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New Reactor Open for Business

Richard Macey
April 20, 2007

As the debate over the use of nuclear power heats up, the Prime Minister, John Howard, will today declare open one of the country's biggest and most controversial science projects, the new $400 million nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights. Named OPAL, an acronym describing how its atomic core is shielded by an open pool of water 13 metres deep, it replaces Australia's first nuclear reactor, shut down in January after 48 years.

Powered by six kilograms of uranium-235, OPAL generates 20 megawatts of energy - twice that produced by the seven kilograms of fuel in the old reactor, but hundreds of times less than the output of typical nuclear power plants. Covering the reactor's roof is a steel mesh 40 metres long and 30 metres wide, nicknamed the chip basket, or hairnet, designed to stop aircraft flown by suicide terrorists.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which runs Lucas Heights, already produces 70 per cent of the radiopharmaceuticals used in Australia, enough to treat 500,000 patients a year. It says the new reactor could boost production four times. The new reactor, described as a factory for making neutrons, fundamental atomic particles, will also be used for advanced materials technology, geology and cell biology science, and even gene therapy and obesity research.

While the old reactor used concrete and lead to contain its radioactivity, OPAL is shielded by the water, which glows with an eerie blue light scientists call Cerenkov radiation. With names such as Wombat, Echidna, Platypus and Quokka, nine research instruments will eventually use particles made in the reactor.

Andrew Studer, an instrument scientist, is among a team that has been trialing Wombat this week, conducting experiments to unravel the nature of the Earth's interior. Wombat and Echidna have both been designed to reveal subtle but vital variations in the atomic structure of materials by bombarding them with neutrons and watching the way the particles bounce off. Dr Studer has been using Wombat to explore a mineral thought to make up much of the Earth's mantle, below the crust. To unravel its mysteries German scientists have been using extreme pressures and temperatures to make artificial bits of mantle, which Wombat has analysed. So far, Dr Studer said, Wombat's performance "looks fabulous".

Scientists also hope to use the new reactor for research into everything from the structure of blood cells to aircraft parts.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Nation's Energy Future is Nuclear: Howard

Richard Macey
April 21, 2007

Nuclear energy was "a source of hope" and "part of the future for all mankind", the Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday. Opening the new $400 million science research reactor at Lucas Heights, Mr Howard gave a powerful endorsement for atomic power. "Nuclear energy, nuclear science, nuclear power is part of Australia's future," he said. "Those who seek to shut the nuclear option out of anything in relation to power generation or science or medicine in the future are really looking backwards rather than forwards. "Nuclear power is cleaner than power from coal or from gas, and as coal gets dearer as we apply technologies which produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, then inevitably it will become more economic to use nuclear power."

Mr Howard backed a claim by Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Research Organisation, that the reactor, dubbed OPAL, was "Sydney's third icon", after the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

A handful of demonstrators protested at the opening, parking a tanker, dressed up as a nuclear waste truck, outside. In one glitch, ANSTO's chief executive, Ian Smith, confirmed a water leak, revealed in January, would force the reactor to be shut down later this year so the Argentinian builder, INVAP, could make repairs.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Nuclear power a "long way off"

23rd April 2007

The head of Australia's largest power retailer, AGL Energy Ltd, believes a move to nuclear power will not happen in his lifetime because the power plants are uninsurable.

AGL chief executive Paul Anthnoy made the comment on ABC TV as he described the company's aims to expand to hold 40 per cent of the market through organic growth.…

The nuclear power debate was a difficult one for Australia, Mr Anthony said. When asked if he thought he would live to see a nuclear power station in Australia, he said he did not.

"Nuclear power stations are uninsurable so the insurer of last resort in all countries has to be the government. The government has to say we're going to underpin the uninsurable risk of the nuclear sector" he said,

The Daily Advertiser

Web page editor: Could it be possible that this statement was made in an attempt to mislead the anti-nuclear lobby (which is gaining increasing popular support and resultant political attention) rather than as a statement of intent?

