Five big nuclear issues for 2016 — and Australia’s role in them

This article first appeared on Independent Australia

Nuclear issues got next to no discussion in Australia in 2015. That is sure to change in 2016 from five explosive factors.

#1: Nuclear weapons

It’s not nice to talk about the threat of nuclear war. That’s the bogey man that doesn’t exist any more. Or does it?

Swinburne University’s Marko Beljac recently outlined the risks of a ‘nuclear war by miscalculation’, due to the United States setting “red line” borders close to Russia and China, while all three powers escalate their production of modern nuclear weapons. Australia contributes to these increasing border tensions by joining the U.S. in stepping up up military surveillance flights over the South China Sea, in defiance of China.

William Perry, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, in his new book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, warns on the renewed danger in the new nuclear arms race. Australia has to be involved, with Pine Gap’s important role in the United States ballistic missile defense system and in its space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In the event of nuclear war, Pine Gap makes Australia both a participant and a target.

What the experts call a “limited nuclear war” between India and Pakistan is always on the cards as both nations ramp up their nuclear weaponry. What does Australia do about this? The Turnbull Government, ignoring the advice of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) and pro nuclear power expert Dr John Carlson, goes ahead with insecure uranium sales to India, thus contributing to that India-Pakistan arms race.

All these considerations will matter to Australia in a number of ways in 2016. An obvious example is in the diplomatic tightrope that our Government must walk in its relations with China — Australia’s largest export market.

#2: Indigenous rights

Over decades, the global nuclear industry has used Indigenous land for bomb testing, uranium mining and waste disposal.

In the past few years, Indigenous Australians have shown their determination to oppose nuclear waste dumping and expanded uranium mining in the Northern Territory. No First Nations group has volunteered to host the Lucas Heights nuclear waste.

For 2016, governments must have learned that Indigenous Australians are a force to be reckoned with and that non-Indigenous might join in that anti nuclear struggle. State governments, particularly Western Australia, have sought to strengthen the resources industries’ power to fight Aboriginal land rights. This has to be an issue for uranium mining in 2016 — whether mining developments can continue to ride roughshod over traditional Indigenous traditional land.

#3: Energy technologies

Renewable energy is here to stay. It used to be “alternative energy”. Now, when U.S. investment bank Lazard pronounces that wind and solar technologies are beating conventional fuels – coal, gas and nuclear – on costs of production, the world is sitting up and taking notice.

What has this got to do with nuclear power?

Well, everything. The world is moving away from fossil fuels. They have lost their social licence and the writing is on the wall for investment in fossil fuels. The nuclear lobby has latched on to this and is vigourously promoting itself as the energy alternative, while it downplays renewable energy. That downplay is either done either subtly – describing both nuclear and renewables as “both part of the energy mix” – or more directly, as in the social media, rubbishing solar and wind power. This occurs especially in the United States, where the nuclear industry has joined with the fossil fuel industries in lobbying efforts to stifle renewable energy development. In Australia, a good example of the nuclear lobby’s attack on renewable energy came when it promoted climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg‘s attempt to set up a university anti-renewables think tank.

Australia is particularly important in this global competition between traditional energy sources and 21st Century renewable technologies. Despite the Australian Government’s often faltering support for and, indeed, outright opposition to wind and solar power, it is all happening here. Australia leads the world in rooftop solar, with the highest portion of residential buildings with rooftop photovoltaic power. Despite government policy uncertainty, important solar research continues, community solar projects are developing, large scale solar projects are taking off, for example, in New South Wales. Wind power is now also taking off and has long shown its success in South Australia.

The much celebrated “Blind Freddy” has always known that Australia is the nation of greatest potential for solar, wind and wave energy. At the same time, it is the nation of arguably the greatest risk from climate change. It is in our economic interest to move to low carbon energy sources. The nuclear lobby would have everyone believe that nuclear energy is the answer. But even they know that this is not a practical choice for Australia. In February, the South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission will be announcing its recommendations. Its chief, Kevin Scarce, has already indicated that it is not likely to recommend nuclear power.

In 2016, Australia still has the opportunity to become a leader in truly clean renewable energy technologies, as energy storage systems become a reality.

There’s also the design challenge that is rarely mentioned. This is the imperative to develop design systems by which the rare earths in cell phones, computers, wind turbines and so on can be recycled, rather than mined. This is a promising new industry already started in South Australia. It goes counter to the great Australian tradition of mindlessly “digging it up, shipping it out”, but – hey! – isn’t it time for some new thinking?

With 2016 as an election year and with the ALP’s policy of a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, renewable energy developments form a challenging issue.

#4: Australia as the world’s nuclear waste dump

One of the major spruikers for this idea has been Bob Hawke, who again floated the idea when speaking to the Huffington Post last week.

The plan has had little coverage in Australia’s media, except for South Australia. It seems that until old Labor heavies Hawke and Gareth Evans enthused about it, the idea has been seen as solely relating to South Australia. However, as the first step would be to dismantle Australia’s Federal laws against importing nuclear waste, this will have to become a national matter.

Confusing the issue is the fact that Australia is obligated to take back the Lucas Heights reactor nuclear waste that has been processed in France, UK and Argentina. The first French lot has to comeback in 2016. This is a special case, with special legislation to permit only the storage of wastes that originated in Australia. The nuclear lobby will have a field day with this, seeing it as a foot in the door for that other grand plan to import the world’s radioactive trash.

Which brings me back to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission and all that will ensue from its recommendations. Commission head, Kevin Scarce, will no doubt cover his back with worthy statements about proceeding only if there is a social licence, but we can be pretty sure that this expensive year-long Royal Commission is not going to turn its back on its central idea — importing nuclear wastes. Meanwhile, in 2016, the ALP will have to face the push within its ranks to change its existing anti nuclear policy.

#5: The propaganda war

The American nuclear industry is fighting for its survival. The focus there is on exporting nuclear technology and, indeed, that is also the focus in other nuclear countries, such as China, Russia, Japan, South Korea.

The controversial main pro-nuclear themes are:

  • nuclear’s role in beating climate change;
  • and transforming the unhealthy image of ionising radiation.

I will spare you a diatribe on this last matter. but I have no doubt that there will be pressure on Australia’s academic and health authorities, as well, of course, on the mainstream media to accept these two viewpoints.

Nuclear issues got near to zero discussion in Australia in 2015. That is sure to change in 2016.

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