Arguments against turning SA into the world’s nuclear waste dump

This is the summary of a 2016 submission by Friends of the Earth, Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Conservation Council of SA to the SA Joint Select Committee on the Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. To read the entire submission click here.

“Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000 kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes − of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk.” ‒ Prof. John Veevers, Macquarie University [1]

Our organisations expressed deep reservations over the Royal Commission process, with particular concern over the Commission’s pro-industry terms of reference and the pro-nuclear bias in the composition of the Royal Commission (e.g. a majority of the members of the Expert Advisory Committee were clearly partisan nuclear advocates).[2] We maintain that the Royal Commission’s report is not a credible, even-handed report; instead it should be regarded as an advocacy document.[3] The report fails to demonstrate that a high level nuclear waste facility is practical or economic for SA, it downplays and ignores risks and uncritically presents arbitrary and highly optimistic forecasts of economic impacts.

The Royal Commission report fails to adequately reflect the clear international history of complexity, cost, contest and project failure in relation to radioactive waste management. This experience is of profound importance in framing any future discourse on this highly contested public policy arena. Our organisations believe that as a foundation document for framing and advancing any such discourse the Commission report is deeply deficient.

Importing waste before a repository is established

No country has completed construction and begun operation of a high level nuclear waste repository – at a national, let alone an international level. Many countries have failed or in their attempts to establish a repository. Successive Australian governments have repeatedly failed in their efforts to establish a repository for low level waste and plans to establish an intermediate level waste repository were abandoned in 2004 when the National Store Committee was disbanded. Yet the Royal Commission proposed importing high level nuclear waste on the assumption that it will be possible to establish a high level nuclear waste repository. This is highly irresponsible and should be rejected by the Joint Select Committee.

The so-called ‘Interim Storage Facility’ is proposed to accumulate 50,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste before a repository begins accepting waste. There is a significant risk that high level waste will be imported and will have to remain in ‘interim’ storage ad infinitum due to i) the lack of a repository, ii) the lack of a return-to-sender clause in contracts and iii) the inability to send the waste on to a third country.

International experience

The Royal Commission insists that a nuclear waste storage and dumping business could be carried out safely. But would it be carried out safely? The Royal Commission ought to have considered evidence that can be drawn upon to help answer the question ‒ but it failed to do so.

What sort of evidence might be considered? The experience of the world’s one and only deep underground nuclear waste dump ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in the U.S. ‒ is clearly relevant yet it was completely ignored in the Royal Commission’s Tentative Findings report and receives one token paragraph in the Final Report. WIPP is a case study of a sharp decline in safety and regulatory standards over a short space of time (www.foe.org.au/wipp). A chemical explosion in a nuclear waste barrel in February 2014 was followed by a failure of the filtration system, resulting in 22 workers receiving small doses of radiation and widespread contamination in the underground caverns. WIPP has been shut down for 2.5 years since the accident. Costs associated with the accident are likely to exceed US$500 million.

The Royal Commission ignored the fundamental lesson from the WIPP fiasco – initially high safety and regulatory standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting in the space of just 10–15 years. The Royal Commission correctly notes that high level waste “requires isolation from the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years”. How can we be confident that high safety and regulatory standards in SA would be maintained over centuries and millennia when WIPP shows that the half-life of human complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting is measured in years or at most decades?

The Royal Commission gives great weight to abstract, theoretical safety assessments while ignoring what is happening in the real world. It ignores clear and important examples of the spectacular mismatch between theoretical safety assessments and real-world experience. For example, a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted one radiation release every 200,000 years. Yet WIPP was open for just 15 years before the chemical explosion in February 2014.

There is no logical reason to believe that the SA government would perform any better than the U.S. government. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that nuclear waste management would be more difficult here given that the U.S. has vastly more nuclear waste technical and management expertise, experience and capacity than Australia.

The Royal Commission had little or nothing to say about other problems overseas, e.g. fires at radioactive waste repositories[4], the current project to exhume 126,000 waste barrels from a dump in Germany following extensive water infiltration and corrosion, the liquid nuclear waste explosion at Mayak in the USSR, and many others.

Political decisions are reinforcing the selectivity of the Royal Commission. The leaders of the SA Labor and Liberal parties plan to visit the waste facility under construction in Finland (20 times smaller than that proposed for SA). Why aren’t they visiting WIPP, or the German repository, or Mayak? Why aren’t they visiting places whose names are synonymous with dangerous and hideously expensive nuclear waste mismanagement ‒ Dounreay, Sellafield, Hanford, etc.? Why aren’t they visiting the wine producers in France who took the operator of a nuclear waste dump to court in a failed attempt to have the dump shut down? The SA Joint Select Committee should recommend that the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition extend their overseas trip to visit the above-mentioned locations, or at the least to meaningfully engage with international critics and not merely advocates.

