Tide turns against nuclear industry

By Greg Ansley

CANBERRA - The crisis at Japan's earthquake-damaged Fukushimo power plant has strengthened arguments against nuclear power in Australia, previously gaining support as a means of countering climate change.

The plant's operator uses Australian uranium, sold to Japan by BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

The explosions in its reactors, and wider uncertainties in the wake of last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami, have also hit the nation's uranium industry, wiping more than A$1 billion ($1.3 billion) off miners' stocks.

Although debate over the future of nuclear energy continues within the major parties, both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the issue was off their agendas.

Nuclear power is also opposed by the Greens - who will hold the balance of power in the Senate from July - and the crisis at Fukushimo has re-energised environmental opponents.

Although not relating her comments directly to the damaged Japanese plant, Gillard told ABC television's Q&A programme that Australia had many alternative sources of energy and had no need for reactors.

"The Labor position is entirely clear, we don't think we need nuclear energy," she said.

Abbott said the Coalition had no policy for promoting nuclear power, although he had argued before last year's election that atomic reactors were the only realistic means of reducing carbon emissions while maintaining living standards.

The argument for nuclear energy had been gaining support in Australia, with opinion polls showing a growing number of people accepting Abbott's argument despite concerns over its cost, risks and radioactive waste disposal.

After languishing for more than two decades, the debate was triggered anew by climate change and a 2006 report by a taskforce established by former Prime Minister John Howard.

Led by then-chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Ziggy Switkowski - who this week repeated his conviction that Australia would eventually go nuclear - the study found that with a carbon tax atomic energy would be economically competitive.

It said the first nuclear plants could be running within 15 years, and that by 2050 one-third of the nation's energy demand could be supplied by 25 reactors.

Although Labor policy still rejects reactors, the issue has powerful supporters within the party and, heightened by Fukushimo, could become a bitterly divisive debate at this year's national conference.

Stephen Jones, Labor's federal parliamentary Left convener, who was in Japan when the earthquake struck, told the Australian: "Clearly, the disaster in Japan is further evidence that there is no absolute fail-safe when it comes to nuclear power."

But Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson supports atomic energy, and Australian Workers' Union national secretary Paul Howes said Fukushimo should not prevent an "unemotional debate", as earlier reactor incidents had done.

There is also division within the Liberals, with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop disputing Abbott's stand.

"This nuclear emergency in Japan is of great concern and it is inevitable that safety standards will have to be reassessed in the wake of this crisis.

"However, nuclear power is the only low-emission technology currently capable of supplying the constant energy we need for large cities and industry," she said.

But environmentalists see Fukushimo as a clear warning for Australia.

"Nuclear is a high-cost, high-risk electricity option that has no place in a sustainable energy future," Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner David Noonan said.

Noonan also attacked Australian uranium exports, but even with market jitters the mining industry is unlikely to come under any real political threat.

Australia has 22 bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements with 40 countries, and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd last week announced new negotiations with the United Arab Emirates on a nuclear safeguards agreement ahead of potential uranium sales.

Labor has dropped its former policy confining the industry to only three mines, and as many as a dozen more may be opened as global demand for uranium soars.

Australia sells uranium to the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and China.

Production is expected to rise by an average 15 per cent a year for the next five years, largely driven by China.

The value of uranium exports this year is forecast to increase by 28 per cent to A$960 million ($1.35 billion), rising to almost A$3 billion (4.1 billion) in 2015-2016.

- NZ Herald

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