Some Poll Results

Newspoll – December 15-17, 2006. Source:

Currently, while there is a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney used for medical and scientific purposes, there are no nuclear power stations in Australia. Are you personally in favour or against nuclear power stations being built in Australia?

Total in favour       35%
Total against          50%
Uncommitted        15%
TOTAL                 100%

Roy Morgan – June 7-8, 2006. Source:

Are you concerned about the disposal of nuclear waste or not?

Yes, concerned          87%
No, not concerned     12%
Can't say                      1%
TOTAL                      100%

Newspoll – March 2-4, 2007. Source:

Would you personally be in favour or against a nuclear power station being built in your local area?

Total in favour       25%
Total against         66%
Uncommitted          9%
TOTAL                 100%

If these numbers were to be applied to a political party, rather than the nuclear industry, they would be a cause for that party's serious concern. There would be some difficulty in carelessly dismissing them.


April 28, 2007

Prime Minister John Howard today promised to remove all excessive restrictions on mining, processing and exporting of Australian uranium as a possible step to embarking on domestic nuclear power generation.

Mr Howard said expert advice to the government clearly showed Australia was giving up a major economic opportunity as a result of the excessive barriers on uranium mining and export. He said a key theme of that advice was that Australia should do what it could to expand uranium exports and remove unnecessary barriers that were impeding efficient operation and growth of the industry.

"In light of the significance of global climate change and as the world's largest holder of uranium reserves, Australia has a clear responsibility to develop its uranium resources in a sustainable way - irrespective of whether or not we end up using nuclear power," he said in a statement. Mr Howard said nuclear energy was a fact of life and a key source of clean energy in 30 countries across Europe, Asia and North America. It already supplied 15 per cent of the world's electricity and was set to grow.

"I am announcing today a new strategy for the future development of uranium mining and nuclear power in Australia," he said. "The government will implement this strategy to increase uranium exports and to prepare for a possible expansion of the nuclear industry in Australia."

Mr Howard said the government's strategy would involve some immediate steps. The government will move to remove unnecessary constraints on expansion of uranium mining, such as overlapping and cumbersome regulations relating to the mining and transport of uranium ore. It will also make a firm commitment to Australia's participation in the Generation IV advanced nuclear reactor research program. Mr Howard said the government would develop an appropriate nuclear energy regulatory regime including measures to govern any future potential nuclear energy facilities in Australia. The government will also move to lift skills and technical training to address for a possible expanded nuclear energy industry and embark on enhanced research and development. It will also embark on an information campaign to explain to the nation what needs to be done and why. Mr Howard said relevant ministers and their departments were to start this work immediately and to report to Cabinet by around September. Work plans are to be implemented in 2008, he said.

"The government's next step will be to repeal commonwealth legislation prohibiting nuclear activities, including the relevant provisions of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This will be addressed soon,'' he said.

"My government's strategy is in response to the findings of three major recent reports and inquiries into the complex issues relating to uranium mining and nuclear power.''

Mr Howard said Australia had 36 per cent of the world's low cost uranium reserves.

"Policies or political platforms that seek to constrain the development of a safe and reliable Australian uranium industry - and which rule out the possibility of climate-friendly nuclear energy - are not really serious about addressing climate change in a practical way that does not strangle the Australian economy,'' he said.



April 28, 2007

Federal opposition treasury spokesman Wayne Swan has slammed Prime Minister John Howard's plans to expand the nuclear industry in Australia. Mr Howard has instructed ministers and departments to take immediate action on a four-stage plan to prepare Australia for a nuclear future and report back to him by the end of this year. The expansion could ultimately include nuclear power stations, uranium enrichment and nuclear waste treatment. But Mr Swan said today the prime minister is playing politics as the party prepares to debate its uranium mining and nuclear policy.

"John Howard has been in Parliament for over 30 years and suddenly the Australian people are expected to believe that on the day of the Labor Party national conference that's debating uranium he's suddenly discovered a new way to fast-track nuclear power," he said.

"It's just not credible nor is it dignified for the prime minister of Australia to play politics in such a silly and demeaning way. Australia has abundant supplies of gas and coal which will supply our energy needs for hundreds of years."