While ignoring the world’s one and only existing deep underground nuclear waste dump (WIPP), the Royal Commission talks at length about deep underground repositories under construction in Finland and Sweden. According to the Royal Commission, those two countries “have successfully developed long-term domestic solutions” for nuclear waste. But in fact, neither country has completed construction of a repository let alone demonstrated safe operation over any length of time. After over 30 years Finland is still seven years away from first disposal of high level waste ‒ said to start in 2023. Sweden’s Forsmark Geological Disposal Facility has not yet even been licensed to start construction and isn’t planned to open until the late 2020s. Also both facilities are clearly focussed on addressing domestic nuclear waste arisings, not the far more complex international issues.

Mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA

Just as the Royal Commission glossed over countless serious examples of nuclear waste mismanagement around the world, it also glossed over numerous problems in SA.

A radioactive waste repository at Radium Hill, for example, “is not engineered to a standard consistent with current internationally accepted practice” according to a 2003 SA government audit ‒ yet there is no current intention to rectify the situation.

The Port Pirie uranium treatment plant is still contaminated over 50 years after its closure. It took a six-year community campaign just to get the site fenced off and to carry out a partial rehabilitation. As of July 2015, the SA government website states that “a long-term management strategy for the former site” is being developed.

Management of mine wastes has also been problematic. For example SA regulators failed to detect Marathon Resource’s illegal dumping of radioactive materials in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. The incident represents a serious failure of SA government regulation yet to the best of our knowledge there have been no legislative or regulatory changes to reduce the risks of a recurrence.

The ‘clean-up’ of nuclear waste at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s provides no cause for comfort with an expansion of nuclear waste in SA:

  • Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
  • Scientist Dale Timmons said the government’s technical report was littered with “gross misinformation”.
  • Dr Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said that the ‘clean-up’ was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups”.
  • Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston (now with ARPANSA) noted that there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project”.

The Royal Commission claims that “South Australia has a unique combination of attributes which offer a safe, long-term capability for the disposal of used fuel”. But instead it can be credibly argued that SA has a track record of mismanaging radioactive waste (Radium Hill, Maralinga, Port Pirie, Arkaroola, etc.) and no experience managing high-level nuclear waste.

If there was clear recognition of the mismanagement of radioactive waste in SA, coupled with remediation of contaminated sites, we might have some confidence that lessons have been learnt and that radioactive waste would be managed more responsibly in future. But there is no such recognition in the Royal Commission’s report or from state or federal governments, and there are no plans to remediate contaminated sites. On the contrary, the plan is to make a bad situation much worse with the importation of vast amounts of international intermediate and high level nuclear waste.

As mentioned, successive Australian governments have repeatedly failed in their efforts to establish a repository for low level waste and an interim store (or deep geological repository) for intermediate level national waste ‒ yet the current assumption is that it will be possible to establish a repository for high level international nuclear waste. This assumption is not consistent with past experience and needs focussed interrogation.

A moral responsibility to import nuclear waste?

Some argue that Australia has a moral responsibility to accept the high-level nuclear waste arising from the use of Australian uranium in power reactors overseas given that Australia is a uranium exporting nation. But there are no precedents for Australia or any other country being morally or legally responsible for managing wastes arising from the use of exported fuels, or from the export of any other mineral products. The responsibility for managing nuclear waste lies with the countries that make use of Australian uranium.

One plausible scenario is uranium being mined on Aboriginal land regardless of Aboriginal opposition, and high level nuclear waste being dumped on Aboriginal land, again without consent. That scenario is immoral twice over.

Indeed we maintain that the most consistent ‘moral’ argument is that Australia seek to prevent the creation of further nuclear waste rather than attempt to facilitate its import and dumping.

Aboriginal Traditional Owners

Our organisations hold serious concerns over past and continuing nuclear industry practices and impacts and the following comments highlight the often poor treatment of Aboriginal people by the nuclear/uranium industries in Australia and by governments pursuing or facilitating nuclear/uranium projects.

From evidence provided to the Royal Commission it is evident that a large majority of Aboriginal people oppose the plan to import intermediate and high level nuclear waste.[5]

The SA Government’s handling of the Royal Commission process systematically disenfranchised Aboriginal people. The truncated timeline for providing feedback on draft Terms of Reference disadvantaged people in remote regions, people with little or no access to email and internet and people for whom English is a second language. This was compounded when the Commission was formulated as there was no translation of the draft Terms of Reference, and a regional communications and engagement strategy was not developed or implemented. Subsequent efforts by the Royal Commission to provide translators and to translate written material were highly selective, partial and simply inadequate. Aboriginal people repeatedly expressed frustrations with the Royal Commission process.

