End of the three mines policy

I managed to miss the crucial moment, but Labor’s National Conference has just voted to scrap the three mines policy, which was adopted at the last Labor conference I attended (in 1982, IIRC). I can’t say I have any regrets about this. The policy was a grubby compromise when it was adopted, and it didn’t improve with age. The idea that restricting Australian exports of uranium could constrain nuclear proliferation might have made some sense back in the 1970s when nuclear power was expanding rapidly, but it has long since ceased to be relevant.

That said, the news on nuclear proliferation has nearly all been bad lately, after a period in the 1980s and 1990s when a number of countries (including Brazil and South Africa) turned away from seeking nuclear weapons. The insistence of declining powers like Britain and France on maintaining their nuclear power status, and the success of India and Pakistan in gaining acceptance of their nuclear weapons has set the scene for a disastrous expansion in the set of nuclear-armed states, which will, surely lead to nuclear weapons being used, either by a government or a terrorist group, sooner or later. The only hopeful sign is the possibility that North Korea will disarm, though the recent agreement gives the rest of the world nothing better than the position that had been reached back in 2001.

The related ‘news’ is Howard’s announcement of plans for an Australian nuclear power industry. It’s hard to see this as much more than a stunt, since it’s most unlikely that any plants will be operational before about 2030. Even that possibility is conditional on a whole range of necessary conditions, including a return to nuclear power in the US and Europe, the successful completion of research on a new generation of plants (Howard’s announcement includes a contribution to this project) and, most importantly, some permanent resolution of the debate over what to do with nuclear waste.

Given the absolute need to respond to the global warming problem, we shouldn’t rule out the nuclear option. But neither should we engage in the kind of winner-picking implicit in the statements we’ve heard lately from Howard and others.

18 thoughts on “End of the three mines policy

  1. Howard’s nuclear statement is no stunt. It is the signal that any future R&D money as well as any future global warming expenditure will be directed to nuclear whatever under a Howard government. Nuclear waste has just taken on a new meaning. Howard has no mandate to take these steps. There is a high probability that nuclear fusion power will be available about the time that any new generation fission reactors are ready for implementation. This political leader has not the faintest understanding of the science or the issues at play here. He is a failure as a leader.

  2. Nuclear power is not the answer to global warming.

    This is a lie perpetrated by folks in the nuclear industry and their shills (including politicians and the mainstream media).

    Read Dr Helen Caldicott’s book and see David Bradbury’s film before you accept nuclear as inevitable.

  3. Megan, to save spoiling Prof. Quiggin’s thread I suggest you read the two links at the bottom of my post (JQ, WordPress seems not to like my URLs) and if you want to argue with me about either, do it there. Short version, Caldicott makes claims she must know are rubbish to support her case, and Bradbury grossly misinterprets science.

    As to our host’s view on the time taken, the first of the new Gen III+ plants is under construction in Finland now, and there’s a considerable number of plants in the planning stages in the USA. The first of those will probably start construction in 2012-2013, maybe 2014. There’s reasonable odds for them to be producing power by 2020 or so. I don’t see why Australia couldn’t have reactors no more than a couple of years later if a suitable regulatory framework is set up in the near future. Frankly, the NRC review process is probably unnecessarily drawn-out and could be sped up by a more efficient bureaucratic process.

    Gen IV reactors are interesting, but they are not a prerequisite for establishment of a nuclear industry here.

    * http://benambra.org/benambra/?q=node/642
    * http://benambra.org/benambra/?q=node/816

  4. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the economics of Nuclear power generation, I would have thought that the best use of such a resource would be in the energy intensive industries that produce efficient materials. Specifically Aluminium smeltering. The use of Aluminium and other light metals such as Magnesium is extremely important for efficent transportation. The great thing about Aluminium, is that once smeltered, it can be used over and over again, with very little energy input.

    We shouldn’t be using our energy for wastful practices such as airconditioning or lighting up office towers. If you cannot live where you live without using aircondtioning or heating for 95% of the time, then you should consider living somewhere else. Reducing in our energy consuption has to be a part of the solution.

    So, if the Nuclear option is going to be embraced, we should only need a few strategic plants (well away from the major population centres). That should keep the NIMBY’s quiet.

    And I do agree with some of the comments made against expansion of Uranium mining at the Labor conference. How can we possible export Uranium, without any guarentee that it would come back in the form of a thermo-nuclear device. There has to be an internationally accepted protocol, where-by every ounce of fissile material can be accounted for. Any country that wants nuclear power, has to sign-up… full-stop.

  5. Robert, I think it will be hard even to get started before 2020. AFAIK, all the US proposals at present are to construct additional reactors at existing sites, which means that most of the hardest regulatory issues have already been dealt with, probably in ways that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny today. Assuming that we want to adopt a developed country regulatory model that has been shown to work for greenfield sites, there’s a long lead time.

