In September 2005, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, used his Condor Laucke lecture to declare that the death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 was just 50 people.
Four months later, George W Bush, used his State of the Union address to launch his Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.
Three months after this, on 15 May 2006, Prime Minister John Howard announced from Washington that it was time for Australians to debate the role of nuclear fuel here.
And finally hot on the heels of the Stern Report last Saturday, Howard told the Queensland Liberal Party’s annual convention in Brisbane that ‘nuclear power is potentially the cleanest and greenest of them all.’ He added:
We would be foolish from a national interest point of view, with our vast reserves of uranium, to say that we are not going to consider nuclear power not even going to look at it; we are going to say no to it before the debate even starts I believe that the world’s attitudes toward nuclear power are changing and I believe that Australian attitudes towards nuclear power are changing.
So what is going on? Why after 10 years, would Howard suddenly appear to get the ‘vision’ about nuclear power? And what, if anything, connects the speeches of Downer and Bush to the demand by the Prime Minister for a nuclear debate?
The short answer is, a lot has been going on behind the scenes, and it is not John Howard who suddenly got the nuclear vision, but his friend George W Bush.
The man who connects all three politicians is Dr John White, chairman of the Federal Government’s Uranium Industry Framework (UIF) and head of the Australian waste company, Global Renewables.
White is like an old alchemist, he believes everything can be re-used, re-cycled or transformed including nuclear waste. Four days after the Prime Minister used his doorstop interview in Washington to tell waiting journalists that Australians needed a nuclear debate, I spoke to White in his capacity as head of the UIF.
He had just flown across the Pacific, leaving behind his wintry home town of Melbourne to land in a balmy Texan evening. Because he was a man interested in waste, I began by asking if he was in the US to visit the beleaguered Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Nevada. He could neither confirm nor deny that, but he did say that, as head of the UIF, it was part of his brief to see what the rest of world was doing with their waste.
Then, without further prompting, he launched into a long explanation of what he and his colleagues had planned for Australia. And when he finished he said:
If we agree to do this for America, we will never again have to put young Australians in the line of fire. We will never have to prove our loyalty to the US by sending our soldiers to fight in their wars, because a project like this would settle the question of our loyalty once and for all.
We had that conversation six months ago. The project he referred to is now well-advanced and more ambitious than anything previously seen in Australia. It has been developed by an international consortium of nuclear experts, US think-tanks and businessmen. And, with the Howard Government’s Review of Uranium Mining and Processing and Nuclear Energy in Australia due to report back within the next few weeks, it is a good bet that White’s proposition will be woven through the panel’s recommendations.
The proposal one that White and his colleagues have already spent $45 million of their own money developing is the creation of the Australian Nuclear Fuel Leasing (ANFL) company, which will be headed by White, and which will facilitate and manage the enrichment, fabrication, leasing, transport and storage of 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s nuclear fuel needs.
Not only will it be an Australian company with International Atomic Energy Agency and UN oversight it will use Australia’s uranium reserves. And all the nuclear fuel rods leased to other countries will be returned to Australia and stored here forever.
As White has stressed, this is not just strategically imperative, it also extremely lucrative. He estimates that by charging around $3000 a kilogram for the leased nuclear fuel packages, and targeting a market of around 2000 tonnes of fabricated fuel per year, Australia stands to make over $6 billion per year for providing this service.
The reason it would be so financially beneficial for Australia is because, according to White, ‘We have the most stable geology in the world.’
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
I’m not sure if White knows it, but that was why the Russians located their nuclear power plant at Chernobyl it was allegedly the most stable geology in the world. And of course, the Russian people had no say in whether they had nuclear power plants in their towns, nor were they informed about the full spectrum of risk posed by this form of power generation.
The comparisons are unsettling. The scope of White’s proposal and the fact that it has progressed so far without any public scrutiny or comment in a democracy like Australia is quite extraordinary.
Unbeknown to the Australian public, the four principle directors of the ANFL have been hard at work for many years. Aside from White, they are: David Pentz, Daniel Poneman and Michael Simpson.
Pentz is probably best known as the US chairman of Pangea Resources, the company that in 1999 sought to establish an international high-level nuclear waste dump in outback Western Australia. Poneman is a Principal of the US-based Scowcroft Group who, from 1993 until 1996, served as Special Assistant to US President Bill Clinton and Senior Director for Non-proliferation and Export Controls at the National Security Council. And finally, Simpson was Business Development Director of Britain Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) until 2003. While at BNFL, Simpson spoke publicly about the possibility of Russia becoming a giant in the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing market and hinted that BNFL might be interested in a partnership with Russia.
The best way to understand how this nuclear fuel leasing cycle would be run, and what it would mean to ordinary Australians is to look at the submission made by the ANFL to the Federal Government’s nuclear energy review on 18 August, 2006.
Essentially the plan is this: ANFL will get the uranium from BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia. They will contract Japan or Germany to enrich and fabricate it although with the world currently over-supplied in enrichment by 20 to 30 per cent, this will not be necessary for some years. They will microchip every last gram of fissile material so that it can be tracked anywhere in the world, and then lease the nuclear
rods to China and India and any other country the US considers too risky to manage their own nuclear enrichment industry.
When the rods have been spent, they will be left to cool briefly for a year or two before shipping them back to Darwin by sea while they’re still ‘hot’ apparently shipping the rods while they are still radioactive reduces the chances of the material falling into unfriendly hands. They will put them on the Darwin to Adelaide railway line and transport the rods back to South Australia. Once there, the rods can stay in cooling ponds for another 30 years, before being stored forever in the Australian outback.
Coincidentally, this deal would also help the Adelaide-Darwin rail link which is owned by Serco Asia Pacific, a leader in the management and transport of the UK’s nuclear waste.
In conversation with me, White argued the strategic advantages to the ANFL plan, but he also tackled the issue from a security, environmental and then moral point of view, asking:
How can we justify being the world’s largest exporter of uranium, while taking no responsibility for its waste? Global warming is an enormous issue. How can we justify doing nothing to ensure future generations have a stable climate to grow up in? With the world’s most stable geology in the world, one of the most stable democracies in the world, we are in a position to offer the international community a safe solution to their nuclear waste problem. How can we walk away from that?
But this debate is not a simple narrative of right or wrong action as we shall see next week in Nuclear Debate Part Two: The Problems.
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