Australia's successful tourism industry would be sabotaged by the government's push to introduce nuclear power across the country, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie says. "If we have nuclear reactors it will sabotage our second biggest industry in Australia, and that's tourism, and I say to the prime minister you'll lose every tourism operator in Queensland.

How do you go out and promote Queensland as beautiful one day, nuclear reactive the next? The truth of the matter is this is desperate politics from the prime minister and it will not work and Australians do not want to see nuclear waste dumped in their backyard."

Delegates at Labor's national conference in Sydney will today debate a controversial change to its 25-year-old ban on no new uranium mines in Australia.

Mr Beattie, who opposes the change, said Queensland and Western Australia would not allow uranium mining even if federal Labor changed its policy. "I am fairly confident that there will be a change in policy but the West Australian premier (Alan Carpenter) and I have made it clear that in Queensland, and we are the resource state, we won't be mining uranium, we'll be keeping it as it is," he said.

Industry and Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane says the federal government is ensuring Australia has all the facts to consider whether nuclear power is a viable energy alternative. "We want to put in place a series of work plans, four major work plans, mapping out the way forward for Australia in the process of considering nuclear energy," Mr Macfarlane told ABC Radio today.

"That's to provide a factual base for the public as they debate whether or not they want Australia to use nuclear energy as part of our zero emissions electricity future."

But The Wilderness Society (TWS) said nuclear power would leave a dangerous legacy for future Australians. TWS campaigns director Alec Marr said Prime Minister John Howard's plan to prepare Australia for a nuclear future would increase the unsolved problems of nuclear waste.

"The prime minister has said he wants to develop a nuclear industry but what he isn't saying is that Australia is being lined up to become the world's nuclear waste dump," Mr Marr said in a statement.

"Mr Howard's plan to enrich uranium is scandalous and would result in toxic waste that remains deadly for 4.5 billion years. A nuclear industry in Australia, including increased uranium exports, will create vast new amounts of toxic waste that will be deadly to humans for as long as 250,000 years."


Howard's Nuclear Plan a Worry: Protestors

April 28, 2007

Prime Minister John Howard has committed political suicide by moving to introduce nuclear power to Australia, anti-nuclear campaigners say. Mr Howard has promised to remove all excessive restrictions on mining, processing and exporting of Australian uranium as a possible step to embarking on domestic nuclear power generation.

The move has met with horror from peace activists and members of the Queensland Nuclear Free Alliance (QNFA), citing environmental and political reasons for their opposition to the plan.

"I think Mr Howard has just committed political suicide, given the statistics showing the public opposition to not only uranium mining, but to the development of nuclear power in this country," Just Peace spokeswoman Annette Brownlie told AAP.

"Problems of waste and nuclear proliferation and nuclear accidents are all on people's minds, they haven't gone away. People really are very, very afraid of nuclear energy and the whole cycle."

Ms Brownlie said the move would increase political suspicion among neighbouring countries that Australia was operating as "an outpost of the United States. Our neighbouring countries will have legitimate fear that Australia may become a nuclear-armed nation," she said.

QNFA spokeswoman Robin Taubenfeld said it was "highly irresponsible" of the Howard government to promote the expansion of the nuclear industry.

"There is no justification for developing nuclear power in this country," Ms Taubenfeld said. "It certainly has nothing to do with a solution to climate change, it has proven to be extremely water intensive, not cost effective and a highly polluting industry."

Ms Taubenfeld said Australia would now be hypocritical for criticising countries like Iran for developing their nuclear industries. "Going down the path of enriching uranium in Australia would be sending a clear message to our neighbours in the region and worldwide that Australia is not only gearing up to be a bigger player in the nuclear club, but Australia will be on the brink of technology to develop its own weapons arsenal," she said.


The case for nuclear energy is a hard sell to a sceptical nation

Marian Wilkinson.
18 May 2007

A year ago, the idea of Australia enthusiastically joining a global effort to build a new generation of nuclear power reactors would have been inconceivable. Indeed, when the boffins from the Government's nuclear agency proposed it last August their plan went virtually unreported. Now it is happening and the Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane, is pleased as punch.

