ENERGY by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
SA Labor prepares to consider nuclear power
, February 28, 2015
In a groundbreaking step, South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill has announced that his state government will establish a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle.
SA Premier Jay Weatherill
Since the 1970s, there has been a bipartisan policy across Australia against involvement in the nuclear industry, which generates much of the electric power used in many other countries of the world.
Australia’s attitude towards nuclear power owes much to extreme environmentalists’ fear campaigns that nuclear energy would end up in nuclear weapons or in ecological disasters such as the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown.
The nuclear industry has an extraordinarily good safety record, despite the publicity about Chernobyl and the Fukushima reactor contamination, the latter caused by poor design and the impact of the tsunami which hit eastern Japan in 2011.
These are the only major accidents to have occurred in over 15,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries.
The evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. The risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining.
The consequences of an accident or terrorist attack are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks. Harmful effects on people of any radioactive releases can be avoided.
It is instructive to look at the Fukushima accident which followed the Category 9 Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900.
There were about 16,000 deaths caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami; a further 2,600 people missing, believed dead; and over 6,000 injuries.
There were no deaths directly caused by the Fukushima meltdown; but some 300,000 people had to be evacuated from the contamination zone around the reactor. Parts of the area are still considered unsafe for habitation.
According to a World Nuclear Association report, three of the six reactors were operating at the time, and had shut down automatically due to the earthquake. The back-up diesel generators for those three units were then swamped by the tsunami. This cut the power supply and led to weeks of drama with the release of radioactive contamination, and loss of the reactors.
The nuclear power station, which was located on the sea, was designed to withstand a tsunami height of over 5 metres; but tsunami heights coming ashore were about 14 metres.
The SA royal commission will be conducted by the state’s former governor, Kevin Scarce.
The establishment of the royal commission comes after the announced closure of General Motors’ car manufacturing operations in South Australia, and amidst uncertainty over the future of the Australian Submarine Corporation. Together, these are the core of what remains of heavy industry in South Australia.
Another factor is that South Australia is the home of the vast copper-gold-uranium deposit at Roxby Downs. It is the fourth largest copper deposit and the largest known single deposit of uranium in the world, although copper is the largest contributor to total revenue.
In 2011, the owners of the mine, BHP, announced the deferral of a $30 billion expansion of the mine’s operation, due to the economic downturn in the mining industry. There has long been vehement opposition to the mine from anti-nuclear forces in the ALP, as well as from the Greens and some Aboriginal activists.
In making the announcement, the SA premier said: “Mr Scarce has previously called for a mature and robust debate on the nuclear industry, and now he will lead that debate.
“As governor, Mr Scarce showed he had great capacity to bring people together and work together on a common cause. He is the ideal person to lead a mature conversation outside of political environment on this most important issue.”
Mr Scarce said that he looked forward to beginning the work of the royal commission.
“My mind is open on this issue; I have no pre-conceived views on what the future should hold for South Australia and its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle,” Mr Scarce said.
“I am looking forward to a full and thorough examination of the opportunities and the risks that this industry presents for our state.”
Mr Weatherill said that his government would begin consultation with Mr Scarce on a draft terms of reference and of the appointment of a number of independent experts to help the commission in its work.
“We are now asking the community for their input to determine the terms of reference which will guide the royal commission,” he said.
The establishment of the royal commission provides an opportunity to move beyond the past 40 years of “nuclear-phobia”, based on an irrational fear of nuclear power and nuclear energy.
This pathological fear has prevented any expansion of nuclear reactors beyond Lucas Heights in suburban Sydney, barred any Australian participation in the nuclear fuel industry other than supplying uranium oxide, and extends to the point where in some states, including Victoria, it remains illegal to even explore for uranium mineralisation.