Howard's Nuclear Legacy


Whether John Howard wins the next Federal election or not, there is little doubt he’ll leave the political stage within the next two years. This raises the question of his legacy.

How Howard will be remembered is a question that is being answered at least, in part by a number of books now appearing on bookshelves across Australia. Last month, Clive Hamilton launched his book Scorcher : The Dirty Politics of Climate Change . And over the next couple of weeks two other books will detail different aspects of what Howard will leave behind after over a decade in power National Insecurity: The Howard Government’s Betrayal of Australia, by Linda Weiss, John Mathews and Elizabeth Thurbon, and Shakedown: Australia’s Grab for Timor Oil , by Paul Cleary.

But Howard’s legacy building is not over.

Over the next two months, he could instigate a series of actions that would extend his influence through the next decade and beyond, leaving a legacy that could have the added benefit from Howard’s point of view of destroying the first term of an in-coming Labor government.

In a speech and media release issued on 28 April this year, Howard made his intentions clear. 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.’

Thanks to emo

As outlined in last week’s instalment of this story, 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.

However, it is his promise to ‘repeal Commonwealth legislation prohibiting nuclear activities, including the relevant provisions of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act),’ that provides the greatest scope for legacy building.

Currently, the EPBC Act bans certain nuclear installations specifically, fuel fabrication plants, enrichment plants, nuclear power plants, and reprocessing plants.

Once the Prime Minister repeals this legislation and given his control of the Senate there is little chance he can be prevented from doing so it will become legal to build fabrication, enrichment and reprocessing plants in Australia. It will also become legal to contract for the building of nuclear reactors.

Of equal importance to the lifting of the prohibition against nuclear facilities, is the way the Howard Government may decide to change the legislation.

For instance, if the Government decided to replicate what it did last December when the Senate passed the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill and in the process made it legal to build a high-level nuclear waste dump there would be nothing to stop either the Prime Minister, the Minister for Resources or the Minister for the Environment from signing binding contracts with either Australian or multinational companies to build, say, 25 nuclear reactors over the next 10 years.

Price? According to the Switkowski Report 25 reactors would cost about $75 billion.

This scenario raises two questions. First, how realistic is it and what is the evidence to support it. And secondly, what, if anything, can Federal Labor do to avoid walking into a $75 billion compensation bill assuming a Rudd Government would choose not to go ahead with the construction of any nuclear reactors.

Making it legal to build nuclear reactors is one thing, getting them built is another deal entirely. For this, Howard would need individuals and companies with access to a great deal of money who were willing to invest it in the risky business of nuclear power generation.

How realistic is that?

On 27 February, the Howard Government was forced to reveal just how realistic that proposition is even before it has become legal to do so. That was the day the Prime Minister was asked to explain how it was that three Australian businessmen Ron Walker, Hugh Morgan and Robert Champion de Crespigny had confided in him about their nuclear ambitions. He told Parliament:

It was about the middle of last year. He [Ron Walker] said that he, Hugh Morgan and Robert Champion de Crespigny had decided to register a company that could be interested in nuclear power. I said, ‘That’s a great idea, Ron, because you know my view on it.’ I do not know what this is all about. My view and the view of the Government about nuclear power being an option is well known. Whether it ever goes any further will be a matter for commercial decision. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that the laws of the Commonwealth and the States as they now stand prohibit any nuclear power generation in Australia.

Indeed they do.

That question in February, ended when Kevin Rudd said:

Mr Speaker, I seek leave to table the ASIC company extract on Australian Nuclear Energy Ltd [the name of the Walker, Morgan, de Crespigny company], registration date 1 June 2006, and the Prime Minister’s statement of 6 June 2006 establishing the review of uranium mining processing and nuclear energy in Australia.

One source close to Australian Nuclear Energy Ltd said they had already spoken to US company (and nuclear specialists) General Electric (GE) about supplying a nuclear generating plant.

However, these three business men are not alone in their ambitions.

Earlier this year, the World Bank held a cocktail party in Washington DC, bringing together major players from the world’s energy sector. An Australian colleague was surprised to find himself chatting with a very happy fellow from one of the world largest nuclear power companies. It seems the man had just been paid US$4 million for doing a pre-feasibility study for another Australian company.

The study was conducted to explore the possibility of building a 2 gigawatt nuclear power plant in either Port Augusta or Whyalla. This area is also of interest to the Walker, Morgan and de Crespigny consortium because there is capacity there to fuel a large desalination plant for mining operations as well as supplying power to local industry.

So, we have the Prime Minister committed to ‘ removing unnecessary constraints’ on the nuclear power industry in Australia, and willing to change Commonwealth legislation to achieve this end. We have at least two companies already running a ruler over the country to see where to site nuclear reactors. And we have Dr Switkowski advising the Gov
ernment that 25 nuclear reactors could be built by 2050 and they would have a significant impact on Australia’s carbon emissions.

The next Federal election is between three and seven months away. During that time, it is possible the Howard Government could change the legislation and be in a position to sign contacts for the construction of up to 25 nuclear reactors in Australia. This would be entirely legal, if not entirely moral.

Should Labor win the next election, what options would they have?

According to Julian Burnside QC, that depends on what they do between now and the election. He believes they could be confronted with a large compensation bill, assuming they cancelled the contracts. However, he added, ‘If Labor spent their time making it clear that they would not support nuclear power in Australia, they would put the companies affected on notice,’ said Burnside. ‘That way, they could affect the amount of damages they would have to pay out in compensation. They would be liable for a lesser amount.’

The added benefit of such a clear and uncompromising position from Labor is that it would make it clear a vote for the Coalition is a vote for a nuclear future, while a vote for Labor is a vote for a nuclear-free future. Not quite a referendum on nuclear power, but as close as we are ever going to get.

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