"I don't have any fear of the science of nuclear," says Macfarlane, who has long argued for Australia to put the nuclear option on the table. These days Macfarlane is also a convert to the perils of human-induced global warming. And as that debate heats up, his and the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for exploring nuclear power grows apace.

Macfarlane is proud that Australia has joined the Generation IV International Forum. The United States-led project is examining six advanced reactor designs as part of a nuclear energy system which the Bush Administration claims will be "competitive" with coal power, solar, wind or hydro.

The Howard Government is also supporting Washington's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which is described as "intimately linked" to the reactor program. The partnership, according to the Bush Administration, aims to greatly expand the use of nuclear power globally without spreading the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

As global energy demands soar, along with worries about global warming, the Bush Administration is heralding a new "nuclear renaissance" around the world. In Australia, the nuclear debate is accelerating at such a dizzying speed it is leaving many, especially in the Labor Party, shaking their heads.

The debate really took off after Howard visited Washington and Ottawa in May last year, and returned to announce a wide-ranging inquiry into uranium mining and nuclear energy headed by Dr Ziggy Switkowski. The inquiry was one of three Government-led reviews, all bullish on the future of global nuclear power, which reported last year. Switkowski's review laid out a possible nuclear-powered future for Australia with the first civilian nuclear reactors on line by 2020 and 25 more by 2050 - producing about a third of Australia's energy.

From the sidelines, leading business figures such as the former Western Mining boss Hugh Morgan added their voices to the debate, launching a nuclear company and calling on Australia to act as a nuclear waste depository. As the spot price for uranium kept pushing upwards, the uranium miners kept smiling.

Under growing pressure from the mining industry and the Government, the Labor Party national conference last month overturned its three-mines uranium policy, opening the way for the expansion of uranium exports.

But the day Labor put up the white flag on its uranium policy, Howard again raised the stakes, announcing a new strategy to increase uranium exports and "prepare for a possible expansion of the nuclear industry in Australia".

Macfarlane's department is working furiously on plans that will be put to cabinet in September, overturning the laws it introduced in its first term preventing Australia from developing a nuclear power industry.

Already, some are speculating that Howard will even run the nuclear debate through the election campaign as part of his response to global warming. "People say it will be an election issue," Macfarlane told the Herald, "but that's when we hope the work will be completed, by September. Whether it goes through depends on whether there's opposition to it."

But despite polling released by the uranium industry this week showing that public attitudes are shifting on nuclear power, the issue still deeply divides the country. While 51 per cent say they are in favour of nuclear power "generally", about 66 per cent were opposed a nuclear power station being built in their area. And there is little evidence that anyone in business or government really believes Australia is about to embrace nuclear power.

Even Switkowski, who is running the public campaign in favour of the nuclear option, has detected no interest from the major banks, private equity consortiums or even power generators. "There are none that I am aware of, but it's early days," he says.

The chairman of Macfarlane's uranium industry framework group, Mark Chalmers, agrees. "It's out there on the table," he says, "but off at a distance. It's a debate that hasn't been fully assessed."

The Greens senator Christine Milne is even more sceptical, saying it's "blatantly clear" the Howard Government has no real plans to build nuclear power plants. "The nuclear ploy," she says, "provides a very convenient wedge against the ALP, whose 'half-pregnant' position on uranium makes no sense. If nuclear power is too dirty and dangerous for us, why is it OK for the Chinese and Indians?"

There is no doubt Howard and Macfarlane are keen to wedge Labor at every opportunity, contrasting Kevin Rudd's concern over global warming with his refusal to open up the debate on nuclear power.

"Mr Rudd isn't prepared to have a debate," Macfarlane says. "If you can't even have a debate in Australia on the facts, then there is no way business is going to invest billions of dollars to build a power station - let alone a series of them - if the government will change at an election and the investors will be left stranded."

Business and the Government agree that nuclear power will go nowhere without bipartisan support. But Labor says another critical factor is absent: private investment.

