Our Very Own Nuclear Arms Race


Critics have long accused Prime Minister John Howard of having no imagination. While they search for signs of the ‘vision thing’ found so abundantly in Keating’s Prime Ministership, Howard appears to be preoccupied with the pedestrian and pragmatic tasks of re-election.

However, his speech and media release issued on 28 April this year is nothing if not visionary and imaginative. The media release entitled, ‘Uranium Mining and Nuclear Energy: A Way Forward for Australia,‘ lays out Howard’s ambition for a nuclear Australia. In it he announces ‘ a new strategy for the future development of uranium mining and nuclear power in Australia.’

Howard’s strategy includes: removing ‘unnecessary’ constraints impeding the expansion of uranium mining; making a firm commitment to Australia’s participation in the Generation IV advanced nuclear reactor research program; creating a new nuclear energy regulatory authority; more support for skills and technical training; an enhanced research and development capability; and a PR campaign to support the nuclear industry.

Ministers are to begin work on Howard’s plan immediately and be ready to report back to him by September. The work plans are to be implemented in 2008.

Every step called for in the speech demands and deserves a forensic examination on the part of the opposition political Parties and civil society. Each step will have far-reaching and inter-generational consequences. Howard is laying out a vision for Australia and it needs to be taken seriously. Not the least because he may have inadvertently kicked off a nuclear arms race in our region.

The most alarming and controversial action that Howard calls for is described at the end of his speech:

The Government’s next step will be to repeal Commonwealth legislation prohibiting nuclear activities, including the relevant provisions of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This will be addressed soon.

There are two related issues raised by this step.

First, it would have been more accurate for the Prime Minister to have said: ‘The Government’s next step will be to continue to repeal Commonwealth legislation prohibiting nuclear activities ‘ Because, as we’ll see, this process was actually begun last December.

Secondly, when the Prime Minister does complete his repeal of the relevant provisions of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), our region particularly Indonesia will be on notice that Australia is headed toward gaining a nuclear-weapons capability. (Of course, capability and actuality are two different things, so Australia may very well decide to not develop nuclear weapons even though the nation will certainly have the capacity to.) How Indonesia reacts to that development could have enormous implications for Australia’s national security.

Currently, the EPBC Act bans certain nuclear installations. Specifically, fuel fabrication plants, enrichment plants, nuclear power plants, and reprocessing plants. However, other nuclear activities like the creation of a nuclear waste dump and transportation of spent nuclear fuel fall under the assessment and approval processes of the Act.

And it is here that work has already been done.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Last December, while most of us were out doing the Christmas shopping, the Senate passed the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill (No 1) 2006. These amendments give the Minister for the Environment the power to approve and locate a high-level nuclear waste dump without recourse to public input or transparency.

This Bill retains the ban on the four types of nuclear installations described above, but provides three ways in which nuclear actions like the construction of an international high-level nuclear waste dump can be exempted from the Act’s assessment processes.

First, according to legal advice given to Imogen Zethoven, Nuclear Campaign Co-ordinator for The Wilderness Society, by Stephen Keim SC, if the Minister for the Environment were to declare that a nuclear waste dump was in accordance with a Bioregional Plan, the dump would not require an assessment of the action or approval under Part 9 of the Act. It would only require Ministerial approval.

Secondly, the Bill now enables the Minister for the Environment to allow a nuclear action to go ahead without assessment and, therefore, public consultation, if it is in accordance with a policy, program or plan that has been subject to a strategic assessment process, and endorsed.

And finally, the Bill brings these nuclear actions within the scope of Conservation Agreements made between the Commonwealth and ‘persons’ who could be individuals or private companies. Since the ‘objects’ of Conservation Agreements include ‘the protection and conservation of the environment, in respect of the impact of a nuclear action,’ the Minister can now avoid the assessment process under the Act for a nuclear action simply by declaring in the Agreement that they are satisfied that the nuclear action say, a nuclear waste dump is unlikely to have a significant impact on the environment.

In effect, the Bill now exempts nuclear actions from the assessment and approval provisions of the Act in three ways, and whichever device is used, the result is the same. According to Keim:

The amendments to the EPBC Act espouse a clear indication that, in future, nuclear actions may be approved by processes that involve less public input and transparency While each of the processes indicated as suitable for the approval of nuclear actions is surprising, the use of Conservation Agreements for this process seems particularly unsuitable and particularly lacking in safeguards; public input; and transparency.

The second and related issue is this: If, as the Prime Minister promised on 28 April, he successfully repeals, ‘Commonwealth legislation prohibiting nuclear activities, including the relevant provisions of the EPBC Act 1999,’ we can assume the current prohibition against fuel fabrication plants, enrichment plants, nuclear power plants and reprocessing plants, will be lifted.

If the same new standards apply to fuel fabrication, enrichment, power and reprocessing plants as now apply to nuclear waste dumps and transport routes, the Minister for the Environment will then have unprecedented power to establish a whole-of-life-cycle for the nuclear industry in Australia.

It could be argued that the Australian community needs to decide whether indigenous nuclear reactors and fuel fabrication plants make sense from an economic, environmental and social point of view.

However, the proposition that Australia get into the uranium enrichment and reprocessing business has a much wider audience because, once Australia gains the capacity to enrich uranium, it also gains the capacity to make nuclear weapons. As Dr Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) explained to me six months ago, ‘ That is simply a consequence of the technology overlap.’ And once it has enrichment capacity, Australia could very quickly develop nuclear weapons.

Last October, Davies wrote a report for ASPI examining the links between uranium exports, processing and nuclear weapons proliferation. According to Davies, 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. 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 How would Australia answer the question: ‘if it’s OK for you guys to develop an enrichment capability, why is it not alright for us?’

The implications of Mr Howard’s ‘ new strategy for the future development of uranium mining and nuclear power in Australia’ are profound. His critics may not like his vision or where his imagination could take the country, but it is time to take both very seriously.

As shall be shown next week, a failure to do so could leave an incoming Labor Government with a compensation bill that would destroy their most creative programs.

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