At a minimum, we call on the Joint Select Committee to develop and implement a strategy to facilitate Aboriginal participation in the Committee’s inquiry, including holding hearings in regional and remote locations, and the provision of translators and translated written material. If this requires an extension of the timeline for the Committee’s work, so be it.

The federal government tried but failed to impose a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in SA from 1998‒2004, then tried but failed to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the NT from 2005‒14, and now the federal government appears to again be seeking to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA against the near-unanimous opposition of Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners.

At the federal level Labor and the Coalition both supported the National Radioactive Waste Management Act, which permits the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land without any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal Traditional Owners (to be precise, the nomination of a site is not invalidated by a failure to consult or secure consent).

In SA, there is bipartisan support for the South Australian Roxby Downs Indenture Act. The Act was amended in 2011 but it retains indefensible exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Traditional Owners were not even consulted about the amendments. The SA government’s spokesperson in Parliament said: “BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that.”

As things stand, BHP Billiton must partially comply with an old version of the Aboriginal Heritage Act ‒ a version that was never proclaimed. That extraordinary situation needs to be rectified. Moreover it sets an extremely poor precedent in the context of the proposal to import foreign nuclear waste.

Economics

The Royal Commission ‒ and the Jacobs MCM consultancy ‒ base their economic calculations on an entirely arbitrary estimate as to how much waste might be imported. And their estimate of the price per tonne is highly questionable. Plausible estimates of tonnage and price per tonne result in economic losses as explained by Prof. Richard Blandy: “In fact, if South Australia’s dump could only attract a quarter of the world’s high level nuclear waste, at prices equal to Swedish or Finnish costs of construction (approximately A$1.13m/tonne of heavy metal and A$0.65m/tonne of heavy metal, respectively), our dump would lose money and would have a negative net present value.”

The nuclear waste import proposal privileges short-term economic interests at the expense of the long-term interests of South Australians. Again this is neatly explained by Prof. Blandy: “We are bequeathing a stream of costs to our successor generations. They will be poorer as a result, and will have reason to curse their forebears for selfishly making themselves better off at their expense. The problem with the high level nuclear waste dump is the inescapable risk (the Royal Commission says that “it is not possible to know the geological and climatic conditions in the distant future”) of severely adverse outcomes that we might be passing on to tens of thousands of future generations of South Australians. We should think of what we will leave to our descendants – and not do it.”

The Royal Commission (and the Jacobs MCM consultancy) make some provision for cost overruns but nothing on the scale of the near-doubling of cost estimates evident in France and the UK:

  • Estimates of the clean-up costs for a range of (civil and military) UK nuclear sites including Sellafield have jumped from a 2005 estimate of £56 billion (A$97.6b) to over £100 billion (A$174b).
  • In 2005, the French government’s nuclear waste agency Andra estimated the cost of a deep geological disposal facility at between €13.5 and €16.5 billion (A$19.7‒24.1 billion). In 2016, Andra estimates the cost of the facility at between €20 billion to €30 billion (A$29.1‒43.7 billion).

The promised 600 jobs associated with the nuclear waste project (once operations began) represent less than 0.1% of the 800,000 jobs presently in South Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 11,909,900 ’employed persons’ in Australia as of January 2016 ‒ thus the nuclear waste storage/disposal project would increase the total by 0.005%.

If the nuclear waste project has even a marginal adverse impact on tourism, the jobs created in the nuclear waste project could be equalled by job losses in the tourism industry. According to the SA Tourism Commission, 57,000 are employed in tourism in South Australia (direct and indirect). Thus a 1% reduction in the tourism industry would result in the loss of ~570 jobs, very similar to the 600 promised long-term jobs associated with the nuclear waste project. Visitor expenditure is estimated at $5.7 billion annually, thus a 1% reduction would amount to $57 million annually, or $570 million per decade or $5.7 billion over a 100-year period.

This negative economic impact has not been adequately identified or addressed across a range of potentially adversely exposed sectors including agricultural, wine and fisheries production.

Transport risks

The SA Joint Select Committee might want to consider the implications of any proposal to abandon plans for dedicated, new infrastructure (e.g. port, rail) in favour of existing infrastructure. It should be noted that from 1999‒2002 Pangea Resources initially envisaged dedicated infrastructure but as its plans advanced it increasingly favoured the use of existing infrastructure. A shift from dedicated to existing infrastructure would have significant implications for the economics of the project as well as public health and environmental risks.

The Royal Commission report states: “During the past 50 years, approximately 7000 international shipments of used nuclear fuel, including nine that have left Australia for reprocessing, have been undertaken. In this time, no accident involving a breach of the package and the release of its contents has occurred. The same record applies to international transport of high and intermediate level waste.”

