Fission for a Change

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Last week, six of the world’s largest polluters met in Sydney to discuss the role of nuclear power and new technologies in curbing climate change.

The inaugural meeting of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate had no discussion of Kyoto-style timetables for reducing emissions Australia’s Environment Minister Ian Campbell told the Sydney Morning Herald that "China and India are simply not interested in that sort of target approach".

Nuclear power was discussed as a potential solution to the world’s greenhouse problems.

A renewed worldwide interest in the nuclear option has seen the number of companies exploring for uranium in Australia increase from five in 2003 to more than 70 today. But while exploration is legal, no new mines can come online in the States without a change to ALP policy.

As the price of yellowcake continues to rise, the Shadow Minster for Industry and Resources Martin Ferguson has been a busy man, travelling around the country, arguing for more uranium mines in Australia. Ferguson wants the ALP’s policy of no new uranium mines to be overturned at the next National Conference in April 2007, and he has been talking to industry, pressure groups, and State and Federal members of parliament to make the best case for that to happen.

Shadow Environment Minister Anthony Albanese firmly supports current policy and believes that calls for a ‘debate’ are a euphemism: "What the [pro-uranium faction] really mean is we need people to change their minds," he says.

Australia’s 70 known uranium deposits are distributed throughout Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia. Peter Beattie and Geoff Gallop have both spoken strongly against new mines (although shares in companies exploring for uranium in West Australia have reportedly rocketed with Gallop’s resignation).

"The big push [for a change]in Party policy is coming from South Australia," says Ferguson.

The Rann Government’s support for the uranium industry is well known. BHP Billiton’s proposed $5 billion expansion of the Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs has been endorsed, and in 2004 Rann introduced a five-year, $22.5 million initiative to encourage mineral exploration in SA. The Plan for Accelerating Exploration (PACE) meets exploration initiatives dollar-for-dollar.

Uranium mining has long been a divisive issue within the ALP, and South Australia home to Australia’s, and one of the world’s, largest deposits at Roxby Downs has played a key role in the debate. The party split dramatically over the issue in 1982 when a deal was brokered that allowed for the massive Olympic Dam mine to go ahead.

Until then, the ALP had agreed to a moratorium on the mining and export of uranium. The 1982 policy compromise came about when former ALP Secretary and member of the Left, Bob Hogg, successfully submitted an amendment to the ALP’s uranium policy stating that the party would ‘consider applications for the export of uranium mined incidentally to the mining of other minerals.’ The wording was carefully chosen it would allow the new copper, uranium, gold and silver mine at Roxby Downs to go ahead, but still mean the ALP could claim it had an ‘anti-uranium’ policy.

The move was seen as a major sell out, and Labor lost close connections with grassroots groups over the issue.

At the 1984 National Conference, ALP policy was changed again, to recognise existing uranium mines. This is the origin of the so-called ‘three mines policy,’ which was never about an acceptable number of mines, but about endorsing the existence of three ‘named’ mines: Narbalek, Ranger and Olympic Dam.

Proponents of a change to the current policy which states that no new mines will be opened under a Labor government have attempted unsuccessfully to get the issue up at subsequent National Conferences.

The renewed interest in nuclear power around the globe has led to a flurry of interest in uranium mining in Australia. Many of the more than 70 companies actively exploring for the mineral in Australia today were listed and applied for tenements in the last 12 months. Politicians are keen to cash in on the boom, arguing that Australia, as the world’s most uranium-rich country, has a ‘global responsibility’ to provide ‘clean energy’ to fast-developing nations such as China.

Professor Ian Lowe, an emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, sees parallels between the tactics being used now and those used by the Fraser Government in the late 1970s:

"The Fraser Government was desperate to approve the [Ranger] mine. It used the argument that an ‘energy-starved’ world needed our uranium. This was an attempt to turn selling uranium from a crass commercial operation into a moral imperative. It conjured up the picture of small children freezing in the dark if we were so irresponsible as to deny them our uranium."

Martin Ferguson is also big on global responsibility. He told the Australian Uranium Conference in October 2005:

"There’s going to be a huge growth in energy demand in the foreseeable future, especially in Asia, where some of our major greenhouse problems exist … We as a community have to be part of the ever-complex question of how we clean up the world’s climate. And part of that debate is going to be nuclear power."

Worldwide concern about climate change has given traditional proponents of nuclear power a new argument to work with. But Ian Lowe says the notion that nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases is false. While the stage of actual energy production may not, other stages in the fuel cycle do:

"Significant amounts of fossil fuel energy are used to mine and process uranium ores, enrich the fuel and build nuclear power stations.

"I was working in a UK university when their electricity industry proposed a crash program to build 36 nuclear power stations in 15 years to avert the coming energy shortage. When our research group did the sums, we found that there would have indeed been an energy shortage if that scheme had gone ahead caused by the huge amounts of energy needed to build the power stations. In the longer term, over their operating lifetime, the nuclear power stations would have released less carbon dioxide than burning coal, but in the short term they would have made the situation worse.

"People are desperate to believe there’s a technical fix [to climate change]," says Lowe, "that there’s some bit of wizardry that will mean life can go on more or less uninterrupted. Unfortunately politicians are very happy to pander to that desire."

Ninety seven per cent of Australia’s known uranium is contained in six deposits. Only two of these – Ranger in the Northern Territory and Olympic Dam in South Australia – are currently being mined. The others are Jabiluka and Koongarra, both within Kakadu National Park in the NT and therefore unpopular as mine sites, and Kintyre and Yeelirie in WA. Yeelirie is owned by BHP Billiton; and Kintyre by Rio Tinto, who also own Ranger. Both sites have been deemed uneconomic under the current political climate.

The most likely new player in uranium mining in Australia is Summit Resources, who own a number of high-quality ore bodies around Mt Isa in Queensland. Summit Managing Director Alan J Eggers was the only speaker invited to appear at the final public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry and Resources’s inquiry into Australia’s uranium resources.

Eggers has said he believes the Standing Committee "will deliver a very positive report to the Federal parliament, and that information’s getting right through to the Labor Party as well".

Meanwhile, Martin Ferguson says he is "quite relaxed" about how the uranium debate at the 2007 ALP National Conference will play out. "There is far less emotion around this debate than there was in the 1970s and 1980s," he says.

While Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley has distanced himself from Ferguson on the issue, saying Australia is as far into the nuclear fuel cycle as it needs to be, incoming Party President Warren Mundine has signalled his support for change.

Anthony Albanese says the proponents for a change have not satisfied the outstanding issues: "issues of economic cost, of nuclear waste, safety in practices both in mining and in the operation of nuclear power plants, and the issue of nuclear proliferation, which, in the climate of terrorism that we live in, I would’ve thought are more serious than they’ve ever been."

"My concern is that [this debate]is a distraction from what we actually need to do to address climate change," he says. "We need solutions that don’t create other problems."

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