups in May 2004 by advocating an expansion of the world’s nuclear energy programs. Lovelock considered that the dangers of global warming through the overuse of fossil fuels made nuclear energy – which emits no greenhouse gases – an attractive option.

Several commentators though, have questioned the Prime Minister’s motives for raising the nuclear issue. With an election due next year, and with Howard’s reputation as a master of “wedge” politics, many see this sudden emphasis on the emergence of an Australian nuclear power industry as no more than a stunt designed to divide anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear members of the Opposition Labor party.

Currently Labor’s left and right wings have agreed on an uneasy anti-nuclear energy stance though the party’s bitter internal divisions over uranium mining have shown the nuclear energy policy to be a potentially damaging issue. 

However Labor’s environment spokesman Anthony Albanese has sought to focus the party’ thinking on the policy saying Labor opposes nuclear power because of its prohibitive cost, its poor safety and waste record and the ever present danger of nuclear proliferation.

Howard has denied he is “playing politics” with the issue and has hinted at the establishment of an inquiry into the viability of an Australian nuclear energy industry. First proposed in 2005 by the government’s Industry Minister Ian McFarlane, the inquiry will address concerns over the economic costs of introducing a nuclear energy industry as well as examining its safety and environmental benefits.

Mr Howard said Australia, had “a particular responsibility to contribute intelligently to the debate” because it held the world’s largest reserves of uranium.

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