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Whats ethical about uranium?


What's ethical about uranium?

Jim Green
Friends of the Earth, Australia

Proponents of uranium mining and nuclear power argue that nuclear power is a necessary strategy in the battle against climate change. However, nuclear power could make only a modest dent in greenhouse emissions, it poses serious risks including WMD proliferation, and the existence of a plethora of more benign climate change abatement options obviates any need for nuclear power and does away with the false choice of fossil fuels vs. nuclear power.

Nuclear power could make only a modest dent in greenhouse emissions. A significant constraint is that, other than its military applications, nuclear power is used almost exclusively for electricity generation which accounts for 16-30% of global greenhouse emissions.

Globally, doubling nuclear power by 2050 at the expense of coal would reduce greenhouse emissions by no more than 5%. The 800-900 reactors required to achieve a doubling of nuclear output by 2050 would produce over one million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste, and enough plutonium to build over one million nuclear weapons.

The greenhouse benefits of nuclear power must be weighed against the costs and risks including nuclear weapons proliferation, the widespread and ongoing problem of 'radioactive racism', nuclear smuggling, the potential use of a wide variety of radioactive materials in 'dirty bombs', the potential targeting of nuclear plants by terrorists, the targeting of nuclear plants in national conflicts and wars (as has occurred on several occasions in the Middle East), the small risk of catastrophic accidents, the intractable problem of nuclear waste management, and the contamination and depletion of water resources.

The first two of those problems are briefly discussed here.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Nuclear power is the only energy source with a direct - and repeatedly-demonstrated - link to the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction. In five cases, nation states have succeeded in producing nuclear weapons under cover of an ostensibly peaceful nuclear program – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea. Many other countries (over 20 in total) have pursued nuclear weapons research under cover of a civil nuclear program.

Former US Vice President Al Gore said in May 2006 that: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards system is flawed and under-resourced and provides little confidence that the proliferation risks associated with civil nuclear programs can be adequately contained. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, has noted that the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted", and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department ".

Impacts on Aboriginal communities

The uranium mining industry has a poor track record in its dealings with Aboriginal communities. Racism in the uranium mining industry in Australia typically involves: ignoring the concerns of Traditional Owners insofar as the legal and political circumstances permit; divide-and-rule tactics; bribery; humbugging Traditional Owners (exerting persistent, unwanted pressure until the mining company gets what it wants); providing Traditional Owners with false or misleading information; and threats, most commonly legal threats.

Mining company Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and the Howard government were determined to override the opposition of the Mirarr Traditional Owners to the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. ERA and the government were defeated by a remarkable national and international campaign led by the Mirarr. The Jabiluka mine site has been rehabilitated and the Mirarr have a veto over any future development of the mine, but ERA still hopes to mine Jabiluka at some stage in the future and it still operates the Ranger uranium mine near Jabiluka.

Heathgate Resources, owned by General Atomics, succeeded in imposing the Beverley uranium mine on the Adnyamathanha people in north-east SA in the late 1990s. The company negotiated with a small number of Native Title claimants, but did not recognise the will of the community as a whole. This strategy, coupled with the joint might of industry and government, has resulted in inadequate and selective consultation with the Adnyamathanha people.

The racism associated with the Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia is enshrined in legislation. WMC Resources was granted completely unjustifiable legal privileges under the SA Roxby Indenture Act. This legislation overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act, the Environment Protection Act, the Water Resources Act and the Freedom of Information Act. The current mine owner, BHP Billiton, refuses to relinquish the legal privileges.

Ethical solutions to climate change

Nuclear power generates fewer greenhouse emissions than fossil fuels per unit of energy output. However, nuclear power is more greenhouse intensive than most renewable energy sources. For example, the 2006 Switkowski report states that nuclear power is three times more greenhouse intensive that wind power per unit of electrical output.

There is tremendous scope to use a wide range of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures to reduce greenhouse emissions. For example, the Australian Ministerial Council on Energy has identified methods to energy consumption and greenhouse emissions in the manufacturing, commercial and residential sectors by 20-30% with the adoption of commercially-available technologies with an average pay-back time of four years.

For comparison, the Switkowski report estimates that the construction of 25 nuclear power reactors in Australia by 2050 would reduce emissions by 17% compared to business-as-usual, assuming that nuclear power displaces black coal. Twenty-five reactors would produce 45,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and enough plutonium to build 45,000 nuclear weapons.

A significant and growing body of scientific literature details how the systematic deployment of renewable energy sources, coupled with energy efficiency policies and technologies, can generate major reductions in greenhouse emissions - without recourse to nuclear power. Moreover, a number of renewable energy sources can supply reliable base-load power including geothermal, hydro, bioenergy and solar with storage.

More information

Radioactive racism:

Clean energy solutions to climate change:
* <www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/clean-energy>
* Base-load power: EnergyScience Briefing Paper #21,

Nuclear power and climate change:

EnergyScience Coalition Briefing Papers <www.energyscience.org.au>.

Friends of the Earth et al., 2005, 'Nuclear Power: No Solution To Climate Change’,

Ian Lowe, 2005, Is nuclear power part of Australia's global warming solutions?, Address to the National Press Club < www.acfonline.org.au/news.asp?news_id=582>.

Ian Lowe, Quarterly Essay, Issue 27, September 2007, Reaction Time: Climate Change and the Nuclear Option, <www.quarterlyessay.com>.

Mycle Schneider (WISE Paris), April 2000, "Climate Change and Nuclear Power", published by World Wide Fund for Nature <www.panda.org/downloads/climate_ change/fullnuclearreprotwwf.pdf>.

Pete Roche, April 2005, Is Nuclear Power a Solution to Climate Change <www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/reports/index.php> or direct download: <www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/reports/Nuclear_Power_April_05v2.pdf>.

Brice Smith, 2006, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power (to Combat Global Climate Change <www.ieer.org/reports/insurmountablerisks>.

Mark Diesendorf, June 16, 2006, "Nuclear power: not green, clean or cheap", Online Opinion, <www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=4581>.

Charles D. Ferguson, Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks April 2007, US Council on Foreign Relations <www.cfr.org/publication/13104/nuclear_energy.html?breadcrumb=%2Fpublication%2Fby_type%2Fspecial_report>.