The Royal Commission into uranium in South Australia will only distract us from the urgent need to shift to clean, green energy sources, and it runs against global trends away from nuclear power, writes Dave Sweeney and Jim Green

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s surprise announcement of a Royal Commission to examine opening the door to an expanded nuclear industry in South Australia is out of step with the trend of the global nuclear trade, risks undermining the reality and potential of the state’s renewable energy sector and increases pressure on South Australia to host an international radioactive waste dump.

The timing is odd, coming against a backdrop of a further 300 job cuts at BHP’s Olympic Dam uranium mine and the news that in 2014 Australia ripped and shipped less uranium – the fuel stock for all things nuclear – than for any of the past 16 years.

The Australian nuclear industry is experiencing hard times. Since the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011 productivity and profits have been in freefall and uranium proposals in the NT, SA and WA have been shelved or halted.

The sector has been hard hit by the market fallout of Fukushima – particularly relevant at home since it was confirmed in October 2014 that the uranium inside the failed complex at the time of the meltdowns was sourced from Australian yellow cake.

Internationally, the tide is running against the nuclear sector with reactor numbers declining and market share shrinking. In Japan, all 48 reactors remain shut down in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and some will never restart.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians in Germany are leading the charge to de-nuclearise the nations’ electricity by 2022, the sector is flat-lining in the US and even France is planning to cut the atoms share of the French energy sector by 25 per cent over the next decade.

China remains the only significant exception to the trend in the pro-nuclear firmament, but is also planning for growth in renewables and action to address the global need to retire much of the aging reactor fleet in the coming decades.

South Australia is in tough and uncertain economic times, caused by a trifecta of failure or uncertainty surrounding the shelving of a long planned $A25 billion expansion at Olympic Dam, the loss of jobs in the car industry and the prospect of seeing massive defence contracts move off-shore. And amid this volatility the sustained lobbying efforts of a group of nuclear true believers is finding a platform.

Adding to this push has been the repeated promotion of the money to be made by storing the world’s radioactive waste. Senior executives of the World Nuclear Association have joined with former PM Bob Hawke, Warren Mundine and others to talk up the dollar signs while covering up the danger signs – and all the while ignoring South Australians, particularly Aboriginal South Australian’s, sustained and successful efforts to oppose radioactive waste dumping in their country.

Given the SA Premier has stated that he thinks building a nuclear power plant in SA is the “least likely” outcome of the Royal Commission, it is fair to assume the bigger agenda here is to soften the ground for a high level nuclear waste dump.

This comes after decades of attempting to impose a waste dump on Aboriginal land in both South Australia under the Hawke/Howard governments, and more recently in the NT at Muckaty station.

Given the history of failed dump proposals in SA and the NT, and the divisive strategy associated with those proposals, do nuclear proponents really imagine winning support from Indigenous people for a high-level nuclear waste dump?As Professor John Veevers from Macquarie University wrote in the Australian Geologist in August 1999, an international high-level nuclear waste dump would pose serious public health and environmental risks: “Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk.”

Most of the areas set to be considered by the Commission, including the claimed economic benefits of uranium enrichment and the competiveness of nuclear power, are fanciful and unlikely to survive even modest independent scrutiny. However, one driver involves a response to an issue that deserves and demands urgent attention – climate change.

The need to move to a low carbon energy future is clear, but the best way to do this is not by adopting the high cost, high risk nuclear option that provides an existential threat of its own due to the repeatedly-demonstrated link between the ‘peaceful atom’ and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In many areas South Australia leads the nation in relation to renewable energy and the state is blessed with high value solar, wind and geo-thermal resources. It makes little sense to throw scarce dollars and resources to exploring the controversial and contaminating nuclear industry when the renewable sector is the world’s fastest growing energy market, and already produces more electricity than nuclear power each day.

The decision to divert finite economic and political capital and energy to exploring the false promise of nuclear power comes at the opportunity cost of consolidating and growing South Australia’s proven renewable performance - an area where SA’s skilled but increasingly stranded manufacturing sector could be re-tooled and literally renewed to become a world leader in the world’s energy future.

There is a legitimate and real need to examine the domestic and international impacts and implications of Australia’s involvement with the global nuclear trade. In September 2011, in response to Fukushima, the UN Secretary General urged Australia to undertake a dedicated cost-benefit analysis of the human health and environmental impacts of uranium mining – Australia’s primary point of engagement with the global nuclear trade.

This clear recommendation has been studiously ignored by every Australian government and uranium producer, despite sustained civil society calls. The nuclear industry starts with uranium and so should this Royal Commission’s deliberations.

The Royal Commission needs to be evidence-based, rigorous and independent. Its terms of reference, due to be released in late March, need to be comprehensive and must address the past legacies and present performance of the industry in order to expose the often exaggerated promises of the future.

Anything less runs the right Royal risk of using public funds to provide a promotional platform for the over-resourced and under-performing nuclear industry.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.