The announcement this week of a Royal Commission into the nuclear industry in South Australia has raised both stakes and eyebrows around the nation.
Many South Australian politicians have been enamoured with the economic allure of nuclear power. After all, the world’s biggest mining company sits atop the world’s largest uranium deposit at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine, 500km north of Adelaide. But opening the door to talk of uranium enrichment, domestic nuclear power and international nuclear waste is a major escalation in radioactive rhetoric.
The move comes in stark contrast to the current run of play in relation to the domestic and international status of the nuclear industry.
The 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns have seen popular acceptance of nuclear power recede – in Japan over 50 reactors remain mothballed or idle, while conservative politicians in Germany are leading the charge to end nuclear power supply by 2022. The sector is flatlining in the US and even France is looking to cut the atom’s share of the French energy sector by 25% over the next decade. China, and to a lesser extent India, remain the only bright spots in the pro-nuclear firmament but even these are contested and eclipsed by plans for growth in renewables.
Closer to home, the uranium market has been hard hit by the economic fallout from Fukushima. This is apt given that in October 2011 it was formally confirmed that Australian origin uranium was actually fuelling the Fukushima complex at the time of the meltdowns. Since then, both the price and production rates have both been in freefall. In 2014 Australia produced and exported the least uranium it has for the past 16 years, and at the end of last month BHP announced cuts to a further 300 positions at Olympic Dam.
These are difficult days for the nuclear sector – and an unlikely time for a Royal Commission into options for further advancing an atomic agenda
South Australia is in tough and uncertain economic times caused by a trifecta of industry withdrawals, including the shelving of a long planned $25bn expansion at Olympic Dam, the loss of jobs in the car industry and the prospect of seeing massive defence contracts move offshore. Amid this volatility the sustained lobbying efforts of a group of nuclear true believers is finding a platform.
A company called South Australian Nuclear Power Systems Pty Ltd has been lobbying the South Australian and federal government to remove the significant legal and political roadblocks to advance nuclear power in the state. The group is headed by former News International director Bruce Hundertmark and includes veteran American nuclear spruiker Richard Cherry, a former executive of the secretive General Atomics that operates South Australia’s Beverley uranium mine; Ian Kowalick, the former head of Premier and Cabinet; and professors Tom Wigley and Stephen Lincoln from the University of Adelaide, home to a chorus of atomic fellow travellers.
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 prime minister Bob Hawke, Warren Mundine and others to talk up the dollar signs while covering up the danger signs. Their approach ignores South Australians, particularly Indigenous South Australians’ sustained and successful efforts to oppose radioactive waste dumping in their country.
There is another reason for the current nuclear push – part mischievous, part sincere and all in response to one of humanity’s existential challenges – climate change. It’s understandable why some people jump to nuclear as a potential solution to the climate crisis – some may surmise that desperate times call for desperate measures. The need to move to a low carbon energy future is clear, but the best way to do this is not by adopting nuclear: a high cost, high risk energy system that provides an existential threat of its own while draining vital resources from the renewable energy sector.
Blessed with high value solar, wind and geothermal resources, South Australia leads the nation in relation to renewable energy
It makes scant sense to throw scarce dollars and resources exploring the controversial and contaminating nuclear industry when the renewable sector is the world’s fastest growing energy market and already produces more electricity each day than the world’s risky reactor fleet does.
All of which brings us to a fledgling Royal Commission and the politics and positioning that it will generate. It is pivotal that the initiative is not allowed to become a promotional platform for the over-resourced and under-performing nuclear industry. There is a need to examine the domestic and international impacts and implications of Australia’s involvement with the global nuclear trade. In September 2011, the UN secretary general urged Australia to undertake a dedicated cost-benefit analysis of the human health and environmental impacts of uranium mining in response to the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis – a recommendation studiously ignored by every Australian government and uranium producer.
Any Royal Commission needs to be evidence based, rigorous and independent. It needs clear and comprehensive terms of reference and must address the legacies of the past and the performance of the present before examining the often exaggerated promises of the future. Anything less will see the continuing shrinkage of the social license of a trade that splits communities as well as atoms.