  6. I asked this at LP yesterday. Does anyone think Howard has got the politics right on nuclear power?

    I reckon most voters fall into two categories. Either they…

    a) don’t know or care about environmental issues, so don’t understand why we’d need to build expensive and scary nukes when we have plenty of cheap coal.
    b) don’t understand the cost and baseload issues with renewables, so don’t understand why we’d build scary nukes instead of building wind farms, solar and geothermal power stations.

    Surely Howard’s “nukes everywhere” policy can only appeal a tiny minority who are very educated about the limitations of renewables, and sufficiently concerned about global warming that they’d be happy to see nukes in Australia.

    Howard has left himself totally exposed a scare campaign that a drover’s dog couldn’t get wrong. Rudd is already running the “25 nuclear power stations around the country line” and dozens of Coalition MPs have already said “not in my electorate”.

    I just don’t get it. I expect many things of Howard but I don’t expect bad politics. Am I missing something?

  7. Professor Quiggin, to get approval for a new nuclear plant, even at an existing site, you still have to go through the full rigmarole of getting site approval and what’s called a combined construction and operating license. See the NRC’s page. That said, the data collection is presumably much, much simpler when you’ve already got a reactor there and already have most of the information required.

    You might also be interested in the NRC’s projected timelines. Even allowing for two or three years worth of court challenges, that still leaves plenty of time to get started before 2020.

  8. BilB and Megan – you must be joking. Commercial nuclear fusion plants within a couple of decades – ROTFLMAO! Taking Helen Caldicott’s word on anything – almost as hilarious! The good doctor has a long track record of simply inventing ‘facts’ if they help her ride the moral high horse.

    John, I’m pretty undecided about whether nuclear is a goer for Australia or not (people like BilB and Megan make me look kindly on it because I know that much of what they claim is simply not true, while scurvy politicians using it as a blatant wedge make me leery of it). But if it’s too late for the nuclear option then it’s too late in spades for the alternatives, as they’re much less well developed technologies.

    I suppose that’s another way of saying that a carbon tax or tradeable emissions regime would have to be very severe indeed to get a timely enough response to AGW – the lags are simply too long for the price signals to work in time. Which in turn means that the political prospects of an effective regime are poor. If that’s so, we’d better start getting used to a much hotter world.

  9. World wide primary uranium production is much lower than reactor requirements at the moment by about 20,000 tonnes per year. The main secondary source of uranium is from downblending highly enriched uranium (HEU) to make it into low enriched uranium (LEU). The data can be found in the OECD red book at http://www.nea.fr/html/ndd/uranium/ . New technologies involving Thorium also allow for Plutonium to be disposed of by making energy using pressurised water reactors. The shortfall in primary uranium production provides a strong incentive for reductions in nuclear weapons. I don’t expect the US or Russia to do this for other reasons (such as niceness).

    I would prefer for Australia to not expand its uranium exports until the US and Russia do something about their vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The US is expected to make a decision about further reductions in is nuclear warheads in 2012. Supporters of uranium exports should consider waiting to later because it is likely to be worth more then. This will especially be the case if world HEU and plutonium stockpiles were significantly reduced.

  10. I don’t get paid for my opinions. I form them all by myself. I strongly suggest Mr Merkel try it sometime.

    I’m not going to waste anyone’s time pushing any particular barrow. I stand by my original suggestion that people read Helen Caldicott’s book and see David Bradbury’s film before locking in a point of view, and any other material they can on the subject.

    Robert Merkel disagrees. I followed the first link hoping to find a reasoned rebuttal of Caldicott’s work but, to save people time, here is the conclusion to Merkel’s opinion piece:

    “Caldicott’s other arguments may or may not be good. I haven’t looked into them in enough detail to say. But given the arrant [sic] nonsense that she has peddled, poorly, in those two chapters, it’s very hard to give anything she says credibility.”

    ‘May be good’? Oh crap, we’ve been thoroughly debunked everyone! That illustrates the short attention span of the proponent of that argument.

    Please also visit the second link, do not take my word that it is another flimsy attack on this documentary maker which similarly fails to convince me that there is a shred of credibility to the pro-nuclear lobbyists.

    Spoiled thread my a$%e.

  11. PS. I said nothing in favour of fusion. My research indicates that the ITER facility in Southern France is a disgraceful waste of money on a Disney style pipe dream.

    Free thinking readers will of course make up their own mind. Despite the efforts of Mr Merkel and his friends.

