The day he defeated Malcolm Turnbull for the Federal Liberal leadership at the end of last year, Tony Abbott came out strongly for a debate on nuclear power for Australia.
In the following days he backslid, admitting it would be a long way off - and too far in the future to be part of any immediate response to human-caused global warming (not that he believes in it anyway). Besides the time lag to get nuclear power stations into service - usually estimated at around two decades - the other difficulty for the Nuclear Liberals is that Australians don’t want them, and certainly nowhere near where they live.
Recently there have been numerous articles in the press putting the nuclear case, as part of an obvious attempt to get the nuclear push going again, as it was in the dying days of the Howard government.
Notable among these was a piece late last year (The Australian, 18 December 2009) by Ziggy Switkowski, the former Telstra boss who chaired the Howard Government’s review of uranium mining, processing and nuclear power in 2006.
Titled “A clean and green way to fuel the nation”, Dr Switkowski’s piece addresses a range of concerns of Australians about nuclear power.
In it he first addresses toxic waste, stating “A reactor providing electricity for one million people produces a volume of radioactive waste roughly the size of a family car a year. This is judged to be a small amount.”
He does not tell us how toxic that family car of waste is, and what risks it would pose to people if they ever came into contact with it. Nor does he mention that radioactive materials in this waste take an extremely long time to break down, and would remain very toxic for literally thousands of years.
Dr Switkowski continues: “Eventually spent fuel is transported to a national repository, a well-engineered deep hole in the ground, probably in central Australia.”
Here we have the price for nuclear power - turning an area of central Australia into a “deep hole in the ground” for highly toxic waste.
Northern Territory lands are already under threat from Rudd Government plans to bury tonnes of radioactive waste accumulated over decades - but that would be nothing compared to the waste that would accrue from a commercial nuclear power programme.
One can only wonder how most people in indigenous communities would feel about yet another dose of radioactivity, another Maralinga on their tribal lands, courtesy white Australia.
And what would Dr Switkowski have to say if and when toxic waste escapes and poisons the land and mutates generations of Aboriginal children? That’s right: Sorry.
Central Australia is not a blank, there for the grabbing and polluting. It is a part of our continent, precious to us all, but especially so to the peoples who have lived there for tens of thousands of years. If there is nothing whatever to fear from nuclear waste, perhaps Dr Switkowski should drill his big hole where the nuclear shareholders will be, in Paddington, or Toorak. Those living there need have nothing to fear, as the hole will be very well engineered, to world’s best practice.
A major omission in Dr Switkowski’s comments concerns what effects over thousands of years that leaking and leeching radioactive waste might have upon Australia’s precious subterranean aquifers. For a nation as reliant as we are on underground water, that represents a massive gamble to say the very least.
He next addresses the probable location of any nuclear power plants for Australia, noting “use of sea water [for cooling] is a practical option so reactors are frequently sited along a coast.”
Where would they be then, on our beautiful coast? Manly? Byron Bay? Portsea? No, they would go where industry has already left its mark - Port Kembla and Geelong, for instance. One can only imagine how the communities of Wollongong and Geelong would greet the nuclear spruikers coming to town with their Homer Simpson job offers: “Get a life - and a half-life too!”.
But Dr Switkowski is determined to meet community concerns about reactor placement head-on.
“’Reactors in your back yard’ is an easy scare campaign but it's silly and insults the community's intelligence,” he said.
It’s also easy to dismiss legitimate concerns of communities with high-handed, patronising comments. As a wealthy former CEO, he is unlikely ever to have to have to expose himself and loved ones to the risk of living near a nuclear power plant.
Communities have every right to weigh the costs and benefits, and potential risks to their families, of any planned development in their area, be it residential or industrial, a prison, a nuclear dump, or a nuclear power plant.
If Dr Switkowski has clear ideas of where such plants would go, as he seems to, let him publish them now. After all, if he thinks “scare campaigns” are merely silly, then he should be confident his profound common sense will prevail.
Dr Switkowski also considers the risks to any potential plant from terrorism, stating: “Nearly half of the capital cost of a reactor is spent on safety and security systems that are expected never to be stressed. A dirty bomb has yet to be activated. Terrorism is a serious issue but civilian nuclear establishments are very difficult targets with no known penetration.”
His difficulty here is that a single “penetration” would be enough to cause truly catastrophic consequences. Nuclear power stations would be prime terrorist targets, and with Australia having been a frontline participant in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as recent terror cases have shown there are zealot nuts aplenty who wouldn’t blink about killing us in their pursuit of their own lofty goals or lack thereof.
It’s one thing to shoot people or blow up a bridge, but another entirely to fly a light plane packed with explosives just a little way off course, and into a nuclear reactor. Does he propose to equip nuclear plants with anti-aircraft batteries, or to have the RAAF patrolling all of them 24 hours a day? We must remember too that the even the US Air Force failed to scramble fighters quickly enough against the September 11 hijackers to intercept them. So much for the security systems he expects “never to be stressed”.
Dr Switkowski also considers the cost of nuclear power, admitting: “Nuclear energy has the highest capital cost, up to $4 billion to 6bn for our first 1000MWe reactor”, but assures us that after that there would be “low running costs largely independent of the cost of uranium itself”. He does not say what the second, third, fourth and so on reactors would cost, but admits: “We must have bipartisan support for nuclear energy and a robust world-class regulatory system. No commercial enterprise will accept the financial risk otherwise.”
For “support”, read “subsidy”. In other words, the taxpayer will have to foot at least part of the bill for this enormously expensive scheme which would place nuclear reactors up and down our coastline, sites which would become prime and very dangerous terrorist targets, and which would generate waste which would remain highly toxic for thousands of years, and which we would dump in a big hole in the ground on or near tribal Aboriginal lands, and pollute the last water we could rely upon in the droughts to come. And that is not to mention the danger of increased nuclear proliferation.
So all in all, it’s obviously a very attractive idea, this “clean and green” nuclear energy.
- Larry Buttrose
Part Two of this article will be posted next week, examining the solar alternative to nuclear.