Story by Paul Marriott REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
AUSTRALIA: November 30, 2005
SYDNEY - Senior members of Australia's government are pushing for a debate on a home-grown nuclear power industry in a country that digs up and exports a sizeable chunk of the world's uranium but has long shunned nuclear energy.
A push to replace ageing coal-fired power plants with nuclear facilities to secure long-term electricity supply and meet ambitious carbon emissions targets has gathered momentum with two ministers putting forward a formal proposal for a study into the sector.
Australia relies on vast reserves of cheap coal to generate 80 percent of its energy, but also has high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and risked international condemnation by refusing to sign the Kyoto agreement on global warming. Fossil fuel generation is still forecast at 70 percent by 2020.
But having already overturned the 1980s "three mines" policy which limited the number of uranium pits -- Australia is home to over one third of global reserves -- there are signs a former pariah is moving up the list of potential energy alternatives.
"The coal lobby remains powerful but it could be that Australia has too many eggs in a single basket," said Ian van Altena of the University of Newcastle.
"Arguments about carbon emissions are making all kinds of people consider nuclear who said no in the past. I'd say the mood is slowly changing."
Two Federal government ministers this week asked the Prime Minister to consider home-grown nuclear power in light of environmental concerns and a booming uranium industry that saw the value of exports rise 30 percent in fiscal 2005.
"We can't responsibly dig 30 percent of the world's uranium out of the ground, export it overseas, and allow some 440 reactors to operate and expand in other parts of the world and not seriously consider this as an option for ourselves," Education Minister Brendan Nelson told the Nine Network.
Prime Minister John Howard recently said nuclear should be included in the debate on energy options, while the Treasurer has led a group of cabinet ministers in saying such decisions should be left to market forces, provided safeguards are in place.
It represents a big shift since a series of decisions in the 1970s which shelved plans for nuclear reactors in Australia. Victoria and New South Wales states still have 1980s legislation which outlaws the construction or operation of nuclear reactors.
"If we're considering what generating plant is suitable to be operating in 30-40 years in a greenhouse-constrained world, there's a strong argument for diversifying and including nuclear in the mix for every country with concentrated electricity demand," said Ian Hore-Lacy of the Uranium Information Centre.
Nuclear energy was enjoying a global renaissance, with 25 new reactors under construction to supplement those on-line in 30 nations, producing 16 percent of world electricity, he said.
Britain is reviewing plans for a new generation of nuclear plants to improve declining self-sufficiency and avoid the embarrassment of missing self-imposed greenhouse gas targets.
China and India are quadrupling nuclear capacity by 2020, and established players such as Japan and South Korea could follow Britain's lead in reviewing their ageing infrastructure.
But environmentalists still loudly oppose nuclear power, while recognising the need to reduce emissions in the face of Australian energy growth of 2 percent annually until 2030.
"It's too slow, too costly, too dirty and too risky," said Dave Sweeney of the Australian Conservation Foundation. "We reject it as a credible or sustainable solution for climate change when real renewable alternatives already exist."
Sweeney pointed to the decades required to establish costly nuclear facilities at a time when quick emissions cuts are needed, and noted the emissions-intensive uranium mining process and the problems of dealing with radioactive waste materials.
Hore-Lacy said nuclear power was operationally cheaper than coal and gas and required no more capital investment than new coal plants.
Australia exports uranium -- now selling at over $30 per pound -- to 36 countries holding bilateral safeguard agreements for use of material. Formal talks are expected shortly on allowing uranium exports to China.