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Zoe Kenny : Uranium - Leave It In Ground!

Uranium: Leave It In The Ground!

Zoe Kenny
Green Left Weekly

A May 2 Sydney Morning Herald article reported federal Treasurer Peter Costello's warning that Australia may need to turn to nuclear power as the “solution” to greenhouse-gas driven climate change. Costello has joined the chorus of Coalition MPs calling for the establishment of a nuclear-power industry in Australia, opening up another front in the offensive to get the public to accept an expansion of uranium mining.

However, the same article also quoted scientists rejecting Costello's call. The scientists claim that nuclear power plants are not a practical solution to climate change. They pointed out that a single nuclear power plant can “take up to 10 years” to build and cost up to $3 billion, “even if there was no public protest”, and that the construction process can release large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Dr Mark Diesendorf, a lecturer at the University of NSW, was quoted as saying, “I think the whole thing is insane”.

This conclusion is backed up by the Australian Conservation Foundation's June 2005 report Uranium Mining in Australia, which notes that “huge amounts of energy are needed” during the construction of nuclear power plants and to facilitate production of nuclear fuel, thereby indirectly contributing to climate change. It also notes that the time needed to construct enough nuclear power plants to replace fossil-fuel sources of electricity generation would be too long, as action is needed now to stem CO2 output.

The passing last month of the 20th anniversary of the catastrophic Chernobyl accident did not help the cause of those pushing for nuclear power, being a timely reminder of its extreme dangers. An April 18 Greenpeace report makes the case that the impact of the Chernobyl disaster has been far greater than previously thought. The report found that approximately 270,000 cancer and 93,000 fatal cancer cases will be caused by the Chernobyl accident and estimated that between 1990 and 2004, the accident caused an additional 200,000 deaths in Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. These estimates are far higher than the 4000 additional deaths from the fallout predicted by the UN’s Chernobyl Forum.

The danger of accidents can never be ruled out. As well as mechanical failures and human error, industry deregulation and privatisation allow corporations to cut corners on safety regulations and adequate staffing, leading to a higher chance of accidents.

Furthermore, there is still no safe solution to the storage of nuclear waste — even after 50 years of research. Researchers have been experimenting with a process called “transmutation”, which aims at reducing the radioactivity of the waste. However there is no verdict on the effectiveness of this method.

While the calls for nuclear power are more in the realm of an ambit claim at this stage, the prospect of a massive expansion of uranium mining in Australia is looking more likely by the day.

With global demand for uranium increasing, largely led by China

(which is planning to construct 30 new nuclear reactors by 2020) and India, the market price for uranium has tripled in the last two years. From an average of 3400 tonnes of uranium oxide (U3O8) concentrates exported each year from 1981 to 1996, Australia’s exports of U3O8 increased to 11,215 tonnes in 2004-05, earning the mining companies $475 million.

The number of mining companies prospecting for uranium reserves in Australia has increased markedly — from five in 2003 to more than 70 today. The May 2 Toronto Globe and Mail labelled the push for increased uranium mining in Australia, which has 30% of the world’s proven uranium ore reserves — “a modern-day gold rush”. Canada, presently the world’s largest supplier of uranium ore, has only 12% of the world’s proven reserves.

However, the radioactive profiteers have some major hurdles to overcome before they can really begin their nuclear free-for-all: public opinion and the ALP’s “no new mines policy”. The latter only allows for the operation of mines approved by previous non-Labor governments. With Labor governments in every state and territory, the mining industry and federal Coalition government are putting immense pressure on the ALP to drop its policy at its national conference next year.

The pressure to drop the policy has resulted in a very public debate within the ALP. The key figure in the pro-uranium mining wing of the ALP is South Australian Premier Mike Rann, whose government is presiding over a $7 billion expansion of the BHP-owned Olympic Dam mine (which is expected to increase production to 15,000 tonnes of uranium ore annually by its completion, up from its present 4500 tonnes).

Martin Ferguson, Labor shadow minister for primary industry, is also a vocal advocate of dumping the “no new mines” policy.

Until recently, federal ALP leader Kim Beazley avoided weighing in too heavily in the debate. However, on May 1 he told ABC Radio National’s PM program, “it's not a question, however, of who digs it up, but the terms and conditions under which it is sold”, thus throwing his support behind the pro-uranium wing in the party.

The “anti-uranium” wing is led by Anthony Albanese, Labor shadow environment minister, who is particularly concerned that a change of Labor policy will lead to a loss of votes to the Greens — a reasonable concern given that a Herald/AC Nielsen poll cited in the May 1 SMH showed that the Greens’ primary vote already stands at 10%.

According to a Roy Morgan poll released on April 13, 55% of Australians believe that Australia should export uranium for peaceful purposes, while 35% are opposed and 10% are undecided. However, less than half (47%) of ALP supporters approve of the export of uranium.

From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
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