Part Three: The Switkowski Report

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The Switkowski review of uranium mining and nuclear power has made an enormous and useful contribution to the debate John Howard has decided we had to have.

After a five-month investigation, Switkowski’s review found on the positive side that: nuclear power is a ‘practical option’ for Australia; that it could be delivered to the Australian grid within 10 years, although 15 is more likely; that nuclear power would be between 20 to 50 per cent more expensive than conventional power from coal and gas, and therefore, would only be cost competitive if a tax were imposed on carbon; and that the domestic processing of uranium, including conversion and enrichment, would add a further $1.8 billion to the sector annually.

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He also found the nuclear industry ‘is far safer than other energy-related industries.’

On the negative side, the review found that nuclear enrichment may not be in Australia’s interest from an economic point of view:

The enrichment market is very concentrated, structured around a small number of suppliers in the United States, Europe and Russia. It is characterised by high barriers to entry, including limited and costly access to technology, trade restrictions, uncertainty around the future of secondary supply and proliferation concerns.

It concludes that ‘there may be little real opportunity for Australian companies to extend profitably’ into enrichment.

While Switkowski acknowledges nuclear power’s ‘low emissions signature,’ he told ABC News that ‘the priority for Australia should continue to be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal and gas.’

This information is very useful and vital to have out in the community. We now know that nuclear energy would be significantly more expensive than coal and gas, that the enrichment market is already pretty tied up, and, as Greens Senator Christine Milne stated yesterday, that ‘not one nuclear reactor could come [on line]in Australia before 2020. Considering the energy it takes to build a nuclear power station it would take another seven years before it contributed to reduced greenhouse emissions.’

‘Even if 25 nuclear reactors and an associated high-level waste dump were operational by 2050 the greenhouse gas reduction is a paltry of 8 to 18 per cent below the business-as-usual increase,’ Milne said.

However, the report has left a number of questions unanswered. Namely, where the nuclear power plants would be built; where the nuclear waste would be stored; and why John Howard is prepared to burn so much political capital on this form of energy when he knows that only 17 per cent of Australians support nuclear power.

It is these unresolved issues that move the nuclear debate from one of economics and technology, to one with important moral dimensions.

Minister for Industry and Resources, Ian Macfarlane, has told the ABC TV’s 7:30 Report that nuclear reactors are safe and their location is flexible:

Modern nuclear power stations can be sited away from populations just as coal-fired power stations are. Where those power stations are sited will be decided on the commercial proposals that are put forward and in the end by the community agreeing that they pose no real risk.

When making ethical decisions that will affect millions of Australians for many hundreds of years, we need to speak openly and truthfully. History tells us that nuclear power plants do pose a risk, through both technical and human error, and common sense tells us they could pose a potential terrorist threat in the future.

The moral implications of introducing nuclear power to Australia and there are plenty on both sides of the debate cannot be engaged in any real way without acknowledging the risk posed by nuclear power plants and nominating specific locations for them.

Dr Switkowski has said the nuclear plants would need to be on the eastern seaboard, near the power grid and close to water. A study done by the Australia Institute last May found the area south of Wollongong, the central coast of NSW and Port Stephens along with the Sunshine Coast and other areas in Queensland and Victoria would be ideal.

The location of a potential nuclear dump site is a little easier to narrow down because the, ‘suitable locations for deep underground repositories for the safe storage of high level waste and spent nuclear fuel’ that Dr Switkowski has referred to can only be found in Central Australia.

Despite what McFarlane says about community consultation, in truth, the Federal Government no longer has any obligation to consult with community or land holders or owners before choosing a dump site thanks to the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Legislation Amendment Bill 2006. Siting and control over nuclear dumps can now be given to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

As Greens Senator Christine Milne told me today, the High Court’s recent finding that the Federal Government’s use of the Constitution’s corporations power to override State IR laws was lawful, also means that ‘a private company could put a nuclear dump anywhere in Australia and so long as the Federal Government supported it, nothing could be done to stop it.’

This ‘might is right’ approach to something with such far-reaching implications is indefensible from a moral perspective and flies in the face of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations and the world’s best practice response, for instance in Sweden.

On the issue of John Howard’s nuclear agenda, there are three possible answers to why he is prepared to burn so much political capital on an unpopular form of energy.

One, he may truly believe that it is worth directing subsidies and education funding to nuclear power in order to get an 8 to 18 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. (And he may be convinced our near neighbours would be relaxed and comfortable with Australia pursuing nuclear enrichment capacity.)

Two, he may believe a debate about nuclear power makes it look like he is taking global warming seriously without having to give succour to the renewable energy industry.

Or three, he may be using the creation of a nuclear industry as a Trojan horse for his US allies. That is, if Australians believe it is safe to store Australian nuclear waste here, we must also accept that it is safe to store US nuclear waste here (see Part One: The Plan).

Global warming is both a crisis and an opportunity. Its threat could encourage all of us to engage in the complex, difficult decision-making that actually creates a moral society and politics. But to do that we need to be taken into the confidence of the Prime Minister and we need everyone to put their cards on the table. That’s how this debate will be transformed from one of petty wedge politics and backroom deals to a truly nation-building exercise.

Yesterday Anglican Bishop, George Browning, joined Sir Gerard Brennan and Pat Dodson to launch the Centre for an Eth
ical Society in Sydney. After the formalities we spoke about his number one concern: global warming.

Browning reiterated his plan to

Get 100 young kids from across Australia to bring a class action against John Howard for the failure of his duty of care toward them. He has failed his duty because he knows what global warming will do to their future and he has done nothing to stop it.

It is unclear whether the action will be successful or not. But win or lose, the action introduces the idea that the current generation of power holders has a moral responsibility to protect future generations from harm.

New Matilda

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