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IA Book Club: Long Half-life – The Nuclear Industry in Australia

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In his far-reaching review, Dr Evan Jones explores a book by Ian Lowe, which looks deep into Australia's involvement with the nuclear industry.

PHYSICIST Ian Lowe has just published another book, Long Half-life: The Nuclear Industry in Australia.

Current generations might say — what nuclear industry? They would probably know about the British nuclear bomb tests on Australian soil (buzz words Woomera and Maralinga); perhaps fragments regarding the export of uranium yellowcake.

Australia has been integrally involved with nuclear since the atom bomb — indeed, before the bomb, as Adelaide-born Marcus Oliphant was a key figure in fostering and furthering the bomb’s development.

Lowe’s book conveniently ties all the threads together. Lowe has been intimately involved in the issue for over 50 years. The book usefully outlines in simple terms for outsiders (of which myself) the technical mysteries of splitting the atom and related discoveries. The book is soberly written, with occasional displays of outrage (John Howard "crass" and Alexander Downer "bumbling and sycophantic" in playing the U.S.’ deputy sheriff) and not a little wry humour.

The immediate consequence of the bomb in Australia was the creation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in March 1949, due to concerns of "reds under the beds". The Cold War was on in earnest.

Oliphant turned down more prestigious offers to become the foundation director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University in 1950. Oliphant garnered a formidable team of researchers, most notable of whom was Ernest Titterton, appointed as foundation chair of theoretical physics.

Another figure of note was Philip Baxter, formerly an Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) engineer, hired to head the NSW Institute of Technology (later the University of NSW). Baxter became the deputy chair of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) on its creation in late 1952. Titterton and Baxter were ardent champions of all things nuclear.

As the U.S. shut Britain out of its ongoing nuclear research, Britain’s desire to go it alone had it looking to its dutiful dominion for assistance. Titterton’s status saw him as an important go-between. Thus did Menzies’ Australia donate, without consultation, its sovereign territory for British bomb tests between 1952 and 1963. The first test was on Montebello Islands in October 1952. Then came Emu Field in 1953 but considered unsuitable. Thence two more at Montebello and seven at Maralinga.

Titterton’s biography notes:

‘He was a foundation member and later chairman of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee that oversaw the safety of Australian people, property and countryside.’

We all know the "success" of that oversight.

Australia’s other contribution to the Cold War cause was the mining and export of uranium yellowcake. Menzies opened Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory in 1954. It mined and processed ore until 1971. The Mary Kathleen mine near Mt Isa is opened soon after. Ore was exported from that site during 1958-63 (to the UK for weapons) and re-opened during 1974-83 (to various countries ostensibly for nuclear power).

Production at Rum Jungle and Mary Kathleen was modest compared to Ranger. Ore was discovered there in 1969; mining took place between 1980 and 2012 and processing until 2021. The Olympic Dam mine was begun in 1982, started mining in 1988 and is still producing.

Here is Australia’s reputed "comparative advantage" in the nuclear stakes — terra nullius (plenty of empty space for tests and waste) and rocks in the ground demanding to be exploited.

Citing Lowe:

' [Prime Minister] Fraser tried to elevate the program to a moral issue, claiming "an energy-starved world" needed our uranium.’

This identical argument has been dragged out perennially, most recently with respect to the obscenity that is the Adani coal venture. It re-appeared in a November 2006 House of Representatives Industry Committee (The Committee) report, 'Australia’s uranium…' simultaneously flogging uranium as 'greenhouse friendly'.

Lowe acerbically notes that The Committee, like Fraser, was ‘seeking to turn a grubby commercial deal into a moral virtue’. The report dutifully supported Prime Minister Howard’s (and Treasurer Peter Costello’s) then commitment to flogging the stuff.

This god-given "comparative advantage" was entrenched in a uranium producers’ cartel established in 1972. George Venturini (a founding Trade Practices commissioner after 1974) documents the affair in his 1982 Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s complicity in the uranium cartel. The Fraser Government, through the length of its tenure, passed several Acts to prevent document discovery and even sued in U.S. courts in support of the foreign-owned producers (then being sued by Westinghouse), in the name of the "national interest". John Howard, holding successive junior portfolios, was a lackey for the cause.

The 1970s were spent debating the pros and cons of uranium mining. The "debate" was dominated by the 1976-77 Fox inquiry and reports, set up by the Whitlam Government in July 1975, to which Lowe pays homage. The inquiry was particularly concerned with the environmental dimension — in particular, waste management. It was also concerned with the potential for fissile material to be used for weapons-making, not least because nuclear power plants produce plutonium.    

