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Nuclear Power and Uranium mining

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 1 Mar 2007

The Greens opposition to nuclear power stations is firmly on the record.

We will be supporting this motion. However, with the greatest respect to the Labor Party, I am mystified as to how they can take a strong position against nuclear power whilst gearing up to open up uranium mining. I would like someone to explain to me how nuclear power can be too expensive and too unsafe for Australia, but cheap and safe enough for Indonesia, China and India. I hope the ALP does not opt to open up their uranium mining policy. Unfortunately, I believe that, if they do, it will affect the credibility of their stance on issues such as nuclear waste and nuclear power stations.

The government have at least had a consistent position on all these things. They are keen to embrace all things nuclear. The Prime Minister has clearly hitched his political fortunes to this unpredictable industry. The fact is that, despite all the hype about this nuclear renaissance, this is a failed industry. It has never lived up to its promises and its sudden re-emergence as a political issue in Australia signals a total failure of imagination on behalf of the government.

The Prime Minister's campaign to resurrect the 1950s dream of nuclear power stations should have been pronounced dead in the water of the Switkowski review. This hand-picked, pro-nuclear panel used a highly optimistic set of assumptions favouring nuclear energy and still concluded that public subsidies or carbon taxes would be needed to make the nuclear industry competitive-that is, before realistic estimates of decommissioning, comprehensive insurance, research and development, waste transport, mine rehabilitation and waste are factored in. Of course, the same carbon taxes that potentially could help nuclear industries and energies are very helpful for renewable energies and would help the renewable energy industry take off, as they have in other parts of the world. However, unlike nuclear power stations, they could be installed virtually overnight and they will not leave a legacy of hazardous waste lying around for millions of years all over Australia.

Senator Scullion-Lying around?

Senator SIEWERT-Or buried in a waste pit. The government refuse to create a level playing field for renewable energy in this country, which is one of the reasons we are having this ridiculous debate yet again on nuclear power. In the past decade we have seen an appalling flight of renewable energy investment and research overseas. Research centres and CRCs have been defunded or redirected and private investors have been leaving in droves in despair. Perhaps this is what the government wanted because then they thought they could raise the argument that nuclear energy is the only energy option available for Australia, having smothered and got rid of all the promising alternatives.

On economics alone this technology fails the most basic test. It is still the most expensive method of boiling water ever devised by humankind. In the United States, subsidies are estimated to have accumulated over the 50-year period from 1948 to 1998 to about $US74 billion. Forbes magazine put it this way in 1985:

The failure of the US nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history.

If this is the disaster the Australian government are sleepwalking towards, they have not learnt anything in 20 years. A former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the New York Times in 2005:

The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of NRC-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes.

The Howard government seems to have missed hearing about this abiding lesson. Senator Chapman just provided us with a reminder of why. The government claims they just want a debate about nuclear energy, but anyone in this so-called debate who challenges the government's uncritical acceptance of the industry's credentials is labelled 'hysterical', 'emotional' or 'out of date'. That way the government avoids hearing anything that might serve as a warning of what this technology can do to communities. There is a reason why people do not want these things in their backyards or in Australia. It has very little to do with being hysterical, emotional or irrational. There are well-founded fears, confirmed over the last five decades, about whether nuclear fission is the most appropriate way to boil water.

Perhaps the government has uncovered secret evidence that the nuclear industry has eliminated the risk of catastrophic accidents and has worked out how to prevent routine releases of radioactive chemicals from these plants. If this is the case, the Prime Minister has nothing to fear and neither does the community. He should tell us where his 25 nuclear power stations are going to go.

It is a significant irony that the greatest proponents of nuclear power are the same people who have been telling us for the last 10 years that climate change is a myth. Yesterday those very same people were gathered together in Parliament House, the very same climate change sceptics, telling people that the answer to climate change is nuclear power.

Regrettably, nuclear power will do nothing to help us decarbonise the economy, and they know it. Every stage of the nuclear fuel chain is powered by fossil fuels. Uranium mining is highly energy intensive, and will become much more so as the high-grade uranium deposits are exhausted and the mines get larger and larger.

Let us be absolutely clear what this whole nuclear debate is about. I firmly believe it is about expanding the uranium mining industry to give it a thin coating of environmental respectability. If you can cloak it with being the climate change saviour, maybe people will swallow the bitter pill of uranium mining. We are not going to wear it and we are not being fooled.

If anyone ever manages to build a nuclear power station in this country it is going to be well after this government is a distant memory. It will be long after we have missed the deadline for taking firm action to deal with climate change. We need to be taking action now to address climate change, not in 10 or 20 years time when a power station could eventually be built. In the meantime, we could have been building and operating renewable energies. What a wonderful way to direct people's attention away from the other serious issues that are affecting our country, and the issues around uranium mining.
BHP Billiton is considering quadrupling the size of the Olympic Dam uranium mine-the largest electricity user in South Australia and the largest single industrial user of groundwater in the Southern Hemisphere. It will be by far the largest uranium mine in the world, and the largest open-cut excavation on earth.

Rio Tinto is planning to extend the life of the Ranger mine in Kakadu. While they have the Jabiluka uranium mine on hold, it remains one of the world's richest high-grade deposits, and I do not think for a moment that they intend to hand it back to the traditional owners. At the same time, Uranium One is busy advancing plans for the honeymoon acid in-situ leach mine, which is little more than a liquid nuclear waste dump in South Australia. And communities across the Northern Territory are fighting a national radioactive waste dump which is being forced onto the Territory against all conventions of scientific rigour or procedural fairness.

I would like the Prime Minister to tell this country in whose backyard the nuclear power stations are going to be located. I would like him to tell the people of the Northern Territory why the nation's nuclear waste is being dumped in their backyard. I would like both major parties to explain how they plan to safeguard what happens to Australian uranium once it leaves our shores.

Nuclear power is not a genuine response to climate change. It is too slow and too expensive. If you provided a level playing field, renewable energies would leapfrog nuclear energy. And it is far too dangerous, as Hugh White reminded us in the Sydney Morning Herald today. This debate is a furphy disguised to promote the interests of uranium mining, to distract the community from some of the other decisions that need to be made to address climate change, and to hide the fact that there has been insufficient research and resources directed to renewable energies in this country.

As Senator Milne reminded this place this morning, solar thermal energies have the capacity to deliver the same baseload power as a coal fired power station. They could economically achieve the comparison within seven years. Within seven years we could have an ecologically sound source of energy that meets the same capacity as a baseload power station.

Renewable energies are a reality and could be made commercially viable if the same level of interest and money was invested in them as is now being invested in the nuclear energy debate, which will lead us nowhere and leave us with waste for hundreds of thousands of years. Nuclear is too expensive and will not even deliver the goods. What nonsense to even be pursuing it.
What nonsense to be labelling people as emotional and irrational because we are actually pointing out the facts. We are the people who have been pointing out the dangers around climate change for a very long time. Unfortunately, we have turned out to be correct. Now the people who have been in denial over climate change have all of a sudden turned green and want to use nuclear energy to address climate change when the science shows that it cannot deliver what we need on time. Climate change is being used as an excuse.

I reckon someone should do a PhD on the PR job that the nuclear industry has carried out on how to get nukes back on the agenda-'Let's use climate change!' It is one of the biggest PR con jobs I have seen in a very long time and I reckon there will be not one but many PhDs written on that very con job; and unfortunately this government is falling for it. I do not think Australians are falling for it; I do not think Australians want a nuclear energy industry in this country. They certainly do not want nuclear power stations in their backyards, so we will be supporting this motion.

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