PM John Howard's nuclear push causes alarm

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Nuclear Power for Australia?
Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian nuclear debate

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has announced he wants a "full-scale nuclear debate", and three of his senior federal government frontbenchers - Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Resources Minister, Ian Macfarlane, and Environment Minister Ian Campbell - have all suggested Australia, which has around 40 per cent of the world's known uranium reserves, should consider enriching uranium - a step in processing that would allow it to be used as reactor fuel as well as for nuclear weapons.

However there is strong opposition for nuclear power in the Australian community. The Australian Greens have rejected the Prime Minister's assumption that nuclear power might be 'desirable' for Australia. The Greens say they challenge Mr Howard to show "true leadership on climate change and nuclear non-proliferation."

Greens climate change and energy spokesperson Senator Christine Milne said Mr Howard was "playing politics" by floating the idea and testing public opinion before developing a government position.

"Instead of pandering to US President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - the two most unpopular leaders in the world today - Prime Minister Howard should demonstrate real leadership and put some authenticity into the government's response to climate change and terrorism," Senator Milne said. "Nuclear power and nuclear proliferation are a threat to both."

Senator Milne challenged advocates of nuclear power to explain what they will to do about nuclear waste, how large a public subsidy they are prepared to pay to prop up nuclear power, and why the Sustainable Development Commission was wrong when it recommended last month against expanding nuclear power in Britain.

"Australians have already had to subsidise uranium mining companies to clean up after mines have closed, while last week's Budget papers revealed that ANSTO can't estimate the cost of decommissioning the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor," Senator Milne said. "When will advocates of nuclear power admit that it is too slow, too expensive and too dangerous to be a solution to climate change? Nor is there any safe way to dispose of the waste. It is not even safe to transport, a concern supported by the head of the International Energy Agency..." said Senator Milne in a media release.

"Instead of turning to nuclear power, Australia should ratify the Kyoto Protocol, invest in renewable energy, adopt a national energy efficiency target and improve public transport.

"Several studies examining options to achieve deep cuts in Australian greenhouse emissions all show this goal can be achieved, cost effectively, without resorting to nuclear power," said Senator Milne in a media release.

Greens leader Bob Brown says the Prime Minister is sending a message of approval for Indonesia to become a nuclear power. "Australia and our region are essentially nuclear-free. Mr Howard is abandoning that security to grab uranium profits and facilitate an Australian role in nuclear enrichment," Senator Brown said. "This robs Australia of its moral strength to argue against Indonesia resurrecting the Soeharto plan for 12 nuclear reactors and to advance its interest in Russian-built floating nuclear power stations."

A Nuclear Symbol

"This will make our region much less secure for the next generation of Australians," Senator Brown said. "John Howard has talked up regional terrorism. Now he is promoting nuclear power proliferation in our neighbourhood. At best his logic is faulty, at worst he is taking Australia into a future unnecessarily menaced by the nuclear threat," Senator Brown said.

Labor MP Kelvin Thomson says John Howard's push towards nuclear power generation could heighten the risk of a terrorist attack. "The problem with nuclear power is that more of it that is around, the easier it is for terrorists to get access to it and I'm not satisfied that in this day and age we can be absolutely certain that terrorists can't access it," Mr Thomson said.

Mr Thompson said the Government should be focussing its interest on "much safer and environmentally-friendly" abundant renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. Mr Thomson said Australia was a potential world-leader in solar power. "Surely you exhaust all the other alternatives first before you say let's go down the nuclear road," he said.

"The problem with nuclear power is that more of it that is around, the easier it is for terrorists to get access to it," he said. "I'm not satisfied that in this day and age you can be absolutely certain that terrorists can't access it."

Union leader Bill Shorten, a federal Labor candidate at the next election, believes the issue is unpopular with the electorate. A survey in 2005 found 47 percent of Australians supported nuclear power and 40 percent opposed it.

Professor Frank Muller from the University of New South Wales, said the framework to manage nuclear power needs to be put in place first. He says it could take decades before a nuclear power plant could operate. "So it actually takes even longer to provide a greenhouse benefit than it does to build a power plant," he said. Professor Muller says nuclear power stations are expensive to build, and safety is a major issue.

Opposition environment spokesman Anthony Albanese said: "John Howard's nuclear fantasy is Australia's nightmare," Mr Albanese told reporters. "Intractable problems with nuclear energy when it comes to economic costs, safety, disposal of waste and contribution to nuclear proliferation remain up to some 50 years."

Mr Albanese said that if Mr Howard was serious about nuclear power he should say where a nuclear power plant would be built, and where the waste it produced would be stored. "If he's so confident that nuclear energy is safe... I'm sure he'll have coalition MPs volunteering to have a nuclear reactor in their electorate and to store their waste in the electorate," he said.

Mr Albanese said the current Labor policy remained opposed to nuclear energy in Australia.

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