WITH both John Howard and Kim Beasley egging on a uranium debate, let’s bring it on. I mean a real information debate.

Howard and Beasley are opening up this can of worms on the pretext that uranium will be a bonanza for the national economy.

As a long-term campaigner against uranium mining and expansion of the nuclear fuel cycle, it would be tempting to challenge the immediate financial arguments that are driving this issue, but I cannot do so. In fact, I will even add to them.

In many respects this is a gargantuan contest between hard core economic opportunity and hard core risks.

Put succinctly, for all its inherent risks, the world is simply not going to leave uranium resources in the ground. Our addiction to unsustainable, high-energy living, coupled with climate change will guarantee that. (The necessary shift to a renewables-based energy economy is being largely impeded by vested oil-coal-uranium interests which has resulted in a policy paralysis in the international community.)

So, what’s really in it for Australia?

Here’s how it goes, in a nutshell.

Until now, the world’s 440 nuclear reactors have largely been fuelled by using plutonium from dismantled cold war stockpiles. Mined uranium has just filled the gap. But that’s about to change, because the old nuke stockpiles are rapidly coming to an end.

This factor is what is injecting strong global demand for new uranium mines. So too is a number of new nuclear power plants soon to be constructed, not least those in China. Then there is the gradual worldwide spread of carbon taxes intended to discourage and phase out the use of fossil fuels. The nuclear power industry is the main a beneficiary of carbon taxation and is rubbing its hands. (When nuclear wastes are similarly taxed the horse will have well and truly bolted.)

So, like it or not, demand for fissile uranium is shooting up exponentially. Howard and Beasley are reading that part correctly. A robust global uranium market is more or less guaranteed.

Now let’s look at the world uranium market in the foreseeable future …

Two potent factors stand out.

Because there are not sufficient uranium mines open to fuel existing reactors (and it takes a good 10 years to get things going), there will be a critical shortfall of nuclear fuel in around 15 years time. New reactors under construction will exacerbate this problem immensely.

This is not a trifling issue. According to former British minister, Michael Meacher, nuclear reactors being constructed in Britain in the coming 10 years will have no guarantee of supply and will carry huge risk because uranium prices at the crunch time (around 2020 AD) will be dictated by the uranium cartels.

At best, enriched uranium will just quadruple in price, increasing the cost of nuclear driven electricity. In a worst case scenario, lack of fuel supply may force them to close down prematurely, Meacher warns.

But this 15-year horizon spike is just the start.

Uranium has to be seen as a bedfellow with oil. Uranium politics will follow in the heels of oil politics, almost identically.

Just like oil, uranium is a non-renewable resource, except there is much less of it. With expected growth in the nuclear power industry the world’s known uranium reserves are predicted to run out in around 40 years time.

Like oil, uranium production will peak, then go into decline, long before it runs out — most likely in about 25 years time.  This is also within the lifespan of new power plants being built and this factor will guarantee that uranium prices will escalate even further, and never return. As with oil, this is when uranium politics will cause much international tension and potential conflict, even warfare.

But, putting aside questions of social and environmental cost, the mooted financial benefit to uranium producers is clear. And with over one third of the world’s extractable uranium lying under Australian soil (1.1 million tonnes) it is not hard to see why we are being goaded into a hurried debate.

What of mooted benefits to the Australian economy?

As an export commodity, potential new uranium mining is ranked by economists as a ‘modest’ income earner, (using existing prices as a benchmark) — nothing of the scale of coal and natural gas. Looking at the above future prognoses, however, the owners of uranium resources know that the scales will tip very soon. 

Significant uranium resources also exist in Canada, the US, Brazil, Niger, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Namibia, so it’s not as if there is no competition. The race is on, and Howard and Beasley obviously want Australia to be in the front running.

Australia has a unique competitive edge over other potential suppliers too — that is, if it wants to exercise that advantage. Our ancient geology enables Australia to offer uranium on an exchange basis, taking back high-level radioactive wastes — this being an unresolvable headache for nations having nuclear power plants.

Agreeing to become a global waste dump is Australia’s trump card, and this goes hand in glove with the mining debate. Waste dumping is a volatile issue that Beasley will not be able to shove under the carpet, try as he may.

Though heated public controversy will most likely prevent any State from agreeing to become a nuclear waste dump, the commonwealth has constitutional power to override the Northern Territory’s wishes. The Territory, then, is destined to become the world’s major nuclear waste ground.   

What of the economic risks?