That claim is incorrect and is refuted by documented evidence provided to ‒ and ignored by ‒ the Royal Commission. For example a whistleblower sparked a major controversy over frequent excessive radioactive contamination of waste containers, rail cars, and trucks in France and Germany. International transport regulations for spent fuel shipments were constantly over a period of many years and this was done knowingly. Another example concerns the derailment of a train wagon carrying spent fuel in December 2013, 3 km from Paris, with testing by AREVA revealing a hotspot on the rail car.

Numerous other train derailments involving nuclear materials transport have been documented. It is unsettling to consider the multiple derailments on the Ghan train line in Australia in the relatively short period of time it has been in operation.

Transport incidents and accidents are routine in countries with significant nuclear industries. The case of the UK is pertinent. A UK government database contains information on 1018 events from 1958 to 2011 (an average of 19 incidents each year).

There were 187 events during the shipment of irradiated nuclear fuel flasks from 1958−2004 in the UK (an average of four per year):

  • 33% involved excess contamination on the surface of the flask;
  • 24% involved collisions and low speed derailments of the conveyance;
  • 16% involved flask preparation faults, and loading/unloading faults;
  • 13% involved excess contamination of conveyance;
  • 11% involved faults with the conveyance; and
  • the remainder included three cases involving fire on a locomotive with no damage to flasks.

The French nuclear safety agency IRSN produced a report summarising radioactive transport accidents and incidents from 1999−2007. The database lists 901 events from 1999−2007 − on average 100 events annually or about two each week. The IRSN report notes that events where there is contamination of packages and means of transport were still frequent in 2007.

Potential costs of transport accidents: Spent fuel / high level nuclear waste transport accidents have the potential to be extraordinarily expensive. Dr. Marvin Resnikoff and Matt Lamb from Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York City calculated 355−431 latent cancer fatalities attributable to a “maximum” hypothetical rail cask accident, compared to the US Department of Energy’s estimate of 31 fatalities. Using the Department of Energy’s model, they calculated that a severe truck cask accident could result in US$20 billion to US$36 billion in clean-up costs for an accident in an urban area, and a severe rail accident in an urban area could result in costs from US$145 billion to US$270 billion.

Transport and nuclear security: Nuclear engineer Dr John Large writes: “Movement of nuclear materials is inherently risky both in terms of severe accident and terrorist attack. Not all accident scenarios and accident severities can be foreseen; it is only possible to maintain a limited security cordon around the flask and its consignment; … terrorists are able to seek out and exploit vulnerabilities in the transport arrangements and localities on the route; and emergency planning is difficult to maintain over the entire route.”

A number of nuclear transport security incidents are listed in the body of this submission (section 3.8).

Security and proliferation risks

As the Chernobyl disaster proved, dispersal of nuclear material from just one reactor core can have devastating national and international effects. The Royal Commission proposes that Australia accept an amount of nuclear waste that is more radioactive than the Chernobyl #4 reactor core by orders of magnitude. The proposed import of 138,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel equates to 6,900 reactor-years of nuclear waste generation (a single reactor produces approx. 20 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel per year).

Nuclear engineers Alan Parkinson and John Large have warned that Australia’s proposed national radioactive waste facility would be attractive to terrorists wanting to make a ‘dirty bomb’, a radioactive weapon delivered by conventional means. The same risk applies to any comparable store of nuclear materials.

Historical examples of military attacks on nuclear plants include attacks and attempted attacks on reactors in Iraq, Iran, Israel and Syria. Those incidents were motivated by attempts to prevent weapons proliferation. Nuclear plants might also be targeted with the aim of widely dispersing radioactive material. High level nuclear waste stores in Australia might be targeted for both reasons.

Numerous security incidents at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights site are noted in the body of this submission (section 3.7).

Importation of 138,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel would contain 1,380 tonnes of plutonium − sufficient to build approx. 138,000 nuclear weapons. Thus Australia, regardless of intent, would be far closer to a weapons capability than is currently the case and regional countries might therefore decide to take steps towards a weapons capability.

Claims that Australia would be making a contribution to global non-proliferation efforts by accepting foreign nuclear waste are highly questionable. Australia’s acceptance of spent fuel would add to the number of countries with large stockpiles of fissile material − in that sense it would contribute to proliferation risks, not to the resolution of those risks.

