Part Four: Australia and the World

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When John Howard re-ignited debate about a nuclear future for Australia last July, it was as if the past 30 years hadn’t happened. No Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, no terrorists, no intractable problems related to waste or the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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Howard’s message was muddy and unfocused, but it went something like this: the threat of global warming was now so serious, and the new proposed nuclear power plants so sophisticated, and India and China were growing so fast, that the dangers associated with nuclear power had somehow been neutralised. And as the world’s largest exporter of uranium, Australia needed to get on with the business of mining and exporting as much of it as we could, and maybe, while we’re at it, we might like to consider enriching, fabricating and leasing the stuff.

All of this came out of a clear blue sky. While the rest of the world has struggled with Kyoto targets, carbon liabilities and the fast-tracking of renewable energy schemes, the Howard Government has constantly questioned the existence of global warming, refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and dismissed calls to tackle climate change on the grounds that it was ‘not in the national interest.’

But now, suddenly, the nation is thrown head first into the nuclear cycle on the grounds that global warming requires it.

What is going on? Why, with evidence mounting that global warming is now well under way has Howard insisted on wasting the last 12 months, huge amounts of time, money and intelligence on something as limited and predictable as the Switkowski Report, while ignoring the whole renewable energy sector?

The short answer is: we may never know, and, given that Australia is a democracy and nuclear power is such a contentious issue, that level of ignorance is itself a problem.

But the long answer may well involve not only Howard’s good friend George W Bush, but also his less good friend Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

George Bush and the US nuclear power industry have a big problem, and it’s called Yucca Mountain, the proposed repository and terminal storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fule and other radioactive waste.

The Bush Administration had problems with the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository even before the Republicans lost control of the US Senate a few weeks ago. But when Nevada Democrat Senator Harry Reid was nominated to become Senate Majority Leader, their problems grew exponentially. Reid told reporters after his nomination that he couldn’t single-handedly kill the Yucca Mountain repository outright, something that would require a vote of Congress and approval by President Bush. But he added: ‘There’s not much to kill.’

If the US nuclear energy industry and the Bush Administration can’t find a place to put their waste and four years ago that included 47,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste and 345 million litres of fluid left over from plutonium production there is little prospect of an expanded nuclear power industry within the US. As Jack Edlow, CEO of Edlow International, a company which ships nuclear fuel and nuclear waste all around the world, told Tom Morton on ABC’s Background Briefing in September:

The [Bush] Administration has to decide whether the energy future of the United States will include nuclear. If it does, they need to have a waste solution before people will order more plants potentially.

The US also has the problem of how to remain the world’s only super power when Russia, China and India insist on forming an axis that challenges that pre-eminence, particularly through energy.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) began life innocently enough. Formed in June 2001, it bought together China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its intention was, according to the SCO Charter:

Strengthening mutual trust and good-neighbourliness and friendship among member States; developing their effective co-operation in political affairs, the economy and trade, science and technology, culture, education, energy, transportation, environmental protection and other fields; working together to maintain regional peace, security and stability; and promoting the creation of a new international political and economic order featuring democracy, justice and rationality.

But as former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer, Warren Reed, noted in the Australian Financial Review last June, when the SCO announced earlier this year that India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia would soon become full members, economic enlargement became central to the SCO, and ‘economics primarily means energy,’ said Reed.

As an example of this, Reed details the deal struck between Russia the world’s largest gas producer and second largest oil producer and China, under which Russia became one of China’s major energy providers. He notes that, ‘Russia has also agreed to help China with its nuclear power program, under which 30 nuclear reactors will be built in the next 15 years.’

To maintain its hegemony, the US will need to find a way to project itself back into the energy markets of China and India. If two close US allies such as Australia and Canada agree to become nuclear fuel leasing countries, we could help facilitate the projection of US interests in Chian and India but agreeing to take back the leased nuclear fuel as part of that deal.

The Bush Administration is not the only one looking for a friendly democracy, with stable geological foundations, to solve their problem with nuclear waste. The Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, is also investigating the creation of a multinational approach that would offer an alternative to Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

In a speech at Harvard last year, ElBaradei, said:

Is it really rational for every country to develop their own enrichment facilities? Well the answer is absolutely no. These are sensitive technologies, and if countries want to use that technology for their own economic social development, they can. But let us multi-nationalise this operation, let us regionalise this operation, so no one country alone can have their hands on highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the materials they need to develop weapons.

At this stage it appears that Russia is increasingly seen as a potential site for a multinational nuclear repository but that would need the support of not only the IAEA and Russia, but also th
e US Administration support that, at this stage, cannot be presumed.

It may well suit the US and the IAEA to have Australia volunteer to take the world’s nuclear waste. And from a moral and ethical point of view, it may be that many Australians reach the same conclusion.

It may be that all of the above is just coincidence and/or speculation.

The point is that we do not have sufficient information to make that call, and unfortunately the ‘trust me I’m your Prime Minister’ line is unlikely to carry much weight any more.

The debate about Australia’s engagement with nuclear power needs the utmost transparency. We need to know what the current Government is planning, what their aspirations are, and how those aspirations fit into larger geopolitical dynamics.

While the corporations power in the Australian Constitution potentially gives the Federal Government the power to impose a nuclear power industry on Australia, while we remain a democracy it would be an unwise path to take. Therefore, it is back to the debate and back to the demand for transparency.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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