  12. Can I remind everyone to avoid attacks on other commenters, please. I’ll start editing comments from now on.

  13. Just about everything that I have read or heard by Helen Caldicott in recent years has been hysterical, emotional, poorly backed up ranting. of course there is a kernel of truth in what she says, and then she runs and runs and runs with it.
    Anti-proliferation arguments are rubbish – it is simpler to extract Uranium from seawater than to enrich it for a bomb. Anyone seriously looking for a bomb only needs access to some ocean – not too hard.

    Previous discussions on this website have led me to crystallise my opinions on nuclear power – it’s as safe as coal, if not safer (killed far less people), but absurdly expensive. So no to nukes for Australia.

  14. OK, John, I shouldn’t have flamed BilB and Megan (Megan, it was Bilb who referred to fusion). I apologise to all three of you. But really, nuclear power is one of those issues where there is an unusual amount of crap peddled and Caldicott is one of the worst offenders.

    FWIW I agree with wilful – nuclear power is currently safe but expensive. Unlike solar there are good prospects that the cost can be substantially lowered, but not in time to make it an answer to global warming. Which brings me back to the point I made – there are no good timely answers to global warming, except the very partial one of conservation (which if done seriously carries lots of costs, especially to Australia).

  15. Scrapping the federal three-mines policy was good political play. It shows the interest that Labor has in the economy, but still doesn’t open the floodgates on environmentally catastrophic uranium mining, because states still have the rights to approve or deny new mines. It also gets those who are in favour of the nuclear industry a little more on side, which is a good thing for Labor vote-counts.

    However, allowing mining is not equivalent to allowing a domestic nuclear industry, thank God. Australia would be unwise to jump on the expensive, slow, dangerous, and *water-intensive* nuclear bandwagon. We don’t have the water resources to support an expansion of domestic nuclear power.

    Australia’s domestic power supply can be secured, sustainably, with a combination of geothermal power, solar thermal power with ammonium storage, mainframe and locally-installed photovoltaics, and wind power, but most importantly with a reduction in energy consumption via both efficiency increases and increases in personal awareness and responsibility. Re-assessing how we define our ‘quality of life’ would be a good thing to do.

    And let’s face it, in a world where global warming is dealt with properly, the continued existence of the coal industry is unfeasible. It will be phased out, and demand will drop internationally as we wake up to the reality of global warming. Australia needs to develop alternative technologies for export so our economy doesn’t suffer in the long run. Carbon Capture and Sequestration can be used as a transitional technology, but ultimately the earth’s crust can’t absorb unlimited carbon dioxide, much like our thin atmosphere can’t, and we will hit a crisis point with that technology sooner or later.

    Which brings me to nuclear power again… it is the SAME PROBLEM as we have with carbon dioxide from coal – waste. Our earth cannot absorb it infintely. Nuclear power, like coal, shows extreme disrespect for the natural systems which support our society and economy, and waste will be around for for tens of thousands of years – thousands of generations. It’s bad news, and we know it. Whenever I hear average people talking about nuclear power they’re always saying ‘well, of course I don’t WANT nuclear waste, but isn’t it the only option?’

    No. Let’s take the other paths.

    By developing sustainable, renewable technologies we can assure domestic energy security and sustainability indefinitely, while exporting these technologies to the world and creating a highly-profitable new industry sector. Meanwhile, we can continue to sell our coal and uranium to countries that want to engage in those technologes. But coal will be phased out over the next 50 years, or were all in deep sh**. In the long run Uranium will go through a demand crises of its own, with prices being pushed high, assuring us large profits, but ultimately ending with truly sustainable technologies taking its place. In Australia, let’s jump that middle ‘nuclear’ step, but profit from those fools who decide to take it.

  16. Annak: “Carbon Capture and Sequestration can be used as a transitional technology, but ultimately the earth’s crust can’t absorb unlimited carbon dioxide”

    Why can’t it? It’s not like we’re magically creating CO2 here…. we’re just converting carbon from one form (coal) to another (CO2). It’s all being stored in the earth in someway. Our challenge is to reduce the amount of the stuff that’s in the atmosphere – why can’t we sequester more? Pump it back into underground reservoirs. Surely it’s just a matter of cost? We just need to decide whether the cost of sequestration is worth it or whether some other way of reducing CO2 is more cost effective. The same is true for Nuclear – it’s not a matter of whether can dispose of waste – it’s a matter of whether we can do it cost effectively. Why not bury the waste 2km underground in the middle of the Simpson Desert? Maybe because it’s too expensive.

    Whilst I agree that energy efficiency should play a part – we should also let individuals and the market choose. If I choose to use lots of power – that’s my choice. The key though, is that my choices shouldn’t adversely impact you – if I polute then I pay to clean it up. In other words – let’s do what’s required to reduce our CO2 emissions, but we shouldn’t be dictating personal choices as a result. If I use more power than average – make me pay more than average. Power pricing should be like progressive tax scales.

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