References:

[1] http://web.archive.org/web/20120410062832/http://eps.mq.edu.au/media/veevers1.htm

[2] ‘A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’, December 2015, https://nuclear.foe.org.au/critique-of-the-sa-nuclear-fuel-cycle-royal-commission/

[3] www.foe.org.au/sites/default/files/NFCRC-response-tent-findings-CCSA-ACF-FoE-18March2016-final_0.pdf

[4] https://nuclear.foe.org.au/fire/

[5] www.anfa.org.au/traditional-owners-statements/

Pangea Resources’ plan for a high-level nuclear dump in Australia

Pangea Resources was an international consortium that was planning an international high-level nuclear waste repository in Australia.
Pangea set up an office in Australia in the late 1990s but gave up in 2002 in the face of overwhelming public and political opposition.
The existence of Pangea Resources was a closely guarded secret until a corporate video was leaked to the media.
Pangea chief Jim Voss denied meeting with federal government ministers when he had in fact met at least one minister. A Pangea spokesperson said: “We would not like to be lying … we very much regret getting off on the wrong foot.” Ironically, ARIUS, the successor to Pangea, now states: “An essential element of any approach is the open and complete flow of information.”
Here is Pangea Resources’ corporate video which was leaked to Friends of the Earth (UK) in the late 1990s. Until this video was leaked, Australians had no idea that we were being targeted as the world’s nuclear dump.


And here is an ABC Four Corners program from 1999:

Pangea reborn as ARIUS

Some people from Pangea thought they might do better if they presented themselves in the guise of a not-for-profit group. Thus ARIUS — the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage — was born. And some of these people were commissioned by the South Australian Royal Commission in 2015/16 to do the economic analysis on the proposal to turn SA into the world’s nuclear dump. Incredibly, the Royal Commission relied completely on this one economic analysis.

The farcical and dishonest engineering of a positive economic case to proceed with the nuclear waste plan was neatly exposed by ABC journalist Stephen Long on November 8, 2016:

“Would you believe me if I told you the report that the commission has solely relied on was co-authored by the president and vice president of an advocacy group for the development of international nuclear waste facilities? Charles McCombie and Neil Chapman of the consultants MCM head the advocacy group ARIUS ‒ the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage.

“They prepared the report in conjunction with Jacobs, a global engineering and consulting firm which has a lucrative nuclear arm and boasts of its “more than 50 years of experience across the complete nuclear asset cycle”.

“When I interviewed the royal commissioner last week, he initially denied that the consultants who prepared the modelling ‒ that is the sole basis of the commission’s recommendation in favour of a nuclear waste dump ‒ faced any conflict of interest.

“He then said there would have been a conflict of interest had it been the only material the commission had relied upon, but said it was “reviewed by our team of experts and found to be an appropriate estimation of what the costs, risks and benefits might be if we were involved in the storage of waste”.

“That is the same “team of experts” who, apparently, recommended the consultants in the first place.”

See also the Channel 7 video posted here.

The Citizens’ Jury was deeply unimpressed by the economic propaganda produced by Jacobs MCM and promoted by the Royal Commission and the SA government. The Jury’s report said:

“It is impossible to provide an informed response to the issue of economics because the findings in the RCR [Royal Commission report] are based on unsubstantiated assumptions. This has caused the forecast estimates to provide inaccurate, optimistic, unrealistic economic projections. We remain unconvinced that estimates relating to the cost of infrastructure.”

“The advice of two contributing authors to the Jacobs MCM economic and safety assessment, who are lobbyists for the organisation “Arius”, has called into question the objectivity of elements of the RC report. Given the authoritative nature and optimistic outcome of the economic analysis in particular, concern has been expressed that RC decisions and recommendations may not be free from bias and manipulation. The issue with the inherent bias could have been abrogated by seeking additional independent economic and safety analysis. The jury is not calling into question the impartiality of the Commission but is concerned that advocates for international nuclear waste storage may have influenced RC outcomes and damaged the integrity of the RC process and may not permit an informed decision.

“The economic modelling has a number of flaws, including not accounting for negative externalities or opportunity costs, compared to other potential investments and relies on a very optimistic interest rate.”

South Australian economist Prof. Richard Blandy said: “I congratulate the Second Citizens’ Jury on their overwhelming decision against the proposed nuclear dump. They have shown courage and common sense. A large majority could see that the bonanza that the dump was supposed to bring to the State was based on very flimsy evidence. They saw that the real path to a better economic future for our State is based on our skills, innovative capabilities and capacity for hard work, not a bizarre gamble based on guesses. I am proud of my fellow South Australians on the Jury – including those who were in the minority. I would like to thank them all for their efforts on behalf of their fellow South Australians.”

The Jacobs MCM claims uncritically regurgitated in the Royal Commission’s report were scrutinised by experts from the US-based Nuclear Economics Consulting Group (NECG), commissioned by a Joint Select Committee of the SA Parliament. The NECG report said the waste import project could be profitable under certain assumptions ‒ but the report then raised serious questions about most of those assumptions. The report noted that the Royal Commission’s economic analysis failed to consider important issues which “have significant serious potential to adversely impact the project and its commercial outcomes”; that assumptions about price were “overly optimistic” in which case “project profitability is seriously at risk”; that the 25% cost contingency for delays and blowouts was likely to be a significant underestimate; and that the assumption the project would capture 50% of the available market had “little support or justification”.