Nuclear power has been fraught by cost blow-outs around the world. In Australia, even its ardent supporters say the nuclear option makes no economic sense unless Australia puts a steep price on greenhouse gas pollution from coal and gas-fired power.

Australia has some of the cheapest coal-fired power, which is why we are among the largest per head emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. The price of coal-fired power, about $35 per megawatt hour, would have to rise to between $50 and $70 per megawatt hour to make nuclear competitive, Macfarlane says. Others put it much higher.

Just when Australia will start pricing its greenhouse gas pollution is a hot topic. Within weeks, Howard will announce the results of a high-level taskforce report on a carbon trading scheme which, for the first time, will flag a possible price signal for carbon dioxide pollution. But there is speculation the scheme will not get off the ground until well into the future and is unlikely to kick off a wave of investment in nuclear power.

Switkowski disagrees. "An indication of how the costs of carbon might change over time is probably all that is required for the investment community and generating community to solidify their plans." Switkowski is one of the few true believers in Australian nuclear power, but even he admits that when Howard asked him to head his review a year ago, nuclear power was essentially an intellectual debate.

The issue then was how to expand uranium exports and build bipartisan political support for that expansion. With Australia possessing almost a third of the world's known uranium, industry and the Government could sense the coming bonanza once the Bush Administration flagged in 2005 its intention to drive a nuclear renaissance. Not long after, Labor was saying it would overturn its three-mines policy at its 2007 conference. Three months after Switkowski reported, Rudd Labor did just that.

With the uranium spot price this week hitting $US120 ($145) a pound compared with $US15 three years ago, many in the industry are counting their blessings and are not anxious to enter a debate on Australia building nuclear reactors, enriching uranium or becoming a waste repository.

For Mark Chalmers the changes in Australia are profound already, even though Labor premiers in Queensland and Western Australia are resisting any mines going ahead in their states. "Australia has just crossed the threshold, although not completely, on uranium mining for export which nobody would have thought five years ago. That was a big step. It's going to take a while for the ALP to digest that."

He, like others, was nervous when the debate turned last year to Australia fully entering the nuclear cycle, especially about taking back waste. "I think it scares people: that if you mine uranium you have to get the waste back. If no other country in the world is doing it, why does Australia have to?"

Environmentalists are raising doubts about the Government's plans. "The real agenda is to expand uranium exports through the development of a nuclear enrichment industry and a global nuclear waste dump to take and store high-level waste from all over the world, including the United States," says Milne.

Their fears centre on the fine print of the Global Energy Nuclear Partnership (see story right). While the Australian Government was delighted by plans to expand nuclear power globally, there are concerns that only a small group of supplier nations, the nuclear powers, would be allowed to enrich uranium as a way of stopping proliferation. These nations would also take back, refine and store nuclear waste. The US calls it "cradle to grave" management.

While the plan has been seriously questioned in the US, it was backed by an inventive Australian businessman, John White, who had Howard's ear as the first chairman of the Government's Uranium Industry Framework inquiry. White runs Global Renewables, has made a fortune in Britain from recycling and is seriously concerned about global warming.

When the US launched the global partnership, Howard indicated he wanted a seat at the table and did not want Australia locked out of a uranium enrichment industry. But last month, when he announced his Way Forward for Australia on uranium mining and nuclear energy, the enrichment and waste industries and nuclear leasing under the partnership did not rate a mention.

Despite Canberra's enthusiasm for the nuclear renaissance, the only immediate gains may be the known one—mining the uranium and shipping it out as yellowcake.

There is a growing belief here that other technologies will prove more attractive than nuclear as the cost of coal-fired power rises once there is a price on greenhouse gas emissions. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy argued to the Switkowski inquiry that increased efficiency, cleaner-burning gas, "hot rock" technology, wind and solar are less costly and problematic than nuclear.

White agrees. "As a continent, Australia is incredibly endowed with opportunity for renewable energy. Once you have a carbon pricing signal, it would be faster to implement and more economic in this country than nuclear power."


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