Two weeks ago John Howard realised that global warming was a big problem for his re-election prospects and his legacy.
This insight did not come with the release of the Stern Review, or through the mounting scientific evidence demonstrating global warming. It came through the results of internal Liberal Party polling. Specifically, the answer to question number 4 of their polling : ‘Would you change your vote as result of climate change?’ Twenty-two per cent said ‘yes,’ up from only 6 per cent in April.
Howard’s problems have been compounded by growing calls from within his own Party to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or risk a Private Member’s Bill calling for the same. That’s why he used the Business Council of Australia dinner on Monday night to announce a business/parliamentary taskforce to examine the possibility of carbon trading .
This announcement may placate his nervous Coalition colleagues, but it is Howard’s preoccupation with turning Australia into a one-stop-nuclear-shop that is alarming many in the community.
A broad outline of how this plan would work was revealed in last week’s New Matilda. It showed how Dr John White’s Australian Nuclear Fuel Leasing (ANFL) company could realise Howard’s nuclear ambitions.
But Howard’s solution may soon become Australia’s problem according to John Large an English nuclear engineer who runs UK company Large & Associates. He came to international attention a few years ago as the man responsible for the salvage of the stricken Russian submarine, Kursk.
As a specialist in the areas of nuclear technology, risk and hazard assessment, he knows his way around the safety implications of using nuclear energy. And, having done a series of assessments in the UK and France on the risk posed by the transportation of fuel rods by rail, he also knows how to recognise a potential disaster zone.
When I spoke to him last June, he was shocked to learn that Australia was seriously considering the nuclear fuel leasing option, saying in his clear, clipped English accent, ‘Do you people have any idea of what you are getting yourselves into? You are one of the last remaining countries on earth that doesn’t have a nuclear legacy hanging over you, and now you’re volunteering for one? Why on earth would you do that?’
He said the Australian community needed to know a couple of things before they signed up to such an agreement.
First, when it comes to shipping radioactive spent fuel rods back to Australia as ANFL proposes to do ‘At least 3 per cent of that spent fuel will be damaged and therefore more hazardous on the return journey. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acknowledges that this is the most dangerous phase because moving fuel across great distances, while it is still hot, is dangerous for two reasons: accidents and terrorism.’
Secondly, he points to the issue of the nuclear caskets themselves. The spent fuel travels in caskets that, according to the safety standards set by the IAEA, must: be able to withstand being dropped from a height of nine metres (the equivalent of travelling at just 50 kilometres per hour); and be able to withstand a fire of 800 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes.
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As Large points out: ‘A train carrying the caskets would be travelling faster than 50 kilometres per hour and tunnel fires and ship fires burn hotter than 800 degrees.’
David Pentz, one of the directors of ANFL, countered these concerns by arguing this was standard operating procedure in Switzerland already, ‘[The Swiss] only allow their hot rods to cool for 12 to 20 months before moving them by sea to the cooling ponds. If this was not feasible, the whole investment for the US, Yucca Mountain repository, would be entirely wasted.’
While conceding that Yucca Mountain was confronting serious opposition because of this very concern, Pentz said ANFL was so confident about the safety of their project that, ‘We will create a sinking fund worth about $50 to $60 million per year, so that when we hand the company over to the Australian Government to run in about 30 or 40 years [as is envisaged in ANFL’S plans]they will have sufficient funds to maintain safety standards in the waste repository.’
On the question of storage, Large said the facility ‘should be able to guarantee institutional management for 250 years. After that period of time processes begin to breakdown.’ He underscored the difficulty of institutional management over those time frames by asking what was going on in Woomera 250 years ago.
He then challenged the integrity of the caskets used to store the spent fuel, saying, ‘Over the first 1000 years the fuel decays and it produces hydrogen which creates cracks in the caskets. There is simply no way, over even a 100,000 year time scale, to stop the fuel leaking out.’
But the risks are not confined to either accidents or terrorism. The recent nuclear test conducted by North Korea demonstrates how seriously the region takes the threat of nuclear proliferation. If Australia was to move into the enrichment business, there is the very real possibility that our near neighbours would feel extremely uncomfortable about it particularly now that it has been revealed previous Australian Governments have considered the use of nuclear weapons.
Recently, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report examining the links between uranium exports, processing and nuclear weapons proliferation . The author of that report, Dr Andrew Davies, told me that so long as Australia does not engage in enrichment and/or reprocessing, our neighbours have little to be concerned about.
‘They would not be concerned, I think, about Australia taking back spent nuclear fuel rods for storage,’ he said. ‘But if, at a later date, Australia wanted to get into either enrichment or reprocessing, then I think they would be alarmed because that puts us in the position to develop nuclear weapons. That is simply a consequence of the technology overlap,’ he said. Adding, ‘How would Australia answer the question: œif it’s OK for you guys to develop an enrichment capability, why is it not alright for us? ’
This brings us to the new security treaty signed between Australia and Indonesia on Lombok on Monday night.
While there was much media speculation about the treaty being used to facilitate Australian and Indonesia co-operation on civilian nuclear power, Damien Kingsbury, Associate Professor in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University, says the treaty doesn’t amount to a lot in the nuclear department.
‘Implicit in the treaty is that one or both countries will have a nuclear industry at some stage,’ said Kingsbury. ‘And [the treaty]will certainly be used to reassure both countries that there is no intention of going down the nuclear weapons p
ath. But apart from that it doesn’t have a lot to say about the matter.’
He also points out that Indonesia has said it is only interested in a nuclear power industry if it can be funded by private investors and the silence has been deafening.
The real question is: given the enormous risks involved, the high cost of nuclear power generation currently around a $120 per MWH and the fact that alternate renewable fuel supplies could be utilised in a much shorter time frame than nuclear power, why would the Federal Government choose to force Australia down this path?
To answer that question, next week we will look at the real geo-political forces driving the Howard Government’s nuclear agenda.
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