The global nuclear industry is in crisis but that doesn't stop the pro-nuclear lobby from peddling exorbitantly expensive nuclear as a "green alternative". Noel Wauchope reports.
The global nuclear industry is in crisis. Well, in the Western world, anyway. It is hard to get a clear picture of Russia and China, who appear to be happy putting developing nations into debt, as they market their nuclear reactors overseas with very generous loans — it helps to have state-owned companies funding this effort.
But when it comes to Western democracies, where the industry is supposed to be commercially viable, there's trouble. The latest news from S&P Global Ratings has made it plain: nuclear power can survive only with massive tax-payer support. Existing large nuclear reactors need subsidies to continue, while the expense of building new ones has scared off investors.
So, for the nuclear lobby, ultimate survival seems to depend on developing and mass marketing "Generation IV" small and medium reactors (SMRs). Present USA Energy Secretary Rick Perry tries hard to market these to a sceptical Europe, while his successor-to-be Dan Brouillette is already hyping up the propaganda for SMRs.
But for the U.S. marketers, Australia, as a politically stable English-speaking ally, is a particularly desirable target. Australia's geographic situation has advantages. One is the possibility of making Australia a hub for taking in radioactive wastes from South-East Asian countries. That's a long-term goal of the global nuclear lobby. Some SMRs require plutonium or enriched uranium to get their process started, so importing these fission products is an essential part of developing small reactors. Importing wastes and starting thorium nuclear SMRs are two activities that go hand in hand.
As the U.S. industry's financial crisis worsens, it becomes more urgent to get some country to buy into SMR technology in a big way. In particular, it is marketed for submarines. That's especially important now, as a new type of non-nuclear submarine – the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine, faster and much cheaper – could be making nuclear submarines obsolete.
The Australian nuclear lobby is very keen on nuclear submarines: they are now promoting SMRs with propagandists such as Heiko Timmers, from Australian National University. This is an additional reason why Australia is the great white hope.
I use the word "white" advisedly here because Australia has a remarkable history of distrust and opposition to this industry form Indigenous Australians. Current Federal Government efforts to set up a national nuclear waste dump are directed at land owned by whites and with as little as possible involvement from First Nations people. Indigenous leader Regina McKenzie explained this situation in her submission to the Senate Inquiry.
The hunt for a national waste dump site is one problematic side of the nuclear lobby's push for Australia. While accepted international policy on nuclear waste storage is that the site should be as near as possible to the point of production, the Australian Government's plan is to set up a temporary site for nuclear waste, some 1700 km from its production at Lucas Heights. The other equally problematic issue is how to gain political and public support for the industry, which is currently banned by both Federal and state laws. SMR companies like NuScale are loath to spend money on winning hearts and minds in Australia while nuclear prohibition laws remain.
Ziggy Switkowski, a long-time promoter of the nuclear industry, has now renewed this campaign — although he covers himself well, in case it all goes bad, noting that nuclear energy for Australia could be a "catastrophic failure".
Ziggy's latest preachment is in praise of SMRs. It's very light on detail. He states that small nuclear power is more economical than large, but he is vague on the facts and, interestingly, makes no attempt to compare it with the costs of solar or wind power. He enthuses about Australia's engineers and entrepreneurs who might be able to develop the industry.
'... all obstacles ... be removed to the consideration of nuclear power as part of the national energy strategy debate.'
So the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) should be changed, according to Switkowski. In an article in The Australian, NSW State Liberal MP Taylor Martin suggested that the Federal and state laws be changed to prohibit existing forms of nuclear power technology but to allow small modular reactors.
Switkowski makes it clear that the number one goal of the nuclear lobby is to remove Australia's national and state laws that prohibit the nuclear industry. And, from reading many pro-nuclear submissions to the Federal Inquiry, this emerges as their most significant aim.
It does not appear that the Australian public is currently all agog about nuclear power. So, it does seem a great coincidence that so many of their representatives in parliaments – Federal, Victorian, New South Wales, South Australia and members of a new party in Western Australia – are now advocating nuclear inquiries, leading to the repeal of nuclear prohibition laws.
We can only conclude that this new, seemingly coincidental push to overturn Australia's nuclear prohibition laws, is in concert with the push for a national nuclear waste dump in rural South Australia — part of the campaign by the global nuclear industry, particularly the American industry, to kickstart another "nuclear renaissance", before it's too late.
Despite its relatively small population, Australia does "punch above its weight" in terms of its international reputation and as a commercial market. The repeal of Australia's laws banning the nuclear industry would be a very significant symbol for much-needed new credibility for the pro-nuclear lobby. It would open the door for a clever publicity drive, no doubt using "action on climate change" as the rationale for developing nuclear power.
In the meantime, Australia has abundant natural resources for sun, wind and wave energy, and could become a leader in the South-East Asian region for developing and exporting renewable energy — a much quicker and more credible way to combat global warming.
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