The inquiry was a product of and focused the tensions, divided on predictable ideological lines, within the union movement and the Labor Party. Thus, in 1977, ‘after a heated debate and frenzied lobbying on both sides, the ALP national conference adopted a policy opposing expansion of uranium mining’.

Regarding the detractors, the ardent Baxter claimed:

'The Australian anti-nuclear conspiracy is a political thing with links to international communism and the general motive of reducing the economic and military strength of the West.'

The Fox inquiry was not wholly negative, but extreme caution was its essence, thus:

'Policy respecting Australian uranium exports … should be based on a full recognition of the hazards, dangers and problems of and associated with the production of nuclear energy and should therefore seek to limit or restrict expansion of that production.'

The standards that The Committee called for have been observed in the breach. The Committee also called for a national energy policy — in the Australian political context utopian!

The 1970s was also a period of pronounced optimism of its proponents. They claimed a potential for huge output from Ranger and for uranium prices to rise. In fact, in 40 years of operation, Ranger produced 125,000 tonnes, or approximately 3,000 tonnes a year — at the lowest end of expectations. Uranium prices have also dropped dramatically.

Lowe highlights that there is a neglected dimension of uranium mining — its inefficiency. Lowe notes that at Ranger it would take 400 tonnes of ore to extract one tonne of uranium yellowcake. At 125,000 tonnes of production, that’s a lot of detritus, which highlights what a giant job is the "remediation" project currently underway at Ranger.

With Bob Hawke in ascendancy, first in the labour movement (where he fuels division) and then in the Labor Party – and with the desire to get Labor elected in South Australia – the Olympic Dam mine gets an easier ride.

The 1984 Slatyer report, initiated by Hawke, was roundly criticised as too accommodating. Thus is born the "three-mine policy", referring to Ranger, Nabarlek (Northern Territory) and Olympic Dam. Western Mining Corporation – then majority owner of Olympic Dam – claimed that, although copper was the dominant mineral, the mine would not be viable without exploiting its joint products, of which uranium and lesser amounts of gold and silver.

Lowe reminds the reader of the creation of the Nuclear Disarmament Party during the 1980s (before its self-destruction). From 1984 there was one senator and two senators from 1987 to 1990 ‘with a single-issue focus on opposition to uranium export and Australian participation in the U.S. nuclear military alliance’. A certain Peter Garrett was deprived of a sure senatorial position in 1984 because Labor directed its preferences to the Coalition.

Lowe asks — is uranium mining in the public interest? Lowe notes that, at time of writing, uranium yellowcake exports were less than that of cheese! And that Australia’s safeguard regime has more holes than Swiss cheese.

Lowe cites Jim Green and David Noonan who claim that Australian uranium exporters share partial responsibility for the Fukushima disaster. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) (Australian customer), the regulator and the government were complicit in long-term ignoring of serious safety breaches and were known to be so.

There has been no nuclear power generated in Australia, but not for want of trying. Early proponents – Oliphant, Titterton, Baxter and the AAEC – saw it as a potential great bounty, cheapening the cost of living, even populating arid lands by means of desalinated water supply.

A small reactor was built under British direction at Lucas Heights (then bushland) in 1958, for research purposes. Early work at Lucas Heights was oriented precisely to research possible models for nuclear power reactors. However, the two preferred models pursued by the AAEC turned out to be duds.

In the mid-1960s the irrepressible Baxter was still pushing for Australia to acquire nuclear weapons and so pushed a proposal for a 250-megawatt nuclear power plant (as the first of seven or eight!) as cover. It went to Cabinet and, with the ascendancy of the pro-nuclear John Gorton as Prime Minister, gained approval, to be constructed at Jervis Bay.

The proposal died with the coup against Gorton but not before tenders were called. The tenders received highlighted that the cost would be prohibitive, confirming treasury fears. More, Lowe notes that Australia’s federalism was the key impediment to nuclear power, with each state having divergent energy sources and the necessity of scale confounding state fragmentation.

Local calls for a renewed consideration of nuclear power as a "green" alternative to fossil fuels (‘after all, the French depend on it’) emanate from the self-interested and the ill-informed.

John Howard returns from the U.S. in 2006 and tries it on, claiming that nuclear power is on the verge of becoming economical. Ludicrous, as Lowe emphasises, with construction costs monumental and the radioactive waste problem at present insurmountable.

