It's a minefield

Frank Muller

The nuclear debate raises two related issues. Is nuclear power a good energy option for Australia? And, should Australia back US President George W. Bush's plan for a global nuclear revival, both diplomatically and by deepening our involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle?

While public attention has focused on nuclear reactors, it would appear the Howard government's main agenda is expanding uranium mining and paving the way for enrichment and even taking back other countries' radioactive wastes.

In either case, the prime minister's panel is too unrepresentative and lacks the breadth of expertise required to build a consensus on the scientific, technical, institutional, social, economic and ethical issues involved. More importantly, the whole exercise puts the cart before the horse. If nuclear power is the answer, what is the question?

Canberra should be addressing two questions urgently. First, what energy choices will enable Australia to contribute to deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades while pursuing economic prosperity, social justice and international security?Second, what steps should Australia take to address the growing threat of nuclear weapons proliferation and the de facto breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? The government's inquiry only seeks to answer a small part of a much larger puzzle.

"Recent events only too starkly show how yesterday's ally can become tomorrow's rogue state."

Charting a low emission energy future involves numerous issues that are outside or incidental to the inquiry's terms of reference and beyond the expertise of its members.

How can we tap the substantial low-cost opportunities for improving Australia's energy efficiency already identified by governments? How do we ensure investment flows to demand side projects when they are cheaper than upgrading networks or building new power plants?

How large is the potential for meeting energy demands, reducing emissions and boosting regional economies by better using Australia's abundant decentralised renewable resources like biomass, wind and solar energy? What are the barriers to cost-effective projects and how should they be addressed?

What role should natural gas play, both through combined cycle base load plants and smaller-scale distributed cogeneration of electricity and heat? What is the best path for trialling commercial scale low-emission coal technology? How can Australia gain greater economic advantage from its leading position in photovoltaics and other sustainable energy technologies?

The role of nuclear power can only be considered alongside these other options. Do renewables or cleaner coal require the same high level of public subsidies that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation says will be required for nuclear power? Is the role of subsidies to help establish new industries or to permanently underwrite investment risks?

How quickly can the different options be brought to market and contribute to reducing greenhouse emissions? Which technologies have the greatest potential for lower costs as they mature? Which fit best with our move toward more decentralised, customer-oriented energy markets? What planning procedures, regulatory authorities and other laws do the different technologies involve - and what are the associated costs and the implications for the rights of employees and local communities?

To chart a course for tackling greenhouse emissions, we need an inquiry with the mandate and expertise to answer such questions. The problem of nuclear weapons proliferation raises even more vexed issues. Former US Vice-President Al Gore recently said:

For eight-years in the White House, every weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected with a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out of a lot of coal Â… then we would have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.

President Bush's answer seems to be an abandonment of the universal principles and multi-lateral co-operation of the NPT for a coalition-of-the-willing-like alliance of nuclear supplier nations to control key facilities and police sensitive materials. Bush's proposal relies upon the deployment of new nuclear reactor and reprocessing technologies that according to his own web site are still many years short of commercial reality. Undoubtedly, these technologies will gain the attention of the PM's nuclear panel with its strong representation from the nuclear sciences.

The most troubling aspects, however, are questions of human behaviour and international affairs, not technology. The Bush proposal seems founded on the idea that key nuclear facilities - and even weapons themselves - are acceptable in the hands of allies but not 'rogue states.' Recent events only too starkly show how yesterday's ally can become tomorrow's rogue state. In more general terms, Bush's foreign policy failures suggest that we need to think very carefully before abandoning multilateralism, however messy and frustrating, for such 'exceptionalist' notions.

This is territory that the PM's nuclear inquiry seems especially ill-equipped to enter.

Frank Muller is an adjunct professor with the University of NSW's Institute of Environmental Studies and presented a paper on these ideas at the Evatt Foundation's Sunset Seminar on Nuclear Power at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts on 28 June.

Also on the Evatt site: