Nuclear power in Australia
Australia currently has no nuclear facilities generating electricity. Australia has 31% of the world's uranium deposits and is the world's third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada. At the same time, Australia's extensive, low-cost coal and natural gas reserves have historically been used as strong arguments for avoiding nuclear power.
1969 Jervis Bay Plant proposal
In 1969, a 500 MW nuclear power plant was proposed for the Jervis Bay Territory, 200 km south of Sydney. A local opposition campaign began, and the South Coast Trades and Labour Council (covering workers in the region) announced that it would refuse to build the reactor. Some environmental studies and site works were completed, and two rounds of tenders were called and evaluated, but in 1971 the Australian government decided not to proceed with the project, citing economic reasons.
1979 Perth proposal
In 1977-78, the West Australian Government, under the leadership of Charles Court, announced plans for a nuclear power reactor near Perth. 1977 was seen as the year of mass mobilisation in WA, with 300 at the first anti-nuclear demonstration to 9,000 at the third protest in the inner city of Perth. Despite public protest, the WA Government selected a first site for a nuclear reactor in 1979 at Wilbinga, 70 kilometres north of Perth. Court predicted that at least another 20 nuclear power plants would be needed by the end of the century to meet rapidly growing power demand, but all of this never eventuated.
Nuclear power politics
As uranium prices began rising from about 2003, proponents of nuclear power advocated it as a solution to global warming and the Australian government began taking an interest. In late 2006 and early 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard made widely reported statements in favour of nuclear power, on environmental grounds. Faced with these proposals to examine nuclear power as a possible response to climate change, anti-nuclear campaigners and scientists in Australia emphasised claims that nuclear power could not significantly substitute for other power sources, and that uranium mining itself could become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2006, the Howard Government commissioned the Switkowski report, an investigation into the merits of Nuclear power in Australia. The report concluded that nuclear power would be competitive with coal power plants if Carbon credit sanctions were implemented upon Australia. The Industry would have been able to produce its first plant in 10 years and could have delivered 25 plants by 2050 supplying Australia with a third of its base load power.
Queensland introduced legislation to ban nuclear power development on 20 February 2007. Tasmania attempted a ban on nuclear power facilities but later did not pass the bill. Both bills were formulated in response to the pro-nuclear position of John Howard, and the release of the Switkowski report.
Anti-nuclear campaigns were given added impetus by public concern about the sites for possible reactors: fears exploited by anti-nuclear power political parties in the lead-up to a national election in 2007. The Rudd Labor government was elected in November 2007 and was opposed to nuclear power for Australia. The anti-nuclear movement continues to be active in Australia, opposing expansion of existing uranium mines, lobbying against the development of nuclear power in Australia, and criticising proposals for nuclear waste disposal sites.
At the same time, a number of Australian politicians feel that the development of nuclear power is in the country's best interests. Notably, on 13 June 2008, the annual New South Wales state conference of the National Party passed the resolution, proposed by the delegates from Dubbo, supporting research into the development of a nuclear power industry and the establishment of an international nuclear waste storage facility in Australia. The resolution was opposed by the delegates from NSW's north coast and by the party's state leader, Andrew Stoner.
In 2005, the Australian government threatened to use its constitutional powers to take control of the approval process for new uranium mines from the anti-nuclear Northern Territory government. Also, the government is negotiating with China to weaken safeguard terms to allow uranium exports there. States controlled by the Australian Labor Party are blocking the development of new mines in their jurisdictions under the ALP's "No New Mines policy."
The John Howard-led Coalition government went to the November 2007 federal election with a pro-nuclear power platform. This government was defeated by the Labor Party, however, which opposes nuclear power for Australia.
The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 prohibits certain nuclear actions specified in s.22 unless a federal approval is obtained. It specifically prohibits nuclear power generation in s.140A (an amendment insisted upon by the Australian Democrats). The Act states that the Minister must not approve an action consisting of or involving the construction or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, or a nuclear power plant, or an enrichment plant, or a reprocessing facility.
Nuclear power debate in Australia
In the 2010 book Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power Barry Brook and Ian Lowe discuss and articulate the debate about nuclear power. Brook argues that there are various reasons why people should say "yes" to nuclear power, and these reasons include:
- Because renewable energy and energy efficiency may or may not solve the energy and climate crises
- Because nuclear fuel is virtually unlimited and "packs a huge energy punch"
- Because new technology solves the “nuclear waste” problem
- Because nuclear power is the safest energy option
Lowe argues that there are various reasons why people should say "no" to nuclear power:
- Because it is not a fast enough response to climate change
- Because it is too expensive
- Because the need for baseload electricity is exaggerated
- Because the problem of waste remains unresolved
Barry Brook is a professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide. He is a strong advocate for nuclear power as a sustainable energy source, especially the Integral Fast Reactor. His most recent book is Why vs Why: Nuclear Power.
Tim Flannery is a professor at Macquarie University, and the chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group. In 2006 he supported nuclear power as a possible solution for reducing Australia's carbon emissions, but in 2007 he changed his position  and in May 2007 told a business gathering in Sydney that while nuclear energy does have a role elsewhere in the world, Australia's abundance of renewable resources rule out the need for nuclear power in the near term. He does however feel that Australia should and will have to supply its uranium to those other countries that do not have access to renewables like Australia does.
A McNair Gallup poll on the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia was carried out in 1979. The same poll was conducted again 28 years later in 2007 on 1,000 randomly selected people throughout Australia. A new poll was asked in 2009 which marked the first time that more people support nuclear power than oppose it. The support for nuclear power is still in a plurality not an outright majority  . Respondents were asked the following question:
|“Do you favour or oppose the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia?”||1979||2007||2009|
The 1979 poll was conducted soon after the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant accident located near Pennsylvania USA where a sequence of events lead to the partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core.
|Do you favour or oppose the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia?||TOTAL||ALP||Coalition||Greens|
The McNair Gallup Poll showed a significant difference in opinion between ALP, Coalition and Green supporters, and moderate differences by gender. Men were more likely to favour the construction of nuclear power stations (55%), with twice as many males in favour of the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia than women. 41% of men were more likely to oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia. In contrast, 65% of women were more likely to oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia, while 28% favour the construction of nuclear power plants.
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