Meanwhile, the Lucas Heights reactor had been producing waste of varying levels with the storage issue unresolved. It is the mid-2000s and the reactor is past its use-by date. Australian Nuclear Science and Technology (ANSTO) – the successor to AAEC – lobbied Howard to approve a replacement with a potential cost of several hundred million dollars. ANSTO claimed that one needed the reactor for medical purposes, to keep Australia’s hand in on nuclear science and to maintain a seat at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Lowe denies all three. Medical needs can be readily imported. There are other nuclear research centres in Australia that would better deserve the funds, preventing skilled professionals from being lost to overseas. More, the neutrons to be generated at Lucas Heights go mostly to the mining sector, handing another underhanded annual subsidy of $100 million to that pampered arena.

The replacement went ahead, called an Australia’s Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor, built by an Argentinian company. Work began in 2002 and it was commissioned in 2006. A condition for its approval was that the waste problem would be solved. Of course, it wasn’t. Which makes the approval and construction of the OPAL reactor unconscionable.

Apart from domestic waste generation, Australia needs to take "ownership" of the waste associated with its uranium exports. The waste problem has exercised many minds and continues to do so, globally but not least in South Australia.

Lowe details the machinations. Some argue that Australia has a "comparative advantage" in storing the nuclear waste of others, especially given that all those Asian countries with nuclear reactors don’t have suitable sites. The potential earnings were claimed as considerable. Australia, by contrast, has all that terra nullius. Except that it doesn’t. The Woomera region was contemplated, save that the traditional owners said "no thanks". Then the Eyre Peninsula was contemplated, save that the traditional owners there said "no thanks". As Lowe notes, all this ‘potentially suitable’ territory has traditional owners. Total impasse.

Well, isn’t France a model of the nuclear alternative? No, it isn’t. The French nuclear sector is a simmering mess (the boiling frog?) and is embroiled in a series of fiascos.

France’s nuclear estate is elderly, many reactors already past their life expectation. The operator Électricité de France (EDF) faces considerable costs of rehabilitation if the life is extended and/or huge costs of dismantling. There are perennial "minor" safety breaches as alerted by the safety authority Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN), perennially ignored by EDF.

France’s great white hope, the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), being built at Flamanville, is a debacle. Its initial estimated time of completion passed from 2012 to 2023 and its estimated budget has blown out from €3.5 billion (AU$5.7 billion) to €19 billion (AU$30.7 billion) and still counting. There have been fundamental failures in construction. In particular, the connections of the primary piping circuit that evacuates the reactor’s heat with cold water piping were shoddily soldered.

In 2015, the manufactured boiler (cuve) was found to have an excess of carbon in the steel which potentially weakens its resilience. Given the impossible replacement cost, the ASN is crossing its fingers. After decades of neoliberal policies, France’s technological capacity has gone to the dogs.

Framatome/Areva/Orano (the authorities keep restructuring to hide the failures) have had myriad mining and construction failures, generating billions in debt, not least indemnities run up with the stalled EPR in Finland. A French/Chinese EPR at Taishan – for a period the only functioning EPR – experienced a radioactive gas leak in June 2021. The openness of the Chinese authorities on the matter is suspect.

Meanwhile, the waste problem remains unresolved. The authorities’ ambitions to bury a mountain of waste deep in the lowly-populated region of Bure is meeting dogged resistance, in spite of the repressive treatment of the dissidents. 

EDF’s debt currently stands at €42 billion (AU$57.4 billion). The company is trying to reduce its debt partly by privatising its renewables division — Project Hercules! It is also raising prices, ending the relative cheapness of nuclear-derived electricity that has long been a source of national pride.

In writing Long Half-life, Lowe has very usefully highlighted the range of inquiries and reports on the nuclear industry in Australia and also some important prior literature of which the reader may have been ignorant. This reviewer’s only beef, minor, is that the author might have been more diligent with dates.

Lowe has written a telling obituary for the nuclear industry in Australia, but the waste problem refuses to die.

Breaking news 

In a Howard-inspired act of gross obeisance to the Yanks, the Morrison Government has overnight overturned the contract with the French Naval Group for diesel-powered submarines. Nuclear-powered American submarines are now de rigueur. There is the boast that Australia will be privy to secret U.S. technology. It won’t happen. Should this latest mad escapade ever take shape (compare Abbott’s F-35 folly), the American military presence in Australia will be further entrenched.

‘Long Half-life: The Nuclear Industry in Australia’ is available from Booktopia for $28.35 (paperback) RRP.

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist.

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