Nuclear Dreaming


In the interests of giving John Howard the debate he said we had to have about nuclear power, we need to move away from the structure of debating it only works if there are two equally informed teams engaged in the process and instead, make like we’re at the movies. Or rather, make like we’re making movies.

While the subject is complex, the shot list is simple.

We open our movie with a close-up of a nuclear power plant, the sight of which provokes a series of questions.

Questions like, should Australia develop its own nuclear power industry to combat the country’s skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions? If so, how many nuclear power plants should we build and where do we put them? And how much will we need to subsidise their risk and costs?

Given the power plants wouldn’t start producing power until 2020 or 2030 and given that they would need to run for seven years before they pay off the carbon liability they accrued in construction, would they really make any difference to our high rate of carbon emissions?

By that time, it would be around 2040 and the last IPCC report tells us that failing urgent global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by then, the world’s temperature could be between 3 to 4 degrees hotter than it is today. The flow-on effect of high temperatures, low rainfall and wild weather will produce a global discontinuity the likes of which has not been seen. Do we really want to introduce a nuclear power industry just as international and national nuclear conventions come under unprecedented strain?

Ziggy Switkowski’s Nuclear Energy Review report suggests we need 25 nuclear reactors. But what do we do with the 45,000 tonnes of high-level waste generated over the 60 year life span of 25 reactors?

To answer this question we track back to a mid-shot, which reveals that, far from being centre stage, the nuclear reactor is peripheral to the real issue. Our mid-shot reveals a high-level nuclear waste dump, designed to take up to 20 per cent of the world’s nuclear waste.

It is our contention that as far as the Howard Government is concerned, the debate about nuclear power has always been a side issue. Certainly it could have the added benefits of wedging Labor, making it look like Howard was doing something about global warming, and casting him as a PM prepared to think big but it’s real value was as a stalking horse for a high-level nuclear waste dump.

Like so many decisions made during Howard’s decade in power, the decision to create a high-level nuclear waste dump in Australia is not a decision made in our interest, but rather one made in the interests of his friend George W Bush and, of course, himself.

The US nuclear industry has a problem. Despite enormous tax breaks and subsidies introduced by the Bush Administration, financiers have told the nuclear industry that they will not be lent any more money until they have resolved the issue of nuclear waste.

Their solution to the waste problem was Yucca Mountain, a site chosen because it was believed to have the most stable geology in the world. Unfortunately, it appears that claim may have been a little ambitious   the five-mile-long and one-mile deep tunnel built into the Nevada mountain may never receive so much as a microgram of waste.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada

When in early May 2006, Howard was informed by the Bush White House about their plans to develop the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)   an international partnership to reprocess spent nuclear fuel that renders the plutonium in it unusable for nuclear weapons Howard appeared willing to entertain the idea of accepting nuclear waste back into Australia.

Since that time, there has been a great deal of overt and covert activity positioning Australia as the logical country to host such an international dump.

While former Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and former Labor Premier Bob Carr have both been working tirelessly to advance the cause of an international dump, Dr John White, head of the Australian Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group has not given up hope of realising his ambition of developing a dump able to take up to 20 per cent of the world’s nuclear waste.

And finally, last Thursday, The Australian reported  that the

Federal Liberal women’s committee [at last weekend’s Liberal Party Conference]is leading a campaign to embrace nuclear power, encouraging the Prime Minister to expand the nuclear industry to include a worldwide nuclear waste store in the outback.

In words spookily reminiscent of the Yucca Mountain claims, the women’s committee urged talks on a nuclear waste dump, saying Australia has ‘geotechnically stable and remote areas to offer.’

The plan for the  Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump

And of course, now that the Senate has amended the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill and in the process made it legal for the Minister for the Environment to approve the construction of a high-level nuclear waste dump without recourse to any other oversight the broader community may not get any say in whether we take the world’s waste or not.

This takes us to our last, satellite shot.

This shot reveals that, in the true spirit of the Deputy Sheriff, Australia is entirely marginal to the main game being played out in the US. As a small part of the GNEP, our job will be to mine the uranium and store the waste. The geo-politics will be left to the US, China, India and Russia.

But even this limited role could have a destabilising affect. Indonesia has well over 200 million people. How will their governing elite react if Howard gets his way and we go nuclear?

Jakarta’s satellite view takes in the US’s desire to contain China; as well as Washington’s eagerness (in the War on Terror) to establish strategic bases in Central Asian republics on China’s western flank; plus the Americans’ attempt to cosy up to New Delhi.

Also looming large in the strategic frame would be the recent scaled-up security dialogue between Australia and Japan; the trilateral talks between the US, Japan and Australia; and now those mooted between the US, Japan, Australia and India.

Might the Indonesians perhaps see Canberra’s shift to accommodate Howard’s nuclear power option as not only a precursor to our hosting a waste facility but also a first step to us providing selected allies with enrichment and reprocessing services? Jakarta’s strategic planners would have to take this into consideration, knowing how close that would bring Australia to weapons capability.

Australia ‘s new security agreement with Indonesia signed by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda, on the island of Lombok on 13 November, 2006 will not necessarily convince Jakarta that we would be completely open about our nuclear intentions. To counter any perceived Australian strategic advantage, elements in Indonesia’s military could push to be provided with nuclear weapons. (For Canberra’s worst nightmare to come true, just imagine the increasingly shaky Pervez Musharraf regime in Pakistan being replaced by an Islamist one, and you have a possible ready supplier of the hardware.) < /p>

Some might say that Indonesia couldn’t handle the technicalities involved in such a transfer. And anyway, what sort of delivery capacity would they have? True, perhaps, but look who didn’t know what Dr AQ Khan  was up to as he set about making Pakistan a nuclear power in the 1980s only finding out when it was too late.

As the nuclear card is being played by Howard, there is no useful debate under way in Australia about these kinds of implications. Yet again, we seem content to behave as if it’s too complex, too abstract, of only peripheral importance, or a fait accompli and too hard to undo. Yet again, we are being embroiled in a Bush-driven fiasco not because of any pressing strategic or security imperative, but because of our leader’s credulity and vanity.

And as the screen fades to black, there are no credits for anyone.

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