Addressing the Institute of Public Affairs earlier this year, Peter Dutton proclaimed, “The time has come for a sensible and sober conversation on nuclear power in Australia”.
Let’s have a sensible and sober conversation about the most dangerous form of power in the world. With AUKUS, Australia is experiencing the most serious expansion of domestic nuclear technology on our shores in decades. It’s not just rabid advocates for capitalism like Peter Dutton calling for nuclear power. As the anti-nuclear movements of the ’70s and ’90s fade into the rear-view, nuclear energy is being revived as a silver bullet of green power generation.
Across the world, we’re in somewhat of a “nuclear renaissance”, with more new reactors under construction now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. It’s no coincidence this comes at a time of increasing imperialist tensions across the world, with sabres rattling between the US and China.
Nuclear power should have no place in the transition to renewable energy. To quote Manhattan Project scientists writing in a 1946 US State Department report, “The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent”.
Nuclear fission bombs, such as those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, work by splitting the atom, and require specific radioactive material to work. This material, mostly uranium-235 and different types of plutonium, are found either in trace quantities on earth, or aren’t naturally occurring at all. The first full-scale nuclear reactor in the world—Y-12 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee—was created specifically to enrich weapons-grade uranium for the Manhattan Project.
After the demonstration of the US’s nuclear capacity in Japan, and with the start of the Cold War, there was a mad scramble across the world for other imperialist countries to acquire rival technology. Without an ongoing hot war, however, governments had to find other justifications for constructing billions of dollars worth of nuclear capability.
Thus the first nuclear power plants were born, at Calder Hall and Chapelcross in the UK. They were commissioned explicitly for the production of plutonium, but justified to the public as a new form of electricity generation. Nuclear power became then, and still is today, the most expensive form of power generation in the world. Calder Hall would later become the site of the world’s first nuclear disaster: the Windscale fire in 1957, leading to hundreds of deaths by cancer in the years following.
Today, each of the seven countries that have serious stockpiles of nuclear weaponry also has a considerable network of domestic nuclear power plants—a necessary component for weapons construction. Four of these states also have undeclared numbers of nuclear weapons developed from civil programs: Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea, some of the most volatile and militarised places on earth.
Further, every country that has nuclear power capacity has a “bomb in the basement”: a large quantity of fissile material available should they ever want to develop nuclear weaponry.
This is on top of the fact that nuclear power is not safe, clean, or renewable.
The disaster at Chernobyl is often written off as the result of a lack of “safety culture” in the USSR, as if the same drive to profit to the detriment of safety isn’t present in every nuclear-capable state today. A 2016 Greenpeace report found that in US reactors alone, 166 “near miss” incidents were recorded in the preceding decade—a rate of one or two a month. A quarter of operational reactors in the US today, including those built just kilometres from fault lines, were built on the same ’60s design as the reactor at Fukushima. The manufacturer of those reactors, General Electric, is still one of the largest constructors of nuclear power plants today.
There is also no solution to the problem of nuclear waste. More than a quarter million tonnes of highly radioactive waste are currently sitting in storage near nuclear power plants and weapons production facilities worldwide. Much of it is decades old, radioactive for tens of thousands of years to come, generated on the promise that a permanent nuclear dump was imminent. Nearly 80 years after the dawn of the “atomic age”, there is still no long-term nuclear waste dump on Earth today. AUKUS has again raised the question of such a wasteland on Australian soil—and inevitably, it is Indigenous land under consideration.
Lastly, nuclear power is a finite resource. A 2011 study by researchers at the National University of Singapore found that “even on optimistic assumptions of fuel availability, global reserves of uranium will only support a growth in nuclear power of 2% and only be available for 70 years.” Reprocessing of waste for nuclear fuel use, often offered as a solution, is exactly the same reprocessing required for its use in nuclear weaponry, and so is banned in the US on non-proliferation grounds. Regardless, squeezing a bit more usage out of fuel rods doesn’t make it renewable, as less viable material is acquired each time.
The push for nuclear power today has nothing to do with solving the climate crisis. The Australian Minerals Council, which Dutton is so often the mouthpiece for, has another interest: South Australia is the site of the largest single uranium ore body in the world. As long as it remains in the ground, the rich and powerful of Australia will try to convince us we should dig it up.
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