Country's energy policy faces review after a call to generate electricity using nuclear power has angered environmentalists.
Australia debates plan to build 10 nuclear reactors
SYDNEY // Conservationists have reacted with dismay and bewilderment to a call by Australia's atomic industry to build 10 nuclear power stations by 2030. But the head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) said such a move would be an effective way to cut emissions in a country which produces more greenhouse gas pollution per person than almost any other developed economy.
Ansto's chairman, Ziggy Switkowski, wrote recently in the Australian newspaper: "Previous studies have asserted that in the carbon-costed world of the 2020s, nuclear energy will be Australia's safest, cleanest and lowest cost form of baseload electricity generation. Two thirds of the world's population in 31 countries ... use nuclear electricity apparently with little hesitation." Critics, however, insist that current methods are no safer than those used at Three Mile Island, which suffered a partial meltdown 30 years ago in America's worst civilian nuclear accident.
Dr Mark Diesendorf, deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, said: "In a nutshell it is still too dangerous to be relied upon both in terms of proliferation of nuclear weapons and rare, but catastrophic accidents. It is far too expensive, much dearer than wind power. It is unnecessary because Australia has enormous renewable energy resources and in the long term it [nuclear energy] becomes a medium-level carbon dioxide emitter, although it is not a significant emitter right now."
"Let me stress, the main dangers that I'm concerned about are the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I have no confidence in past, present or future Australian governments that they would avoid keeping open the possibility of becoming nuclear armed if they built nuclear power," Dr Diesendorf said. Australia has a single nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights on the edge of Sydney which is used for medical and research purposes.
In the late 1960s, plans were made to build an atomic power plant at Jervis Bay, in New South Wales, but the project was killed off by political pressure and opposition to nuclear energy has persisted at the highest levels of government ever since. The country's resources minister, Martin Ferguson, said: "Australia is an energy-rich nation possessing abundant sources of low-cost conventional fuels such as coal and gas, as well as many renewable options, such as wind, solar, geothermal and wave energy. "I acknowledge that nations with fewer energy options than Australia need to develop and expand their nuclear energy capacity as they respond to the challenges of climate change and energy security."
This official stance is in keeping with the views of most Australians, who overwhelmingly favour the development of renewable energy over nuclear, according to an opinion poll published earlier this month. The Newspoll survey, commissioned by the Clean Energy Council, an association of clean-energy companies in Australia, showed that 80 per cent of respondents wanted the government to look to wind and solar power before pursuing the nuclear option, which undoubtedly has had an image problem, in large part because of the radiation disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.
Dr Barry Green, an Australian scientist and expert in fusion science, said he believed the industry had successfully repaired its reputation and was now safer than ever. "Largely it [nuclear power] has been seen as very unpopular with the voters. Now, I don't think that is the situation anymore. A lot of the fears [over] nuclear power are more imagined than real and I think we should definitely start looking at it," he said from his home near Perth in Western Australia.
"Of course, safety is a concern and no one can forget the horrors of Chernobyl, but if we were to throw away a viable technology because of a severe accident then we wouldn't be flying planes anymore. When a jumbo jet comes down and 300 people are immediately killed our immediate reaction is not to do away with air travel but to make the system better [and] to improve the safety features," Mr Green said.
About 400 reactors are in use around the world. China, India, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and Taiwan have embraced the technology, while the UAE, Indonesia and Thailand have ambitions to join them. In Europe, France is also an enthusiastic adherent, with 80 per cent of its electricity generated by atomic facilities. "You only have to look at the track record of existing reactors in France ... to see we have had essentially trouble-free electricity. I would maintain the record is pretty good," Mr Green said.
As for concerns about weapons proliferation should Australia go down the atomic path, Mr Green said that the government would be bound by the rules of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that sensitive fissile material would not be misused. Despite such assurances, critics also remain worried about the safe storage of radioactive waste and while several sites have been suggested, those plans have met with fierce local opposition as Australia continues to wrestle with the vexed and divisive issue of nuclear power.