If this whole scenario seems too good to be true for the Australian economy, it can come unstuck in a flash as a result of a terrible nuclear accident, another Chernobyl or, in these troubled times, a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility or even an Hiroshima.

To those who can’t, or won’t, look further than the income side of the equation, hold your horses. The nuclear fuel cycle throws up immense and intractable moral, social and environmental dilemmas, of similar magnitude to that posed now by oil.

Australia may try to become the new Saudi Arabia, but if we brush aside, or try to rationalise away, the multitudinous moral and other dilemmas that spring from aiding and abetting the nuclear fuel cycle, sure as eggs they will come back to haunt us as economic dilemmas — or as tumultuous national security risks.

As is so often the case, the apparent economic benefits come unstuck when the ensuing risks cause either chaos or run into huge mopping up costs.

And in the long term?

Just as oil has brought us urban pollution, worldwide climate change, calamitous cyclones, drought disasters, threats to global biodiversity and oil warfare, so too nuclear power will bring on its own set of intractable headaches. The next generation of humans will inherit these headaches, on top of those associated with climate change.

Lastly, nuclear power can at best be seen as a stop gap. The lure of a financial bonanza may seem worth it now, but nuclear energy as a non-renewable resource will only serve to entrench our addiction to non-sustainable, high-energy consumption. Making it even harder to climb out of the mire. What then?

This is the real, curly nub of the problem and this is when the economic sums simply don’t add up any more.  In the words of Albert Einstein, “It is not possible to solve a problem with the same consciousness that made it.”

In conclusion

If we look at uranium mining with rose-tinted, cash-register eyes, then the medium-term financial prognosis for Australia we cannot deny. That is why Howard and Beasley are both strategically bringing on policy change — mockingly fronted as ‘national debate’. 

Both of them are keenly aware that the debate is clouded by a convenient time lag between fast money and the risks that inevitably follow, sometimes immediately, more often down the track. Just look at Maralinga.

The onus is on the Australian people to honestly weigh up the (hard core and subliminal) economic benefits and the (hard core and subliminal) risks to both this generation and the next … And the next … The one after that …  And take a stand.

Though Howard and Beasley may intend to ignore what the people think, public opinion still matters in Australia. Expressed strongly enough, it can still upset the apple cart.

Chris Harries
August 2006

Earlier, by Chris Harries: Who is Michael Kent


What Bob Brown said, Saturday

MEDIA RELEASE

Saturday, 5th August, 2006

Flannery reveals Australia to be world nuclear waste dump

Brown challenges Beazley

The Greens have welcomed Tim Flannery’s revelation that Australia has been selected as the world’s nuclear waste dump by the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Both Prime Minister Howard and Labor Leader Beazley want open-slather uranium exports,” Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown said in Hobart today.

“But neither is being honest with Australians. They know their policy will lead to our country becoming the world’s nuclear waste dump.

“The site selected by the IAEA, according to Dr Flannery, is the Officer Basin on the WA-SA border region.

“But Tim also makes it clear that Australia going all out nuclear will only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by one per cent. It is a stupid proposition for our nation.

“Where Tim dips out is in failing to mention energy efficiency which can provide much more power for Australia, more cheaply and with more jobs than nuclear. And he has given scant recognition to renewables, including solar, where Australia has world’s best technology.

“Mr Beazley, in Hobart for this weekend’s state Labor conference, should admit that the price of Labor going all out for uranium exports is a giant waste dump with attendant nuclear shipping, port facilities and cross-continent waste transport.

“Instead of transforming Australia into a nuclear nation forever, the Greens’ energy policy would make us a world leader in energy efficiency and the export of solar technology,” Senator Brown said.

 

Chris Harries

Until now, the world’s 440 nuclear reactors have largely been fuelled by using plutonium from dismantled cold war stockpiles. Mined uranium has just filled the gap. But that’s about to change, because the old nuke stockpiles are rapidly coming to an end.

Like oil, uranium production will peak, then go into decline, long before it runs out — most likely in about 25 years time.  This is also within the lifespan of new power plants being built and this factor will guarantee that uranium prices will escalate even further, and never return. As with oil, this is when uranium politics will cause much international tension and potential conflict, even warfare.

Agreeing to become a global waste dump is Australia’s trump card, and this goes hand in glove with the mining debate. Waste dumping is a volatile issue that Beasley will not be able to shove under the carpet, try as he may.

Though heated public controversy will most likely prevent any State from agreeing to become a nuclear waste dump, the commonwealth has constitutional power to override the Northern Territory’s wishes. The Territory, then, is destined to become the world’s major nuclear waste ground.