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Ecological landslide fuels nuclear debate

By Paul Gilding - posted Monday, 29 August 2005


If we're going to have a nuclear debate in Australia then let's have an honest one that puts all the options and arguments on the table, not just the convenient ones.

Let's start that debate in the Siberian tundra where a sleeping giant may have woken. A vast area within the one million square miles of peatbog that has been frozen since it formed 11,000 years ago is turning into a mass of shallow lakes. It was described by the scientist releasing the study as an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible".

Why irreversible? When peatbogs melt, they can release one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane. If enough is released, and in Siberia there are billions of tonnes locked below the ice, it can directly accelerate global warming and so more is released. In theory it can end with the ultimate climate nightmare - runaway global warming.

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So maybe we'll look back on the Siberian tundra as the 9-11 of climate change - the point where everything changed. That remains to be seen but what is clear from this and many other indicators is that considerable transformational change is now happening - ecologically, commercially and politically. So that's where the nuclear debate starts - the peatbogs of Siberia.

Forget the ideologues who argue that we have no choice but to keep burning more coal or the economy will suffer. When the choice comes between a runaway greenhouse effect and changing our energy use, infrastructure and technology, the latter wins an election every time. As a species we may be slow but we're not stupid.

One of the key principles of sustainability, one accepted by environmentalists and governments around the world including our own, is product stewardship. The logic is simple. If you put something out there, you need to accept some responsibility for the consequences even if the product's use is not directly under your control. This is why we see McDonalds acting on obesity, Ford and Toyota on climate change and BP on air pollution.

If we accept this principle, there are only two morally defensible positions for Australian nuclear power: either sell uranium, use nuclear power and take back nuclear waste for storage in Australia; or do none of these things. It is politically convenient for the Howard Government to raise the Australian nuclear power debate as a distraction from their agenda of selling more uranium. However, if they are serious about nuclear power, they should be proposing that we ship our share of the world's nuclear waste back to Australia and store it here permanently.

If the South Australian and West Australian Governments want to expand uranium mining because of economic benefits, they also should have the courage to propose to their electorates that they host storage facilities for high-level nuclear waste. After all, 240,000 years is a serious, long-term economic benefit.

This also could be incredibly strategic and lucrative for Australia. Imagine Australia providing long-term, geologically safe storage for nuclear waste in the Australian outback as part of its sales package.

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This could be extended to providing the service for the retirement of nuclear weapons and associated radioactive materials, the decommissioning of out-of-date nuclear power stations and the clearing of inadequate temporary storage facilities in many nations. This would be a big contribution towards moving the world to nuclear weapons reductions, to the closure of unsafe ageing plants, and to an adoption of arguably better nuclear power technologies such as pebble-bed modular reactors. So let's have that debate.

For the record, I remain unconvinced that nuclear power is an intelligent or effective response to climate change. It still feels to me like trying to cure a malaria sufferer by giving them typhoid.

For the same reasons our political leaders are too scared to take on nuclear waste storage, I can't see how we can manage a global nuclear power and waste industry in an economic way. Community opposition equals slow approvals and large financial risk for investors. That means it requires significant government intervention for it to be viable, which this industry's history shows.

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Article edited by Daniel Macpherson.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in The Australian on August 23, 2005.



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About the Author

Paul Gilding is an independent adviser and commentator on sustainability and climate change and a Special Advisor to KPMG. Former roles include executive director of Greenpeace International, founder of Ecos Corporation and CEO of Easy Being Green. www.paulgilding.com

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