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Issue #1540      21 March 2012

Nuclear onslaught

People say you can sometimes smell uranium on Martin Ferguson’s breath. The federal Minister for Resources and Energy cemented his reputation as Australia’s keenest political backer of all things nuclear with a feisty defence of the passing last week of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 in a piece in The Australian Financial Review last week.

Competition for the top pro-nuclear advocate accolade is tough nowadays. Australia’s newly-appointed foreign minister has weighed in with a statement in parliament that the country should consider nuclear power in spite of the hit the energy source’s reputation took following the Fukushima disaster. To cap off the week, Labor voted with the Opposition to overturn earlier commitments not to purchase nuclear submarines. Australia may yet host a US nuclear submarine base.

The passing of the controversial nuclear waste bill means that Muckaty Station in the NT will warehouse what is described as low to intermediate level radioactive waste. At odds with supposed relative low risk involved, the waste will be kept in cement bunkers in lead lined drums. The traditional owners of the station have vowed to keep fighting the decision.

“Muckaty is a very special place for us,” a group of 27 traditional owners of the Warlmanpa Land Trust wrote recently. “None of the ministers have ever come to talk to us about the waste dump.”

Minister Ferguson insists the consultation process was extensive and transparent and that the appropriate people have given the proposal the thumbs up. He singles out Greens WA Senator Scott Ludlam for causing a lot of his difficulties in securing the waste dump bill. Traditional owners will make a plea to Governor General Quentin Bryce who still has to give royal assent to the legislation.

Now that a waste dump is almost in the government’s grasp, the question of what to put in such a facility has set many leading political figures thinking. Former sports minister under Howard, Andrew Thomson, said Australia could help Japan get back on its feet by taking radioactive soil created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Bob Carr’s suggestion that Australia must look at the nuclear power option straightaway raises the question of where to put the waste. Muckaty maybe? The Foreign Minister strayed from his new portfolio to claim that investment in renewable energy sources is lagging.

“The private sector’s competency in understanding and managing clean energy technology is low,” a Deloitte survey of investors in the sector said. The federal government has a $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation to try to address “market failures”. Bob Carr has joined Martin Ferguson in wanting nuclear power put in the “clean” energy options category despite its clear safety issues. A plan for the government to build publicly owned and run green energy infrastructure commensurate with the challenge is inconceivable to the neo-liberals on both sides of the federal parliament.

Greens leader Bob Brown has described Labor’s decision to vote with the Opposition to defeat a Greens motion to prevent the acquisition of nuclear submarines as a “tectonic shift”. The ALP previously said it would not seek to purchase nuclear subs and had opposed proposals from former defence minister Peter Reith that we should buy them from the US or at least allow the establishment of a US nuclear submarine base in the county. Both options would appear to be on the table now.

The US has already indicated its willingness to sell or lease a nuclear submarine to the Royal Australian Navy. The uselessness of the Collins class conventionally powered subs is often cited in connection with the proposition. It would also enhance Australia’s role in future US wars, including a showdown with China.  

Next article – NITV backs SBS model

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