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Monday, May 01, 2006

Labor's Nuclear Showdown

What goes around certainly comes around. We sometimes forget that nuclear power is, as Paul Gunter of the Reactor Watchdog Project at the US Nuclear Information and Resource Service recently put it, `a failed energy project of the 1950s', yet given some of the enthusiastic rhetoric we've heard lately, you'd think that nuclear power was developed last year as a universal panacea to our energy woes. I can't help but be suspicious of an energy source espoused as `clean' by George W. Bush, the man recently reported by The New Yorker to have scoffed at Al Gore's enthusiasm over environmental issues, but to have invited author Michael Crichton of `Jurrasic Park' fame to the White House after reading his - fictional - book about a group of hardline environmentalists who were proven to have fabricated global warming as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Last month, Australia signed a historic agreement to sell uranium to China, which elevated it to the world's largest supplier of uranium. Given that Australia contains 40% of the world's uranium, this is unlikely to be the last deal to be signed, though with estimates that uranium will run out at the NT's Ranger Mine by 2014, the Commonwealth will rely on Labor to change its Three Mines policy to expand uranium exports. Peter Costello has threatened to use the big stick of External Affairs powers to bludgeon the states into submission, but surely this must be a furphy. Can External Affairs policies be used to change an Opposition Party's policies? According to Constitutional Law expert Greg Craven: yes, so long as the Federal Government establishes a precedent by winning its case in the Supreme Court over WorkChoices:
If it runs the way the Commonwealth wants it really will be that the Corporations power will be able to be used to let the Commonwealth do pretty well what it likes and from now on the powers of the states will be pretty much the powers that the Commonwealth wants them to have.

Scary stuff. However, it appears that the Government may not have to go that far, with Kim Beazley today taking a more decisive position on the Three Mines issue - and one which tends toward the opinion of his Shadow Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson - who has been outspoken in his desire for a change to the policy - rather than his Shadow Environment Minister, Anthony Albanese, who has been equally passionate in his defence of the current policy.

To be brutally realistic, a change in the Three Mines policy seems inevitable, given the current nuclear zeitgeist. It's a change that will not occur without a lot of bloodletting. There are people who will never agree with nuclear power. There are those, like myself, who are deeply concerned that nuclear power is being used as a wedge issue by the Right, at the expense of researching other forms of energy (or, God help us, using less energy). But given the time and circumstances, I just can't see Three Mines lasting.

If this is the case, Labor must now concentrate on establishing firm, absolutely watertight safeguarding principles surrounding the mining and trade of nuclear materials. This was not provided for in the Australia-China deal, which allows China to, for example, pass on Australian nuclear materials to third parties at their own discretion. Safeguards are also something the US appear willing to put aside should it sign off on the proposed nuclear co-operation deal with India currently being considered by US Congress. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has lobbied hard for the acceptance of the deal, even despite the fact that India is not - and, has made clear, never will be - a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rice has argued that India have a good enough record of non-proliferation not to bother with dull administrative issues like signing the NPT. Well, I don't know that Pakistan would argue that India's been the ideal nuclear neighbour, but there you go - the US is willing to ignore that for the value of having India as a strategic ally against China. Treating one non-signatory as a special case weakens the entire NPT, and could even inspire other member nations to leave the treaty and demand similar preferential treatment.

Oh, and if US Congress does sign off on this deal - watch for the Australian Government to beat a path to India to sell truckloads of Australian uranium there, using the US deal as a precedent. And for gossake Just don't send Barnaby Joyce ... there'll be nothing left ...

I grew up not far from Lucas Heights Nuclear Reactor, and unlike many residents, this never troubled me much, because most of the componentry is underground, I believe the facility to be well run, the risk of an accident is pretty minimal, and the services the facility provides - mainly medical - are often life saving. On the other hand, on September 11th, I lived only a few suburbs away from Indian Point, a nuclear reactor dubbed Homer on the Hudson because of its not-so-funny similarities to Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Following September 11th, the evacuation procedures in the event of a catastrophic incident at Indian Point were found to be woefully inadequate. Should an incident have occurred on that day, the roads would have been clogged, an estimated twenty million people exposed to a radioactive plume, with 50,000 casualties and 100,000 cases of radiation illness. On September 11th, one of the planes flew directly over Indian Point. I need not add that downwind of Indian Point was not a pleasant place to be that day.

This is no time to be lax on nukes. Safeguards and restraint are far more important than diplomacy and economic benefit, and I certainly hope it won't take a disaster to push that point home.


At 11:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Others estimate that 20 million people will die, if Indian Point ever explodes. Then again, they are people soliciting contributions from listeners they've made afraid by the very same estimate. One might suggest that if they upped it to 200 million, their payday might truly balloon.

Indian Point has been rated as among the best run facilities, and its corporate owner sells rent-a-manager services to nukes not so well run, to spruce them up a bit.

So who is lying?

I live exactly one statute mile south of Indian Point, and specifically moved there, so I could work at the plant. Nobody there is anything like Homer Simpson. These are the smartest, most dedicated bunch I've ever seen, and the plant keeps the area prosperous, safe, and environmentally clean.

Also, this plant provided the $12 million dollar grant that started Riverkeeper, and hatched an estimated 8 billion fish, which have now stocked the Hudson to 1885 levels of fish.

Enjoy your myths, enjoy trying to look smart by jumping on someone else's idea bandwagon.

I suggest staying at a Holiday Inn might be a better way to achieve the same effect.

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