For more information on the 2015-17 debate on turning SA into the world’s nuclear waste dump, please visit: https://nuclear.foe.org.au/waste-import/

Paul Howes’ howlers

Correcting some howlers by Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Paul Howes – who resigned from the AWU in 2014.


Paul Howes’ u-propaganda is radioactive

Jim Green, 19 Aug 2009, www.crikey.com.au/2009/08/19/paul-howes-u-propaganda-is-radioactive

I knew Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes during his activist days in Sydney — he knew nothing about uranium mining or nuclear power then, and it seems nothing has changed. His speech to the Sydney Institute last night comprised a string of howlers and detracts from informed debate.

Howes falsely claimed that nuclear power is undergoing a “renaissance”. In fact, nuclear power has been stagnant for the past 15 years. It accounted for 16% of global electricity generation in 2005, 15% in 2006 and 14% in 2007. The global fleet of reactors is middle-aged and the industry will be kept busy just maintaining current output over the coming 20-30 years let alone expanding output.

Howes promoted nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source, but even the Switkowski report found that six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia’s emissions by just 4% if they displaced coal-fired plants or just 2% if they displaced gas. Energy efficiency and conservation measures can generate much greater reductions, much more quickly and at a tiny fraction of the cost of nuclear power.

Howes stated that Australia’s share of the world’s uranium market is “greater than Saudi Arabia’s share in the planet’s oil”. However, the value of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports is 325 times greater than Australia’s uranium exports (which account for about one-fifth of global uranium demand). Even if factoring in a growth in demand and a sustained, high price for uranium, the comparison with Saudi Arabian oil exports would still miss the mark by a couple of orders of magnitude. A better comparison would be with Australia’s cheese exports. Cheese and uranium have been in an ongoing tussle for export value supremacy in recent years. Cheese is winning — and it tastes much better and can’t be used to produce weapons of mass destruction.

Howes provides a figure on the uranium resource at Olympic Dam which differs from BHP Billiton’s figure by an order of magnitude.

Howes claimed that the cost of nuclear power “is not significantly higher than current coal power generation”. But the Victorian Department of Infrastructure, the Energy Supply Association of Australia and the National Generators Forum all put the cost of nuclear power at 1.7 to 2.3 times the cost of power from coal plants.

Howes noted that Finland is building its fifth nuclear plant. He might also have noted that it is A$2.9 billion over budget, construction is 3.5 years behind schedule, and construction company Areva and Finnish utility TVO are locked in protracted dispute and arbitration over the project.

Howes pointed to new reactors being built in Europe. However, the 146 reactors operating in the EU is well down from the 177 reactors operating in 1989. Four reactors are under construction in the EU but dozens of reactors are ageing and are expected to go offline in the coming decade.

Howes detailed the findings of the Lenzen report without noting that it was funded by the industry-funded Australian Uranium Association.

Howes said that “international agreements, technology and the development of 4th Generation fusion reactors will lower … proliferation risks.”

However, Kevin Rudd has repeatedly warned about the “fracturing” of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. All existing and proposed nuclear fuel cycles pose WMD proliferation risks. Five of the ten countries to have produced nuclear weapons did so under cover of a ‘peaceful’ nuclear program.

Fusion power has yet to generate a single watt of useful electricity but it has already contributed to proliferation problems, e.g. in the 1980s when Iraq took advantage of an IAEA fusion training program to further its covert nuclear weapons program.

Howes referred approvingly to a nuclear waste dump in the Champagne region of France. In fact, it was revealed in 2006 that the nuclear dump had been contaminating groundwater — albeit at low levels — for 10 years as a result of a cracked waste storage container.

Howes falsely claimed that there have been millions of movements of nuclear materials and nuclear waste “with no accidents affecting people”. To give one example, Angela Merkel (now the German Chancellor) suspended nuclear waste shipments in Germany in 1997 after elevated radiation emissions and exposures.

Howes falsely claimed that a high-level nuclear waste repository project is underway in the USA. In fact, the Yucca Mountain project was a $10 billion fiasco which was 23 years behind schedule when President Obama permanently abandoned the project earlier this year. There is not a single repository for high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.

Howes proposed a domestic uranium enrichment industry without noting that BHP Billiton and the Switkowski report have unequivocally rejected that proposal on economic grounds, and without noting that the Howard and Rudd governments have been actively engaged in and supportive of international initiatives to stop the spread of enrichment technology because of its WMD proliferation potential.

