When they weren't striking friendly poses for photographers last week, John Howard and George W. Bush were spending at least part of their time discussing potential co-operation on nuclear energy.
While Howard was quick to rule out Australia accepting nuclear waste, he was keen to explore the role that Australian uranium exports could play in addressing the looming shortfall in global energy supply, resulting from unprecedented demand worldwide. Is Australia right to pursue this course?
Most environmental groups steadfastly oppose nuclear energy playing any role in reducing global carbon emissions. In their Statement of Opposition to Uranium Sales to China and India (pdf file 16KB), released in early April, a host of environmental groups indicated the case against nuclear energy was no longer primarily based on fears of power plant meltdown or even problems with waste disposal. Rather, it was about how Australia's yellowcake exports would "unacceptably add to nuclear risks and to insecurity in our region".
Due to the weaknesses of international safeguards, they argued, there was a high risk of Australian yellowcake being diverted to state-based nuclear weapons programs and, worse, to terrorist organisations. By exporting uranium to China, Australia risked helping the latter modernise its nuclear arsenal by "freeing up" weapons grade material otherwise needed to fuel China's civil nuclear program. And they argued that any future exports to India would weaken the global non-proliferation regime by rewarding a nuclear-armed state.
On the face of it, the risk of Australian nuclear material ending up in weapons stockpiles seems plausible. After all, what can we do if China starts enriching our uranium into weapons grade fuel? The answer is: not much. Basically, we are left with simply trusting China's word. While this may concern some, in reality it misses a key point in any risk assessment: China ceased producing fissile material in the late 1990s and possesses sufficient weapons grade material to double its existing weapons stockpile. China's nuclear planners are preoccupied with the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads for the purpose of fitting multi-warheads on top of single missiles. That's a worry, but it's unrelated to our uranium sales.
Does Australia risk undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty if it sells uranium to a non-treaty member state such as India? A more appropriate question would be: Is the treaty itself worth preserving? The reality is the treaty is in terminal decline. This is due to a combination of bad faith among nuclear weapons states and the covert weapons programs of North Korea and Iran - North Korea actually attained a threshold nuclear capability while it was a member of the treaty.
Today the treaty is little more than a political and legal fig leaf for a small group of states (such as Iran) that have no intention of complying with its provisions. Indeed, the treaty merely perpetuates the myth that nuclear proliferation can be prevented at a time when the international community should be exploring ways it can be managed through alternative arms control agreements.
Terrorists with access to nuclear material are a concern. But it is truly a long bow to argue, as some environmental groups do, that Australian uranium would be a likely source for a "terrorist device". Surely, terrorists may find equally keen "technicians" in states with weapons programs and their own fissile material sources.
In a perfect world governments would leave uranium in the ground, but things are far from perfect on the global warming front. Today, and for the foreseeable future, logic suggests the benefits of nuclear power outweigh its risks, given the projections for carbon use in India and China over the next 50 years. Our uranium has a key role to play in reducing these countries' dependence on oil and coal.
So-called "Generation 3" nuclear power reactors such as those operating in Japan since 1996 produce relatively cheap electricity, less waste and meltdown is almost impossible. Smart green politics would support nuclear power as it now does solar, wind, geo-thermal and ethanol. Moreover, nuclear power has tremendous potential to supply base-load electricity to underpin the spread of hybrid cars, especially in China and India.
Renowned environmentalist and Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore and atmospheric scientist and father of the "Gaia thesis", James Lovelock, are now "revisionists" who favour nuclear power. Moore makes the point "we cannot simply ban every technology that is dangerous" and, while in favour of alternative fuel sources, he points out none match nuclear as a "large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions".
Outdated rhetoric about the "immorality" of nuclear power should disappear now that heavyweight environmentalists are saying it's time for everyone to begin to engage in the real world of environmental risk management.
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