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Issue #1562      29 August 2012

Nuke South Wales?

Earlier this year, in a sharp break with a long standing and bi-partisan ban, the NSW Government announced it would allow uranium exploration across the state. This abrupt reversal of a 26-year prohibition came without warning or consultation and against the backdrop of the global nuclear industry reeling from the continuing Fukushima disaster.

At the time, Premier O’Farrell cited the narrowly won ALP national conference vote allowing uranium sales to India as rationale for the policy change, but outside of cabinet responses ranged from wariness to outright hostility.

The decision to allow uranium exploration was – and is – fiercely opposed by NSW Labor and the Greens. Speaking against the move in both state parliament and a recent public meeting, Shadow Environment Minister Luke Foley captured the strength of this resistance: “As long as I am in public life I will argue against this dangerous industry”.

Civil society and community groups are increasing both the light and the heat on the Premier’s atomic ambitions including through the launch of a NSW Uranium Free Charter in Sydney. The Charter highlights the dangers of the nuclear industry, calls on government to rule out uranium mining in New South Wales and has already gathered strong support from state and national trade unions, environment groups, public health and student organisations. The Charter signals the start of a new campaign to keep NSW free from uranium mining and promises to increasingly locate this controversial mineral on the state political radar.

The state government’s claim that lifting the ban on exploration does not signal an intention to allow uranium mining lacks credibility. The nuclear industry will not invest in exploration without the expectation of future mining activities. It is crucial to consider the impacts of mining now, while NSW’s uranium remains where it is safest: underground.

Uranium mining causes severe and sustained damage at and around mine sites, especially through the production of large volumes of long lived radioactive mine tailings. These toxic mine residues retain around eighty per cent of the original radioactivity and pose a profound management challenge. Before mining, this material is confined in a geologically stable cocoon. After mining, it is highly mobile in wind and water and able to be exposed to workers, nearby communities and the environment – effectively forever.

The track record of the Australian uranium industry is a litany of leaks, spills, breaches and accidents. A detailed independent Senate examination in 2003 found that the industry was failing to comply with its environmental obligations and called for urgent changes.

The uncomfortable and indisputable fact is that uranium is a duel use fuel – it can be used for nuclear reactors or for nuclear weapons. Those who claim that export agreements adequately safeguard Australia’s uranium ignore the deep deficiencies in the existing system and the obvious fact that, at the very least, our exports free up uranium from other countries to be used in military programs. In short, once Australian uranium leaves Australian waters it effectively leaves the radar.

The glowing elephant in the room remains the growing and unresolved problem of managing the radioactive waste that is created at every stage of the nuclear chain.

Following Fukushima the international uranium market remains depressed. Existing producers have seen reduced production and profit – the controversial Ranger mine in Kakadu has posted massive losses of $180 million in the past 2 years – while two advanced projects in Western Australia have recently been shelved.

The federal government has confirmed that uranium from Australia was in at least five of the six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant when it entered meltdown last March. Uranium from Australia is now responsible for radioactive fallout in Japan and beyond. It will take decades before the health effects of the catastrophe are properly known, and far longer before they are reduced. In the shadow of Fukushima there can be no business as usual with this controversial and contaminating industry.

The waste from any uranium mining in NSW would remain dangerous long after the O’Farrell government is gone from Macquarie Street. If the Premier truly has confidence in the case for uranium mining, he should have the political courage and community respect to test these arguments via a dedicated public inquiry before approving any exploration or mining activities. Before allowing such a long lasting and toxic industry, it is prudent to examine the adequacy of NSW’s regulatory regimes, the experience of uranium mining in other jurisdictions and the views of all stakeholders. The government’s failure to do this at the last state election means they cannot now claim a mandate to mine.

And not only is uranium mining unwelcome – it is also unnecessary. Renewable energy is the world’s fastest growing energy sector. A recent report by the federal Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics has detailed how renewables are on track to become Australia’s energy source of choice as costs fall and community support blossoms. New South Wales is well placed to build on our state’s technical and manufacturing base to become a leading producer and supplier of renewable energy. These would be real, lasting and clean jobs – with many based in regional areas. Rather than promoting the unsafe uranium sector the government should building an energy future that is renewable, not radioactive.

Natalie Wasley is the Beyond Nuclear Initiative (beyondnuclearinitiative.com) campaigner based in the Arid Lands Environment Centre in Alice Springs.

Pepe Clarke is CEO of the Nature Conservation Council NSW.  

Next article – Are central banks preparing for a global banking crisis?

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