Howard's revival of nuclear debate "surprising": Political expert

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Australian nuclear debate

Dr Frank Cain, a political expert and Lecturer in Defence and Australian Political and Economic History at the University of New South Wales has told Wikinews that many political commentators are finding Prime Minister John Howard's revival of the nuclear debate "surprising".

Australia came close to building a nuclear power reactor in the Jervis Bay Territory in the late 1960s but was later abandoned in 1971 after massive anti-nuclear demonstrations. The fear that Australia would produce nuclear weapons as a by-product of its nuclear energy programs killed the plans and a change in government ended the plans.

The fear that the Jervis Bay reactor could have been used to produce weapons grade plutonium was substantiated when secret 1969 cabinet documents were released in 2000 stating that "The government will acquire a facility with long term defence implications" and "Over 25 years of operation the reactor will provide six tonnes of plutonium".

Anthony Albanese, the opposition's Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage accused Mr Howard on Tuesday of living in the past and of not being serious about the debate.

In an interview with Wikinews, Dr Cain said that there are a number of possibilities for Mr Howard's nuclear revival. Dr Cain said one of these could be to challenge the opposition over its three mine policy. "One of his (Howard's) motives might be to challenge the ALP over its three-mine policy" said Dr Cain.

Dr Cain warned that such a move would be unpopular with younger voters, "The young people would not support his programme for the uranium mining companies to expand their mine numbers and production" he said.

Speaking on the economics of nuclear energy in Australia, Dr Cain said it was still uneconomic due to Australia's large supplies of coal and natural gas. "It still remains uneconomic for Australia to commence generating electricity from nuclear plants. Our coal supplies will last for another century and the natural gas deposits seem unlimited. These gas supplies will probably displace coal generation and thereby reduce the greenhouse gas problem" he said.

Martin Sevior, an associate professor in particle physics at the University of Melbourne told ABC Radio on Monday that nuclear power can be generated "almost as cheaply as coal". He said in the future nuclear power should be able to be produced for $AUD40 per megawatt-hour, versus the current price of $30 per megawatt-hour for coal.

Prof Sevior said that when the cost of carbon sequestering was included in the running costs for coal fired power plants that nuclear energy was "very, very competitive".

John Price, a professor at Monash University and expert in nuclear energy (having designed some in the UK) told ABC Radio that nuclear energy is competitive in many parts of the world, including Europe, North America and Eastern Asia.

Prof Price said that the use of nuclear energy in Australia is "inevitable" in Australia's future and that it may well be economically competitive with new lower emission coal fired power plants of which the costs are not known.

According to Prof Price, Victoria will need to generate 3 gigawatts more electricity within the next ten years, but conceded that it is likely that gas and coal fired plants will be built to meet that need.

Howard would not be proposing for the government to own its own uranium enrichment plant and would need to entice an overseas company to establish a plant in Australia according to Dr Cain. Dr Cain questioned whether a company from France, Russia, the US or China would be willing to come to Australia to "do what it has been doing quite well in its own country for decades".

Dr Cain said overseas companies would see "no financial advantage for them to do so".


This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.