Monday, May 15, 2006

Nuclear leasing

Acting PM Mark Vaile called on Australians to keep an open mind on the issue of 'nuclear leasing'. This would enable the sale of uranium to countries which have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty provided they use the uranium for power plants and return spent nuclear fuel. A fillip to the Australian mining industry because it could then sell uranium to countries such as India which have not signed the NPT, a way of assisting globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and of reducing holdings of spent fue;l which could be used for nuclear weapons. But I am very skeptical of the ability of Australians to have a civil non-hysterical debate about this issue. As The Australian's editorial remarks:
'...Mr Vaile seems to have forgotten the way state and territory governments went into histrionics, when they were not hysterical, over Canberra's call a few years back for one of them to bury the tiny amounts of nuclear waste produced by Australia's only atomic installation, the research reactor at Lucas Heights. It will take a great deal of talk before the new idea of taking back for safe storage the residue of uranium we have exported gets a fair hearing'.

Nuclear power is a reality and a major new international source of electrical energy. The debate about whether it will be used is irrelevant. It will be used. The issue is to ensure it is used safely both from an environmental perspective and to keep this material out of the hands of terrorists. The idea of leasing - and more generally of storing spent fuel safely in Australia, is worth addressing.

There are difficulties with this proposal - it is part of George Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership - but it should not be rejected out-of-hand. My fear is that interest groups in Australia will seek to turn discussion of this issue into an attempt to bury the Coalition. If smart politicians like John Howard sense this the debate won't even occur. Howard will not seek to develop policy initiatives that he knows won't be implemented even if the reasons behind non-adoption make no sense. This failure to consider options would be a pity.


conrad said...

Given that it seems difficult to even start up a wind farm in Australia, I'll just assume that a proposal to start up a nuclear waste dump isn't going to get anywhere, as I seem to remember commenting last time. The primary problem in this case is political, not logical.

Personally, I'm not as positive about nuclear energy as you are, although I agree, it should be given a fair evaluation as a potential energy source (it surely must be better than coal in many circumstances -- the byproducts of which float around in the atmosphere for extremely long amounts of time also). In addition, if you dig it up and sell it, I think you should have some responsibilty to take the waste back (quite unlike now).

The problem is I don't see how a fair evaluation can be done, since what it really boils down to is whether people can really find a storage site for the material that is going to be safe for longer than humans have existed for. Given that things have changed a lot in the last 5000 years or so of recorded history (just a mere speck of time), I think it reasonable to say that this simply can't be done. Do I really want to curse the next 10000 generations so I can have a little bit more economic growth now ?

hc said...

Conrad, I agree there are political problems - when it comes to discussing many new ideas we have become a nation of hysterics. And I can imagine the ALP would love someething like this as an election issue.

The last sentence of your second para seems to undermine your objections. Nuclear power is going to be used on a massive scale. We are going to sell it. If you are concerned about the waste issue why not take measures to deal with it effectively.

The decision about growth isn't only a choice facing wealthy Western consumers addicted to a energy-intensive lifestyle. Its also about several billion people in developing counbtries who want refrigeration, TV sets and air conditioning. Saying hold it right there will not work.

conrad said...

I agree with you Harry on this one, in that there are really two arguments, a) should we sell it; and b) if we do, should we take it back.

If we do a) I think we have some obligation to do b), with my objection really being to the extent of the former. The problem is it is possible to do a) without b), which incidentally seems to happen at all levels of consumption in Australia (or perhaps, almost everywhere excluding a few European countries).

I'm also well aware of the negative consequences of coal power, and not just for CO2 emmissions (which I'm also aware are not just going to drop out of the sky once we stop sticking it there -- I think most people are unaware of how long the lifecycle of such gases is).

In fact, when I think of coal, I think of things like the dust cloud which now seems to envelope most of the northern hemisphere (reducing crop yields, reducing rainfall, giving people cancer, etc.) which almost never seems to get a mention in these debates in Australia, and indeed affects poor countries the most. It'll be interesting to see to what extent nuclear power gets used to get around some of these problems in the future.