Let Them Eat Yellowcake


So far, the great nuclear ‘debate’ has been anything but. Debate implies rigour and an exchange of ideas. Instead, we’ve seen an exercise in ‘moral’ posturing, skillfully executed by the Federal Government and the Minerals Council of Australia. Anti-nuclear arguments are substantial, sobering and out there – we’re just not hearing them. The media, as arbiters, have failed us.

In June, John Howard expressed his support for a national debate on nuclear power generation. Howard took his lead from Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Science Minister Brendan Nelson. Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, Treasurer Peter Costello and Environment Minister Ian Campbell have since joined in.

Despite refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, our Government now accepts that greenhouse gas emissions are a serious problem. Nuclear power, they argue, is the only solution. As each of the Ministers mentioned above reaches this ‘inevitable’ conclusion, a new round of media coverage begins.

While a domestic nuclear power industry in Australia appears distant, Australia has a ‘responsibility’, according to MacFarlane and Downer, to supply uranium to the global energy market. We’ll simply be exercising ‘responsible citizenship in the global community,’ as pro-nuclear Shadow Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson puts it.

It’s time to clear up the relationship between the nuclear power debate we had to have, and the uranium export drive.

Make no mistake about it: the moral to this story is money.

Howard’s comments in June came as the Government began negotiating a lucrative uranium export deal with China. There’s no underestimating the significance of the deal; China plans to build up to 30 new reactors in the next 15 years to meet rapacious energy demands. Indeed, Ben Abelson writing in mining industry insider magazine Resource Investor, explains the recent rise of yellowcake spot prices by saying, ‘The biggest factor affecting uranium prices – and the share prices of uranium-linked companies – is the same as with nearly all industrial commodities: Chinese demand.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Macfarlane and Downer have assured us that uranium sold to China will be used solely for peaceful purposes. It now seems China can give no such assurances.

Canberra has set out for Beijing the ‘non-negotiable’ conditions that bind other buyers of Australian uranium: that it be used for peaceful purposes, and that China permit inspections of its nuclear power facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But on 2 September The Australian reported that, in China’s first public comments on the negotiations, the country’s leading arms control official, Zhang Yan, ‘refused to commit to international inspections of its nuclear power facilities.’

The Federal Government is yet to respond.

This sticking point aside, former senior Australian diplomat Richard Broinowski has consistently argued that the focus on the terms of a bilateral agreement misses the point: ‘If China gets our uranium, they can divert their own stuff into weapons and use ours for power.’ Broinowski regards the Australian Government’s claim that increasing uranium exports will give it a greater role in policing nuclear weapons proliferation as hollow.

China is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India is not. Broinowski points out that our Government seems unconcerned with the Bush Administration’s decision to open nuclear trade with India, a sudden reversal of a 30-year American policy of non-cooperation with a nuclear armed state.

Responsible global citizenship?

Global security issues aside, uranium is a mineral with serious ethical, environmental and health repercussions. Yet as the ‘debate’ intensifies, environmentalists’ concerns are, at best, briefly noted – almost as if they are spoiling the party.

Executive Director of the Australia Institute, Clive Hamilton, argues that, ‘This debate is not really about nuclear power but about uranium exports. By having this debate in Australia, although we’re not going to have nuclear power plants here, we are softening public attitudes to nuclear power elsewhere. And so, why shouldn’t we export uranium to them?’

If we were to have a real debate about nuclear power, we would have to pay more attention to reports such as Nuclear Power: No Solution to Climate Change, which was launched in Canberra on 7 September.

Dr Jim Green authored the 132-page report, which is endorsed by peak environmental and public health groups. Green finds that if nuclear power output was doubled by 2050, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent. Nuclear power is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. But uranium needs to be transported considerable distances – both to a reactor and away from it as waste – a process which will contribute greenhouse gases. In fact, at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, greenhouse gasses are produced.

In February 2005, the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) produced a report that showed mining, uranium enrichment, building and decommissioning of power plants, processing and storing of waste all need huge amounts of energy, much more in fact than less complex forms of electricity production.

It’s well documented that nuclear reactors are so expensive they require state subsidies – money diverted away from researching and developing the renewables sector.

And, as Alan Roberts detailed in a recent Arena Paper, as high-grade uranium deposits are depleted, the process of extracting more uranium becomes extremely energy intensive.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial on 5 September noted that in the 1970s and 1980s concerns about safety made uranium ‘unfashionable’.

It continued: as Hurricane Katrina focused the world’s attention on the dire consequences of climate change, it was timely to look at the issue anew. Again, ‘This is a debate Australia must have.’

Why then, two days later, did the Herald run its news item on the release of No Solution to Climate Change online, on a Saturday? If it’s interested enough in the nuclear debate to editorialise on its necessity, then the Herald owes its readers attention to the facts, rather than vague claims to ‘responsibility’.

We’re hearing only one side of the story.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.