November 29, 2005

Australia urged to reconsider nuclear alternative

By Paul Marriott

SYDNEY (Reuters) - 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 aging 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

"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

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 Center.

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 aging 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

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.