Howes approvingly cites a claim that there are no credible nuclear-free scenarios for reducing greenhouse emissions. In fact, there are dozens of detailed reports which do just that.

Regurgitating industry propaganda might go down well at the Sydney Institute but it is no substitute for informed debate.

Dr Jim Green is a national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth.


Paul Howes’ response

AWU National Secretary Paul Howes writes: Re. “Paul Howes’ u-propaganda is radioactive” (Wednesday, item 4).

www.crikey.com.au/2009/08/21/comments-corrections-clarifications-and-cck…

Friends of the Earth spokesman Dr Jim Green in Crikey this week repeatedly claimed I have lied about the benefits of a domestic nuclear power industry and questioned my qualifications for speaking out on this subject.

Whilst it is true that I left school in Year 9, unlike Dr Jim I do believe working people and their representatives have a right to speak out on matters of public importance and it shouldn’t be left solely in the hands of the academic elite.

Dr Jim has an ultra leftist belief system that does not allow him to change his position on issues, despite the world manifestly changing around him.

This is despite the urgent need to address climate change. Despite the need for the world to grow its energy resources to secure rising standards of living. Despite the fact that the UK, Sweden, Italy and many other countries have said in the last 18 months that they are or want to be nuclear powered countries.

Unlike JM Keynes, people like Dr Jim don’t change their minds when new facts change the circumstances. That’s ideology. Here are some facts for Dr Jim:

  • Just about every scenario, forecast and projection of future world electricity demand foresees an increase in demand for nuclear power, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • Demand for electricity will continue to grow in response to world economic growth, energy security concerns and climate change challenges.
  • The world will need to make use of all its energy resources  — clean coal, oil and gas, renewables, nuclear.

To quote Ivo De Boer, Secretary of the IPCC; “I have never seen a credible scenario for reducing emissions that did not include nuclear energy”.


Response to Howes’ response

Dr Jim Green, national nuclear/energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, writes:

www.crikey.com.au/2009/08/24/comments-corrections-clarifications-and-cck…

AWU secretary Paul Howes takes me to task (Friday, comments) for pointing out that many of his statements to the Sydney Institute about uranium mining and nuclear power were demonstrably false. But Howes does not challenge a single point of fact in my original Crikey piece. Instead he offers ridiculous ad hominen and straw man attacks.

Howes claims that I accused him of repeatedly lying. I did no such thing. I said he appears to know next to nothing about uranium mining and nuclear power and provided considerable evidence in support of that view  — evidence which Howes does not challenge. Howes says that, unlike me, he believes “working people and their representatives have a right to speak out on matters of public importance”. Needless to say, I never suggested otherwise.

Howes falsely claims that “Just about every scenario, forecast and projection of future world electricity demand foresees an increase in demand for nuclear power”. But my original Crikey piece provided a web-link to many reports which map out clean energy futures without recourse to nuclear power.

Howes accuses me of having an “ultra leftist belief system”. This contrasts with Howes  — he gave up social justice and environmental activism to become, in his words, a “committed democrat”. Which led him naturally to the right-wing of the NSW Labor machine!


Labor Signs Up To The Arms Race

By Jim Green, 5 Dec 2011, https://newmatilda.com/2011/12/05/labor-signs-arms-race/

Paul Howes might think the Cold War is over but the nuclear arms race hasn’t slowed. South Asia is a nuclear minefield and Labor’s decision to sell uranium to India makes it more dangerous, writes Jim Green

Paul Howes dropped out of left-wing socialist party politics and left-wing activism just over a decade ago, claiming to have had an epiphany and to have been reborn as a “committed democrat”. Stirring stuff. He headed straight to Sussex St, to the right wing of the NSW Labor machine — committed democrats one and all.

In fact Howes said at the time that he saw a choice between activism and pursuing a career and he chose the latter. Fair enough, but spare us the Martin Luther King democracy speech. From Sussex St of all places! I gave up left-wing party politics because of burn-out but I manage to avoid the temptation to dress up that mundane reality as a tale of biblical redemption.

Later I saw Howes at a meeting to build support for the Mirarr traditional owners’ campaign against uranium mining at Jabiluka; he was representing Unions NSW. He had another epiphany on his first day at work for the union he now heads, the pro-uranium Australian Workers Union (AWU): suddenly it was OK to trash Aboriginal land rights and Aboriginal land in order to mine uranium, and to trash Kakadu National Park and the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and anything else, and to sell uranium to dictatorships, nuclear weapons states and anyone else, with or without safeguards.

