Australia is facing yet another dark prophesy of its future. Still gripped by the worst drought in a century, despite recent heavy rains, the world's driest inhabited continent was warned this week that its soil is being stripped by the millions of tonnes by dust storms and dumped in the ocean.
This is not a new phenomenon, but the study by the Desert Knowledge Co-operative Research Centre makes disturbing reading for a country that is becoming increasingly concerned at its vulnerability to climate change, a process that has finally been accepted even by a previously sceptical Prime Minister John Howard.
In turn, this has given rise to a political demon - the prospect that Australia will turn to nuclear power as a clean alternative to the coal that at present powers most of its electricity generators. And with vast deposits of uranium - about 40 per cent of known global reserves - a large increase in production to supply nuclear power plants in other countries seems almost certain. A warming Earth and greenhouse gas emissions have given the atom a shiny new face.
For the first time in decades there is a marked shift in favour of nuclear energy in Australia. The old fears that blocked a proposed chain of reactors 30 years ago are eroding in the face of potential climate disaster and new scientific arguments, swinging even former opponents away from blanket rejection and enabling the beginnings of a debate which would have been unthinkable when Howard first rose to prominence in the Government of Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
Back then, badges bearing the legend "Export Fraser not uranium" flourished in a movement that in effect blocked the development of more uranium mines.
But in the past few weeks some surprising faces have joined the call for a renewed nuclear debate. New South Wales' Labor Premier Bob Carr, a self-avowed greenie, urged Australia to compare the dangers and pollution of coal with the advantages of nuclear reactors: "The planet is warming up and we need some new energy source until wind and solar and hydrogen become available," he said. "I just think the world has to debate whether uranium-derived power is more dangerous than coal."
Although Carr said his mind was not yet made up, his call was echoed from across the political divide by Howard, who regards Australia as sufficiently mature now to talk about the possibility: "This country has enormous supplies of uranium and it would strike a lot of people as an odd contradiction that we would not allow a debate on nuclear power in Australia yet we would be quite happy under appropriate safeguards to export large amounts of uranium."
Labor, the political citadel around which the anti-nuclear movement gathered and which ensured that no more uranium mines would be added to the three already operating, is discovering cracks in the wall. The party now has some influential members who believe the option has to be examined.
The stockmarket has also pricked up its ears, buoyed not only by the prospect of increased uranium mining and export in Australia but by reports of impending global supply shortages and rising prices. The past week has seen prices rise for Australian resource companies with uranium interests, including Paladin Resources, Deep Yellow, Arafua Resources and Summit Resources.
Australian economic forecasters share investors' confidence. Although reserves of uranium are vast and sufficient to power global electricity generation for several centuries, output from the world's mines remains well below demand, with the gap filled by secondary supplies from surplus commercial stocks, decommissioned nuclear warheads and the reprocessing of spent fuel. But the Nuclear Energy Agency warns that secondary supplies are diminishing and even the most optimistic projections of future mining output fall short of long-term requirements. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics notes that in the two years to May world uranium prices rose from US$10/lb to more than US$26/lb and are expected to soar by a further 43 per cent this year.
Because Australia has so much uranium, the extension of the argument is that as well as mining it the country should be using it.
Economics is bolstered by the emerging moral argument that increased exports will help the environmentally sound development of energy-hungry Third World countries - notably the notoriously dirty, coal-fired China - and greatly reduce Australia's own output of greenhouses gases.
Australia has only one nuclear power station - the research reactor at Lucas Heights in southeast Sydney - and that has caused heartache enough. Operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation since 1958, the reactor is a constant magnet for protests. The reactor is scheduled to be replaced after a long and bitterly opposed process, and is still unpopular. A nationwide survey for Greenpeace by market researcher Taylor Nelson Sofres showed 77 per cent opposition to a replacement reactor - at least until the problem of waste is resolved - with only 19 per cent in favour.
With various estimates suggesting that Australia would need up to 30 nuclear power plants, the political minefield is still just too explosive to enter. The huge coal industry is also opposed. Coal is by far the cheapest fuel for large-scale energy generation in Australia and more coal-fired generators to meet demand would be considerably cheaper than nuclear equivalents. It is also a major industry. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie says the state's economy would be damaged by any shift away from the 300 years of coal reserves.
"The big challenge for us is to ensure that we develop clean coal technologies, which is what we are working on now," he said. "Why would you go down the road of bringing in another source of energy like nuclear power, which has long-term problems and long-term risks?"
CERTAINLY, no major power suppliers in Australia have nuclear reactors on their immediate horizons. Instead, nuclear advocates are starting on the easier, but nonetheless touchy, question of increased mining and exports of uranium, supported by both economic and environmental arguments.
They have had some surprising backing - including the advocacy of nuclear power as a "clean" energy source by environmentalist James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia hypothesis of an interconnected world. The International Energy Agency predicts that global primary energy demand over the next 30 years will soar by 60 per cent, with renewable sources such as wind and power continuing to contribute their present level of about 14 per cent of total supplies.
Nuclear proponents argue that unless production of atomic energy increases - especially in China and India - coal-fired generators will overwhelm even the most determined attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
With this in mind, Canberra is pursuing major uranium sales to China and wants to open more uranium mines. At present there are three, with two others awaiting political approval, and advocates point to a shift in opinion in Europe - except Germany - and 44 more reactors planned by China and India. In the US, President Bush has urged the construction of more atomic plants.
IN CANBERRA, parliamentary committees are already considering nuclear options and the development of non-fossil fuel energy, including the strategic importance of the nation's uranium reserves. This is expected to expand into a further inquiry into the potential for nuclear power in Australia.
Any of these moves will be fiercely resisted. The environmental movement remains firmly opposed to uranium mining, supporting its case with a series of accidents at the Ranger mine in the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park south of Darwin.
The park's traditional owners are also opposed. Senior Mirarr traditional owner Yvonne Margarula wrote in a submission to the uranium mining inquiry: "Uranium mining has taken our country away from us and destroyed it. Billabongs and creeks are gone forever, there are hills of poisonous rocks and great holes in the ground with poisonous mud where there used to be nothing but bush."
Environmentalists also dispute claims that nuclear energy can considerably reduce greenhouse gases. The Australian Conservation Council says 17 reactors would have to be built by 2012 in Europe alone to meet Kyoto Protocol requirements.
Quoting similar studies, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War describes the argument that nuclear power is clean as a false premise and that it will never solve the huge problem of fossil fuels consumed by transport, and that nuclear power is itself a large consumer of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.
Opponents of atomic energy also argue that nuclear waste remains a huge and unsolved problem, that health issues are sufficient on their own to reject any increase in uranium mining or nuclear power generation, and that the threat of weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism is too great.
There is one certainty: Australia will be hearing a lot more of these arguments.