Sydney Morning Herald p13, 26 April 2006
The meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor 20 years ago was one of the most significant disasters of the 20th century, and the effects of it are still being felt. To get a sense of the scale of the disaster, authorities are still trying to prevent more radiation from leaking and there is still a 30-kilometre security radius around the site.
As Mikhail Gorbachev declared this month: "Chernobyl opened my eyes like nothing else. It showed the horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when used for non-military purposes."
The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that radiation exposure from the Chernobyl disaster will lead to the deaths of up to 4000 people, and there have been 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mostly in children. The agency found that 350,000 people were displaced, with relocation a "deeply traumatic experience".
Chernobyl showed the world that nuclear power was not safe, but just 20 years later our Prime Minister is ready to bring nuclear power to Australia.
On April 7 John Howard told Southern Cross Radio: "My philosophy is that if it became economically attractive, I would not oppose [nuclear power] any more than I oppose the export of uranium."
The Treasurer, the Defence Minister, the Industry Minister and the Environment Minister have all said Australia should consider establishing a nuclear power industry.
The ALP has opposed nuclear power in Australia for decades. Its platform states that "Labor will prohibit the establishment in Australia of nuclear power plants and all other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle".
Nuclear energy doesn't add up, economically, environmentally or socially, and after more than 50 years of debate, we still do not have an answer to nuclear proliferation or nuclear waste.
Nuclear power is the most capital intensive to establish, decommissioning is extremely expensive and the financial burden continues long after the plant is closed. On March 30 Britain estimated it will cost $170 billion to clean up its 20 nuclear sites.
In the US, direct subsidies to nuclear energy totalled $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, with a further $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar energy combined during the same period totalled only $5.5 billion. Those costs don't include the black hole of nuclear waste - because there is no solution.
The Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, said on November 27: "In terms of high-level waste, if it were ever to be produced from an Australian nuclear industry, well that will be a matter for the governments of the day".
What an abrogation of responsibility!
The issue of nuclear proliferation is another critical concern that cannot be left to a future government.
According to the Oxford Research Group, a nuclear weapons designer could construct a nuclear weapon from three or four kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium.
About 250,000 kilograms of civil plutonium has been reprocessed worldwide - enough to generate 60,000 nuclear weapons. It has also been suggested that two or three people with appropriate skills could design and fabricate a crude nuclear weapon, using a cricket ball-sized sphere of reactor-grade plutonium.
Last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned about the dangers of nuclear proliferation: "Our fears of a deadly nuclear detonation ... have been reawakened ... driven by new realities. The rise in terrorism. The discovery of clandestine nuclear programs. The emergence of a nuclear black market."
This is the reality that must shape the nuclear debate. Australia should lead the world in the adoption of clean energy. We should seize the economic benefits of the push to cleaner energy and renewable energy.
There is a $1 trillion industry emerging globally in carbon-friendly technologies. During this month's visit by the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, a $300 million deal was signed by the Tasmanian renewable energy company Roaring 40s to provide three wind farms in China.
China's renewable energy target of 15 per cent by 2020 puts the Howard Government's 2 per cent target in perspective.
With investments in solar and wind power, clean coal and gas technology, and with the right price signals in place, Australia can transform today's energy industry into tomorrow's energy economy without investing in nuclear power.
Now is the time to reflect on the lessons from the Chernobyl
disaster. We should ask ourselves if we want a clean energy
future or a toxic waste future.
Anthony Albanese is the federal Opposition environment spokesman. This is an extract from a speech being given today [26 April 2006] at the University of Sydney.