EDITORIAL: Nuclear energy - Australia's pivotal role
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, May 27, 2006
Australia, with its vast uranium supplies, has the means to ensure the safe use of nuclear power by its clients, writes Peter Westmore.
Soaring world energy prices - fuelled by the inexorable industrialisation of two of the world's most populous nations, China and India - have quite suddenly turned the world's attention to the most attractive alternative to coal and oil for power generation: uranium.
Since World War II, the nuclear power industry has been haunted by the nightmarish prospect of nuclear war: a foretaste of which was seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when two small American atomic bombs razed two Japanese cities, bringing a sudden end to the war in the Pacific.
Since then, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel have all acquired nuclear weapons, although the effect has been mutual deterrence, rather than catastrophe.
However, the prospect that a "rogue state" such as Iran or North Korea might acquire nuclear weapons remains one of the major destabilising factors in both the Middle East and north Asia.
In the meantime, nuclear power is becoming an increasingly attractive option to many energy-deficient countries, particularly those needing to rapidly increase electricity generation.
Uranium is the principal raw material for nuclear power reactors, and both China and India, which have previously not been in the market for Australian uranium, have shown a very strong interest over the past 18 months or so.
At the beginning of the year, there were about 440 nuclear reactors operating around the world, a further 33 are under construction and a further 37 are planned for completion over the next 10 years.
Demand for uranium has pushed prices up by about 30 per cent this year, as countries strive to reduce their dependency on oil (whose prices have rocketed this year) and coal, which is a relatively dirty source of electric energy.
Interestingly, the European Union - which has been in the forefront of the push to cut greenhouse gas emissions through the Kyoto Protocol - recently indicated that it sees nuclear energy as an important contributor to its energy future.
Last March, an EU summit gave strong backing to the use of nuclear power to combat climate change and to reduce the EU's growing dependence on imported energy supplies. A resolution on security of energy supply in the EU "recognises the role that nuclear energy currently plays in some member states, maintaining the security of electricity supply as part of energy mix and for avoiding CO2 emissions". An amendment put forward by the Greens which was negative about nuclear power was rejected.
The preamble said that "energy security should be considered as an essential component of the global security concept and has an increasing impact on the overall security of the European Union".
But the driving force for Australia is in our own region. Australia has around 40 per cent of the world's known reserves of uranium oxide, and its development has been blunted by fierce opposition from radical environmentalists, who have exercised a powerful influence over ALP policy since the 1970s.
As a result, Australia has had only three uranium mines in operation, although there is mounting pressure in South Australia for the state Labor Government, which already hosts the country's largest uranium mine at Olympic Dam in the north of the state, to approve the development of the Honeymoon uranium deposit, discovered about 15 years ago.
In the Northern Territory, the existing Ranger Uranium Mine, located about 250 km east of Darwin, has produced around $4 billion in uranium oxide since it commenced operation in 1981. It supplies around 11 per cent of the world's uranium needs, all for electricity generation.
There are also two other uranium deposits near the Queensland border, with estimated reserves of $5 billion.
With increasing demand for uranium, Australia is in a sellers' market, and is therefore in a position to ensure that countries which take Australian uranium comply with strict safeguards.
These include uranium audits to prevent Australia's exports being diverted to military use, but also need to examine longer-term issues associated with the enrichment of uranium, its inclusion into fuel rods which generate heat used to power the reactors, and recycling of fuel rods.
While the attitude of the Australian Prime Minister recently has been to discourage any consideration of reprocessing of spent fuel rods, it is significant that the French Government has the opposite policy.
Unlike Australia, there is overwhelming public support in France for nuclear power generation. Following the "oil shock" of the early 1970s, France set out to become independent of Middle East oil and has built over 50 working nuclear plants, which generate over 70 per cent of the country's electricity.
While Australia does not have to go down the same direction, it is clear that the recent surge in oil prices is pushing countries such as China and India to rapidly diversify their energy sources.
As both a supplier of uranium and as a guarantor of the safe use of nuclear power, Australia may have a pivotal role in the future of nuclear power around the world.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.