It's vital that the South Australian royal commission into uranium mining does not become a taxpayer-funded nuclear industry promotional platform, writes Dave Sweeney

The current terms of reference for the Royal Commission into South Australia’s nuclear industry sadly appear to put a higher weighting on industry promotion than public interest.

There is to be no review of SA’s atomic test legacy or flawed clean up attempts from earlier uranium mines. Disappointingly, the impacts and experience of current uranium mining is ignored lest it reflect poorly on industry expansion plans and key areas of very real public concern including health impacts, emergency capacity, implications for SA’s precious water resources and the potential for severe reputational and market damage to the important food, wine, fishing and tourism industries are missing.

Given that any credible assessment of the nuclear industry in South Australia also needs to fully explore the unique safety, security, legal, liability and transparency impacts and the full inter-generational economic, environmental and social costs and extent of direct or indirect public subsidies it appears that Premier Weatherill’s Royal Commission has failed to pass the most basic test of independence. 

Despite a predictable chorus line of pro-nuclear voices welcoming the announcement of a Royal Commission there have already been a number of reviews at a national level, most notably John Howard’s Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review in 2007. All of the reviews to date have promised much but delivered little. But opening the door to talk of uranium enrichment, domestic nuclear power and national and international nuclear waste dumping is a major escalation in both rhetoric and risk.

The timing of the Commission move is also in stark contrast to the current run of play in the domestic and international nuclear industry.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns has been followed by a marked drop in support for nuclear power – in Japan over 50 reactors remain mothballed or idle, while conservative politicians in Germany are leading the charge to end that nation’s nuclear industry by 2022. Nuclear power is flat-lining 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 bright spots in the pro-nuclear firmament but even these are contested and eclipsed by plans for growth in renewables.

When you add rising compliance and construction costs, unresolved waste management issues and the large numbers of nuclear reactors around the world that are rapidly approaching or passing their use-by date and heading into the costly and complex de-commissioning phase the global nuclear industry is under pressure and under-performing.

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. Australian radioactive rocks are the source of the radioactive fallout in Japan and far beyond. In the shadow of Fukushima, rapidly approaching its fourth anniversary, both the uranium price and production rates have been in freefall and in 2014 Australia exported the least uranium it has for the past 16 years.

The nuclear industry starts with uranium and so should any genuine assessment of the nuclear sector in South Australia, seeking to quarantine this from full consideration is inconsistent with the Premiers call for an ‘informed and mature’ debate and risks moving the Commission away from the real world of industry performance towards providing a publicly funded platform for industry promises.

Clearly South Australia is experiencing tough and uncertain economic times due to a trifecta of the shelving of the long planned Olympic Dam expansion, the loss of jobs in the car industry and the prospect of defence contracts moving offshore. Amid this volatility the sustained lobbying efforts of a group of nuclear true believers has found a platform.

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.

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 drawing finite technical, financial and human resources from the renewable energy sector.

In many areas, South Australia leads the nation in relation to renewable energy. The state is blessed with high value solar, wind and geothermal resources. 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.

The Trojan Horse in the Commission stable remains the global nuclear industry’s main game and Holy Grail – the search for a place to dump waste. Already nuclear industry advocates are back pedalling on the potential for nuclear power and the viability of uranium enrichment, but are seeing the dollar signs and not the danger signs in a push that ignores South Australians, particularly Indigenous South Australians, sustained and successful efforts to oppose radioactive waste dumping in their country.

Given that it will be navigating contested waters with significant and long lasting costs and consequences for this and all future generations of South Australians it is essential that the Premier heeds community concerns and revisits the terms of reference to ensure the Commission does not become a taxpayer funded nuclear industry promotional platform.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.