It kind of crept up on me towards the end of 2005, as it was being slowly introduced into editorials, news items, and page three stories. All of a sudden, it was common knowledge: nuclear power was not only back on the agenda, but it was apparently green and safe!
The propaganda worked on me slowly and stealthily. I found myself making assumptions that all of the issues that condemned nuclear power back in the 70s — the waste, the mining tailings and the operational safety issues — had all been magically solved, and that yes, the new peak-oil, climate-changed world needed nuclear power. I then researched an article on the use of depleted uranium in weapons — a relative side street of the nuclear discussion — and discovered that indeed nuclear was no safer now than in the 70s. And yet the subtle creep of insertions into the daily media had almost convinced me that nuclear power was in fact the answer to our new woes.
GE and Westinghouse, two of the largest corporations in the world, build nuclear power plants, and also own large chunks of the NBC and ABC media networks in the US, and thus are in control of the parameters of the nuclear debate there and abroad. Simultaneously, the global warming and peak-oil discussion has somehow morphed into a nuclear conversation. The nuclear industry has thus co-opted the environmental factors for its own benefit.
The behaviour of the media has been fascinating to observe. Every now and again an editorial appears referring to Australia’s nuclear power stations as a fait accompli. Howard promotes it whenever he can, bringing forth the great idea he has to export enriched uranium under licence and import it back to store in some remote outback, Northern Territory cattle station, thereby ensuring valuable export income. And — what a coincidence — there is even a brand new rail link on which the spent fuel and the liquid waste, radioactive for up to 250,000 years, can be ‘safely’ shipped from Darwin!
The Darwin to Alice Springs track was built by KBR for around $2 billion. KBR is a subsidiary of Halliburton, famous for its Dick Cheney connection, Iraq war profiteering and for its inside running on future US strategic and military plans. The idea that the track was an economic investment, to support trade, (which any basic business plan or economic analysis would debunk) was simply a smokescreen to future (US) military and nuclear material transport requirements. Apparently it was never intended to have a normal commercial use. With the ongoing failure of the US Yucca Mountain storage project, attention has shifted to Australia for US nuclear waste disposal.
Meanwhile, in another sleight of hand, Howard set up a task force of ‘neutral’ eminent Australians to study the economic and environmental feasibility of nuclear power. Ziggy Switkowski, former Telstra CEO, was commissioned by Howard to head the task force. First, it is probably impossible to find anyone who is truly neutral on the nuclear power issue. One either understands the dangers or doesn’t. Secondly, the evaluation of every cost factor must be included in such a study — which it wasn’t.
Dr John Blakemore, President of the Manufacturing Society of Australia and former nuclear technologist involved in Australia’s abandoned nuclear power project, stated, “If we include the cost of cleaning up the CO2 for coal then we must include the cost of waste disposal of radioactive materials for the nuclear option. Where is this in the Ziggy report? Where is this cost of the risk of a meltdown? Why won’t private insurance companies in the USA cover this risk?”
The pro-nuclear literature makes no realistic attempt to quantify the disposal and storage of nuclear waste. Either it is missing or some futuristic fairy story is presented as the on-the-ground reality.
Howard says that we can safely store nuclear waste in the Northern Territory. Really? Is there any reason to believe he is right, when he has been wrong on so many other things, including children overboard, WMDs in Iraq and global warming?
Global warming is real and the changes it will bring, both the unavoidable and avoidable, will be more intense and chaotic than most people are currently talking about publicly. Coal fired power stations are responsible for some of global warming. Mostly, though, it is the short-sighted policies of big business and the rampant consumerism it has fostered that have produced the global crises we face today. Putting up nuclear power as a panacea to both peak oil and global warming undoubtedly appeals to 1950s style paternalism, but is simply insane.
And of course it is an election year in Australia, and Howard has laid the nuclear trap for Labor to dive headlong into. Labor’s historic reluctance towards nuclear has always cost them the vote in a country frightened of anything remotely appearing ‘alternative’ or ‘green’. Yet, so far Labor has shown surprisingly little interest in diving. Peter Garret, ostensibly Labor’s rabid anti-nuclear campaigner, appears to have been muzzled, while everyone else seems to just be going along with whatever ‘is best for the welfare of Australians’.
Labor seems to believe that the nuclear lobby will just let them go through an election without any clear assurances about uranium exports, increasing the number of uranium mines and nuclear power stations. I do not think it is possible for Labor to walk through an entire election remaining ambivalent. Labor might have to commit to nuclear power if it wants to get elected, which is why it is absolutely imperative for the future, not only of our country, but of our planet, that the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate. While relatively few Australians have any financial stake in nuclear, those that do seem to hold a lot of media strings, and so the nuclear lobby, with its transnational funding, succeeds in getting its viewpoints presented as truth. This is plainly a manipulation of public opinion by financial interests, and while not unusual, is very significant because of what it means for our children and their children and the next 9998 generations upon whose head will sit the decisions Australia soon makes about nuclear power and uranium mining.
It is time for those who are passionate about preserving our planet, our forests, our wildlife, the air we breathe, to make our presence felt and heard by the politicians who want our votes. Write to the papers, to the TV stations, to your MP — push your agenda. Challenge the integrity and diligence of your politicians. And vote Green in the Senate. Regardless of who wins government, our future depends upon the Senate being controlled by people who put safety and humanity’s future ahead of profits and appeasing a desperate US president.
Originally published in Kindred, issue 21, March 2007.
Greenpeace. Nuclear power: Questions www.greenpeace.org/australia/resources/faqs/nuclear-power
Greenpeace. Now get the real answers
National Resources Defence Council: The Future Role of Nuclear Power in the United States, www.nrdc.org/nuclear/pnucpwr.asp
Susan Sargent: Nuclear Power No Relief From Energy Woes, www.commondreams.org/views01/0519-04.htm
CSIRO Energy Technology, www.det.csiro.au/
Scientific American, www.sciam.com
Rocky Mountain Institute – Amory Lovins, www.rmi.org/
Post Carbon Institute, www.postcarbon.org
Environmental Research Letters (Oxford), www.iop.org/EJ/journal/1748-9326
EnviroMission Limited – The Solar Tower Project, www.enviromission.com.au/
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Nuclear industry: The Uranium Information Centre, www.uic.com.au/nip43.htm
Nuclear Power Education, www.nuclearinfo.net
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