I pointed out in 2008 that most of his pro-nuclear-power comments at a Sydney Institute talk were demonstrably false. Howes appeared to justify his ignorance on his lack of schooling: “Whilst it is true that I left school in Year 9, unlike Dr Jim I do believe working people and their representatives have a right to speak out on matters of public importance and it shouldn’t be left solely in the hands of the academic elite,” said. He didn’t attempt to defend a single one of the points I’d taken issue with.

Of all the idiotic, asinine contributions to Labor’s faux-debate on uranium sales to India, Howes trumped the lot with his assertion that “The Cold War is over and it’s time for Labor to embrace that fact”.

Since the end of the Cold War the existing weapons states have been busily “modernising” their nuclear arsenals:

  • Pakistan and North Korea joined the nuclear weapons club by testing nuclear bombs for the first time.
  • France, India, the US and Russia have also tested weapons.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty remains in limbo, with the culprits including India and some of Australia’s existing uranium customers.
  • Pakistan has spread weapons technology (originally stolen from a European consortium) to Iran, North Korea, Libya and probably elsewhere.
  • The tradition of bombing nuclear plants in the Middle East is alive and well with strikes on nuclear plants in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Israel’s attack on a suspected secret reactor in Syria in 2007.
  • South Korea (one of Australia’s uranium customers) ‘fessed up to a secret nuclear weapons research program.
  • Japan continues to separate and stockpile obscene amounts of plutonium (some of it produced from Australian uranium).
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency still doesn’t have reliable “core” funding even for its basic inspection program let alone a rigorous safeguards program; and so on.

No point trying to explain any of that to Howes — as an AWU member said of him, he’s quicker to send than to receive. And he deals in Bob Katter-like revelations (“the Cold War is over”) and straw-man inanities (“working people have a right to speak out”; “Indians have a right to power”) rather than conventional, logical argument. All the better to paper over the breadth and depth of his ignorance and indifference.

The Labor conference heard all the usual furphies from Right faction delegates:

  • We should sell uranium to India because it is democratic (and to China and Russia and the United Arab Emirates because they aren’t).
  • We should sell to India because it hasn’t exported nuclear weapons technology (though it has, and we should sell to China and Russia and the US and France because they have too).
  • The bilateral safeguards agreement will ensure peaceful use of Australian uranium (though it won’t and can’t — Australia has no capacity or authority to independently monitor uranium exports).
  • The Labor Party respects and supports the Non-Proliferation Treaty (but should undermine and weaken it by selling uranium to non-NPT states).
  • India is a responsible nuclear weapons power (even as it expands its weapons arsenal and its missile capabilities). And so on.

As expected, the vote went along factional lines with the Right narrowly defeating the Left and overturning Labor’s policy of opposition to uranium sales to countries refusing to sign the NPT.

A reliable source — well, a journo — tells me Kevin Rudd is filthy with Prime Minister Gillard’s uranium decision and thinks India ought to have been forced to make some concessions in return for uranium sales, such as ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If so, Rudd ought to say so publicly.

The push to open up nuclear trade with India began with the US government of George W. Bush in 2005, leading to the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement three years later. The politics were neatly summed up by Mian and Ramana in Arms Control Today: “Recruiting India may help reduce the immediate costs to the United States of exercising its military, political, and economic power to limit the growth of China as a possible rival … India is seen as a major prize, and support for its military buildup and its nuclear complex seems to be the price the Bush administration is willing to pay. This goal is, it seems, to be pursued regardless of how it will spur the spiral of distrust, political tension, and dangerous, costly, and wasteful military preparedness between the United States and China, between China and India, and between India and Pakistan.”

The US-India agreement contains no requirement for India to curb its weapons program. The consequences have been predictable. Pakistan is citing the US-India agreement to justify its intransigent attitude towards a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. China is using the precedent of the US-India agreement to justify plans to sell more reactors to Pakistan.

Both India and Pakistan continue to develop nuclear-capable missiles; both are expanding their capacity to produce fissile material; both refuse to sign or ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; both are estimated to have increased the size of their weapons arsenals by 25-35 per cent over the past year alone.

US cables released by Wikileaks warn of the potential for incidents such as the Mumbai terror attacks to escalate into warfare and for warfare to escalate into nuclear warfare. Scientists warn that a “limited” nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could cause catastrophic climate change in addition to the direct impacts. Wikileaks cables reveal Kevin Rudd privately urging the US to ignore its NPT disarmament obligations and to maintain a ”reliable” and ”credible” nuclear arsenal, and to be prepared to use force against China.

South Asia is a dangerous nuclear minefield. All the more so in the wake of the US-India agreement, and all the more so in the wake of Labor’s decision to sell uranium to India with no conditions which would curb its weapons program or de-escalate the South Asian nuclear arms race. It is spineless, cringeworthy sycophancy which puts Australia to shame and makes the world a more dangerous place.