Published: June 11, 2006
June 11, 2006
Is Australia ready to become the world’s largest nuclear mine and radioactive dumping ground?
If you listen to Greenpeace co-founder and former president Patrick Moore, we should not only be thinking about taking the world’s toxic waste, we should cut down more trees and dam rivers as well.
The Canadian scientist, who has a PhD in ecology, claims to have been an environmentalist most of his life.
He heads an environmental consultancy, Greenspirit Strategies, which promotes “environmentalism for the 21st century”.
He also co-chairs the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition in the US – funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute – and is involved with the Canadian Nuclear Association and Atomic Energy Ltd.
“The way my organisation Greenspirit Strategies works is that we pick issues we think are important for the future of sustainability for the world and then we support them,” Dr Moore said at the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies national congress in Perth this week.
“Then we hope they support us because we have to make a living.”
And that’s the bottom line – pragmatism.
While nuclear power in itself is not sustainable (uranium reserves could last centuries, but will eventually run out), the world needs large amounts of clean energy – and soon.
That word “clean” may be debatable, but Dr Moore said there was no doubt that fossil fuels, especially coal – Australia’s largest export – were far more polluting than nearly all the alternatives.
“When I was with Greenpeace in the early ’70s and ’80s, I was opposed to nuclear energy,” Dr Moore said.
“We were under threat of nuclear war during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US.
“Greenpeace really cut its teeth on the nuclear weapons issue. Nuclear energy was kind of peripheral – we didn’t think about it that much.
“(So) I was surprised to find the statistics show that it is one of the cleanest and safest energy forms we have in the world. I changed my opinion on nuclear energy long before I became involved with the nuclear energy associations – I’m very frank about that.
“Times have changed. Climate change was not an issue 10-15 years ago like it is today.”
A life member of Greenpeace, Dr Moore said it was not just hard-core conservationists he was disillusioned with. He was also ashamed to be Canadian, because the country signed the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gases – a pact he claimed was untenable.
But he appears to be a fan of Prime Minister John Howard.
Asked about the Federal Government’s taskforce inquiry into nuclear energy, he said: “It would be the anti-nuclear people with their heads in the sand and turning a blind eye to what’s actually going on in the world and Australia – it’s not the Prime Minister.
“In fact, the Prime Minister is hopefully going to begin what will be the first intelligent conversation among the general public and opinion leaders in this country on the subject of nuclear reactors.
“You have 40 per cent of the world’s uranium. The demand for uranium will continue to go up around the world and Australia is in a position to profit from that.”
But while he praised Mr Howard, Dr Moore was scathing of Australia’s self-perceived image as a “clean nation”.
“Australia prides itself on been clean and green, but you have 90 per cent of your electricity coming from coal-fired plants,” he said.
“How do you deal with that in your heads? That you have the dirtiest electrical system in the world practically, and think you’re so green?
“It is my mission as an environmental activist, and one for 35 years, to tell people that nuclear energy is an important part of the energy mix of the future.”
He said, whether we liked it or not, Australia was part of that industry.
“It would be very instructive if the Australian public were made aware of where all the uranium is going and what’s being done with it now,” Dr Moore said.
“I think you just tend to wave it goodbye at the dock and wash your hands of any responsibility of what goes on in the world.
“Australia is part of the world of nuclear energy. You’re supplying a large percentage of nuclear materials to the world and there are responsibilities involved there.”
Far from washing its hands, Dr Moore said Australia should consider adopting all facets of the industry – from mining and enriching, to storing nuclear waste for later recycling.
“I think it’s odd or even ridiculous that you are not adding value to this resource in your own country by not refining it and enriching it – at least do that much,” he said.
“You’re forgoing a tremendous amount of economic potential. It’s going to be made into fuel in other countries, anyway.
“It is very clear the waste from nuclear plants can be dealt with very safely and effectively and is being done so around the world.
“People aren’t just throwing the stuff out . . . the nuclear industry doesn’t do that, it contains its wastes very securely . . . 95 per cent of it is actually very valuable energy that can be recycled.”
Dr Moore’s arguments can be convincing and he likes to argue “facts” as opposed to “fiction”.
He claimed the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was not as serious as was reported at the time – that only 56 people died from direct exposure to radiation – and that hardwood forests, which take decades to regrow, could be sustainability logged.
“When you grow trees on a 50-year or 100-year cycle, you only cut down 2 per cent of that forest area each year, and then reforest it again,” he said.
Of course, the “fact” is hardwood forests around the world are being logged at a much faster rate – and most are not being replanted at all.
So, too, the Chernobyl disaster has been documented to have killed thousands of Europeans over the past 20 years from cancers and other diseases related to radiation exposure, as well as displacing more than 300,000 across the continent and wiping out entire agricultural industries.
There are claims that up to nine million people were irradiated and that there is still fallout.
Dr Moore confidently states it is “unlikely to ever happen again”, and would like to see the world’s nuclear reactors expand about tenfold, from today’s 440 reactors to 4000.
Whether some of those 4000 reactors end up on Australian soil remains to be seen.