August 10, 2007 12:00am
AUSTRALIA is not in “grave danger” from its uranium production, despite the alarmist claims of anti-nuclear campaigners.
Helen Caldicott’s article (Perspectives, August 8) about nuclear waste and the US Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative (GNEP) totally mis-states Australia’s nuclear policies, and misunderstands GNEP.
It is simply not true that participation in GNEP would require Australia to accept other countries’ spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Affairs Minister and several other ministers have been clear in rejecting suggestions Australia would accept nuclear waste from other countries. Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said on the ABC Radio program AM on July 20 that “we have a policy of not accepting nuclear waste and we’re certainly not in the game of changing that policy”.
With close to 40 per cent of the world’s low cost uranium, Australia has obvious interests in global nuclear energy initiatives such as GNEP. The Government supports the underlying non-proliferation objectives of GNEP, but has not yet taken a decision on participation. Nor has the Government taken any decisions on uranium enrichment or other expansion of the nuclear fuel cycle beyond the current activities of uranium mining and milling.
Caldicott suggests increased use of nuclear power will increase nuclear proliferation risks. Nuclear power does not present a proliferation risk. Enrichment or reprocessing can present a risk in the wrong hands, and international attention is being given to how to strengthen control of these technologies in the future. Here, GNEP is an important initiative. GNEP aims to increase the contribution of nuclear energy to meeting the world’s growing demand for electricity, while strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
The GNEP concept is evolving. The basic idea is that supplier countries with advanced nuclear capabilities would provide nuclear fuel to user countries on a cradle-to-grave basis, providing an alternative to user countries acquiring enrichment or reprocessing capabilities.
GNEP also aims to address spent fuel and waste management issues â€“ spent fuel would be an energy resource to be used in fast neutron reactors by supplier countries. User countries would transfer their spent fuel to countries having these capabilities. Spent fuel recycle would be based on new technologies that avoid plutonium separation. Recycling through fast reactors would substantially reduce the period in which the eventual high-level waste must be isolated from the environment.
There is nothing secret about GNEP. The US Department of Energy has a website on this topic.
Overall, Caldicott’s article is rife with errors and exaggerations. Space does not permit dealing with all of these, but most notable is the claim that an accident in a nuclear reactor could (trigger) a massive spontaneous nuclear explosion scattering tonnes of plutonium to the four winds . . . this is preposterous and shows a complete lack of understanding of the basic science of nuclear energy.
Caldicott has either not researched her assertions, or has disregarded widely available information on this topic.
John Carlson is director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office