Climate change

January 28, 2010

From nuclear sceptic to convert

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Renewable Energy — Barry Brook @ 6:35 pm


I’m delighted to reproduce an Op Ed written by my good friend Assoc. Prof. Haydon Manning, who is head of the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University in Adelaide. Haydon teaches Australian and environmental politics and is sufficiently influential (controversial) that he’s been bestowed the great honour of having a Friends of the Earth page dedicated to his writings! This piece was written for the SA Mines and Energy journal; you can read the original here.

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Spotting Rex Connor’s Ghost

In the late 1970s, I marched through Adelaide streets shouting: “Uranium, leave it in the ground.” Teaching environmental politics over the last ten or so years saw me prepare lectures weighing up the pros and cons of the nuclear fuel cycle. The evidence slowly convince a nuclear skeptic of the errors of his ways.

Recently, I accepted an invitation from the WA Chamber of Mines and Energy to speak at a public forum in Kalgoorlie. I argued that the good citizens of WA ought to be proud once uranium oxide starts to pass through their township as they will join what I call “the main game” on the carbon emission reduction front.

In an effort to convey this point I often draw attention to the remarkable energy punch embedded in a drum of uranium oxide. One drum, once processed and fabricated into nuclear fuel rods, will generate the same amount of electricity as approximately 6,000 tonnes of coal. In a nutshell, about 5 drums of yellowcake equates to the electricity generating capacity of your average coal freighter!

Take this a step further and look ahead a couple of decades. A drum uranium oxide supplying a so-called 4th generation nuclear reactor would, according to data supplied to me by Adelaide University’s Professor Barry Brook, equate to about 1 million tonnes of coal burning foregone. If you like, that’s something like a briefcase of yellowcake compared to a ship of coal – now that truly evokes hope for a mid-century clean energy future.

In this State we appreciate that our uranium mining story is one of world’s best practice with regard to occupational health and safety and the transport of uranium oxide. Three decades without a ‘radiation scare’ sees the majority of South Australians well aware that there is nothing to fear from uranium mining, milling and transportation. This is clearly evident with opinion polls indicating that South Australians are more at ease with the industry than poll respondents in other states.

Thirty years ago the anti-uranium mining camp spoke of grave health risk for miners. I was convinced when I marched that cancer rates would be higher for miners. Of course, history demonstrates this is not the case but that doesn’t deter the current crop of anti-nuclear campaigners efforts to scare the public.

For example, the WA Conservation Council and WA Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam, proselytize that ‘uranium is the 21st century’s asbestos’. I’m able to report that many young students I teach upon critically reviewing such arguments dismiss them and gravitate toward supporting nuclear power. They see the fact that without nuclear energy in the picture many nations will simply struggle to find a low emissions path to energy security.

It seems that South Australian political and business leaders need to robustly lobby the Rudd Government on the question of uranium sales to India. And more quietly, but I am enough of a realist to know this is unlikely, to advocate the case for hosting a high grade nuclear waste disposal facility. This could begin with the point that servicing the needs of those uranium customers who may struggle find the suitable geology for long term waste repositories dovetails well with our established bona vides dealing with uranium.

Debating with environmentalists of various ‘shades of Green’, one is often at pains to convey the point that countries like India and China will not deliberately slow their economic growth simply because climate change threatens. They seek for their citizens material wealth akin to that which we enjoy. Burning a swag of fossil fuels is a simple necessity unless viable and mature technologies present themselves as an alternative. Powering Beijing, Shanghai and Mumbai, for example, with wind and solar is an unadulterated fantasy. Whereas envisaging a future where nuclear power supplies electricity for industry, homes and transport is no fantasy.

The demand for uranium sourced in South Australia is set to soar in coming decades as we are in the box seat to help such nations. By offering low sovereign risk, a factor well known to this journal’s readership, but one not widely appreciated within the community, SA is set to become a key energy supply province some even say, ‘the Saudi Arabia of the South!’

With WA now on board with licensing uranium mines, and given that few South Australians oppose uranium mining, we should as a nation begin to look at enrichment and fuel rod fabrication. To be sure, this is a long term vision as current international enrichment capacity is well able to meet demand, but that will change and our low sovereign risk status could well see the economies eventually stack up. Of course, it will take political leadership and the dissolution of the remaining anti-nuclear sentiment within the Australian Labor Party.

Sparking a debate over uranium enrichment should be on the agenda of the major parties in South Australia. Thirty-five years ago it was on the agenda of the Whitlam Government’s Minster for Mines and Energy, Rex Connor, but implacable opposition from within the State ALP saw Connor’s vision to value add kyboshed.

A second term Rudd government may well jump the hurdle and support uranium sales to India. In that event the door may also open with regard to a more fulsome Australian engagement with the nuclear fuel cycle. If that happens I hope a third term Rann Government will investigate, as part of a long term vision, an enrichment plant.

In June 1975 Connor argued for an enrichment plant at ‘the top of Spencer Gulf’ because he figured that was ‘the safest place in Australia in regards to marine and rocket attacks … and was the best site for the plant both economically and strategically’. Connor is remembered, infamously for the the ‘loans affair’ which contributed to the downfall of the Whitlam government. Fair enough to, it was a low point in national political life! But one day he may be remembered as a visionary who saw Australia as a mature partner operating at different points of the nuclear fuel cycle.

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