DAWN - Features; June 30, 2006

Published June 30, 2006

Australia could become world’s nuclear bank

By Richard Pullin


SYDNEY: Australia, a top US ally, could become the world’s nuclear bank, leasing enriched uranium to other countries to generate power and then storing depleted fuel rods in its vast, empty outback.

But analysts say it won’t happen without a spirited debate.

Prime Minister John Howard reignited the nuclear debate in Australia after a visit to the United States last month, and a prime ministerial taskforce is to report on all aspects of the industry by the end of the year.

Domestic debate has centred on possible nuclear power stations, but Howard has talked up the benefits of adding value to existing uranium exports and a small lobby is pushing for the geologically stable continent to be used for waste storage.

The scenario would fit US President George Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plan, which aims to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by controlling access to enriched uranium.

“I do think it’s something Howard wants to lay the ground for, and I think the Americans are deeply involved because this can tie in with nuclear non-proliferation,” said Australian National University political analyst Michael McKinley.

The US proposal calls for advanced nuclear nations to provide nuclear fuel and recycling services for energy generation to other countries, which would then forgo developing nuclear technologies of their own.

Australia holds 40 per cent of the world’s known recoverable uranium and is a major producer, but would have to move from selling yellowcake, or uranium concentrate, to an enrichment and fuel fabrication programme and storing nuclear waste.

“The issue is whether Australia is a stable enough country both politically and geologically, and I think the answer is probably ‘yes’ to both of those,” said Aidan Byrne, head of physics at Australian National University. “Technologically, it’s certainly a feasible option.”

Australia’s role in the potentially lucrative business is being pushed by the Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group (NFLG), an international grouping of private sector interests that has lobbied governments around the world.

“Australia has without doubt the best geology in the world in terms of being dry, stable and flat to store spent fuel,” said John White, a member of the group and chairman of the government’s Uranium Industry Framework.

Plans to use Australia as a waste dump are not new. They were pursued in the 1990s and suggested again last year by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Australia’s Green Party believes the new inquiry is aimed at preparing the ground for the export of enriched uranium and the storage of waste, with some members of Howard’s own party sceptical about the need for nuclear power.

“The whole debate on nuclear power is complete nonsense. Australia doesn’t need nuclear power,” said Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne, pointing to opportunities for renewable energy.

The Greens fear a proposal to build a nuclear enrichment plant near the vast Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine in outback South Australia, with enriched ore sent to Darwin on the north-south rail link and then shipped overseas.

Waste would be returned and potentially stored in the outback, possibly at Maralinga in northern South Australia, a British atomic bomb test site in the 1950s.

Apart from environmental and security hazards, opponents argue that enrichment will support the proliferation of nuclear weapons by providing fuel for energy generation to countries that can use their own uranium for weapons, and slow a move to alternative energy sources.

“As long as you are stuck in a mindset of coal and uranium, you can’t get beyond it and see the potential of renewables,” said Milne, pointing to geothermal and solar energy.

The Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group’s White described nuclear energy as an inevitable stop-gap until renewable energy became widely available, given the need to tackle global warming.

“This is going to be an enormously strategic, international business,” he said, with the NFLG looking to participate in a business-led development, backed by government.

Howard has called for a “full-blooded debate” in Australia, but any move to lease nuclear energy may be years away and the Greens warn it would face enormous community opposition.

The ANU’s McKinley said enrichment might eventually become a reality given the economic case that could be made.

“Over the next 20 years it’s a better-than-even chance.” But using the country as a nuclear waste dump would create a political furore. “That’s going to be a really nasty debate in Australia,” said McKinley.—Reuters



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