South Australia’s Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fantasy Cycle by Philip White -Nuke Info Tokyo No.166

For most Japanese people Australia is a vast land teeming with unique fauna and where the beef is safe from BSE. Its main tourist attractions are the Sydney Opera House and a massive red rock in the middle with an unpronounceable name. Is that Ururu or Ululu? Neither: it’s Uluru. What’s the difference anyway? Why don’t they just call it Ayers Rock?

But Australia has other less well known, but to some people even more interesting attractions. Coal for instance. Coal is Australia’s second largest export and Japan is the largest importer of Australian coal. Economically speaking, a far less important export is uranium. It represented less than 0.2% of Australia’s exports in the 2013-14 financial year, but nevertheless Australia was the world’s third largest uranium producer in 2013. Japan isn’t importing much uranium these days, but before the Fukushima nuclear accident it imported about 20% of its uranium from Australia. In light of the Japanese government’s determination to continue to prioritise coal and uranium as its preferred sources of energy, that makes Australia a very interesting country indeed.

There are people who have ideas about how to make Australia even more interesting to Japan and to many other countries. Specifically, there are people in the State of South Australia (host to the Olympic Dam mine, which boasts the world’s largest uranium deposit) who think there is money to be made from greater involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. These people managed to persuade the state’s Premier, Jay Weatherill, to announce the establishment of a Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission*. The surprise announcement was made on 8 February and the terms of reference were released on 19 March.

The composition of an expert advisory committee to advise the Royal Commissioner was announced on 17 April. The five-member committee includes three avid nuclear proponents, while one member, former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation Professor Ian Lowe, is an eminent nuclear critic who thinks the Royal Commission is a waste of time because “we have already had several inquiries into nuclear expansion”. The fifth member is an unknown quantity on nuclear matters.

Four issues were identified for consideration:

(1) The feasibility of expanding the current level of exploration, extraction and milling of minerals containing radioactive materials …
(2) The feasibility of further processing … including conversion, enrichment, fabrication or reprocessing …
(3) The feasibility of establishing and operating facilities to generate electricity from nuclear fuels …
(4) The feasibility of establishing facilities in South Australia for the management, storage and disposal of nuclear and radioactive waste …

From the outset Premier Weatherill suggested that it was “probably unlikely” that a nuclear power plant would be built. National legislation enacted in the late 1990s bans nuclear power generation in Australia, although the current federal government is not opposed to nuclear power. Perhaps more importantly, in a state where about 30% of electric power is generated by wind turbines and where maximum demand is just over 3,000 MW, a 1,000 MW nuclear power plant would be too big. True believers have in mind thorium reactors or small modular reactors, but none of these has been commercialized, so it would be a big risk for a country with no experience in nuclear power generation to gamble its energy future on these.

There has long been interest in enrichment as a way to add value to Australia’s uranium, but getting into that business faces substantial obstacles. Besides the technical difficulty and the proliferation problems, the global uranium enrichment market is already saturated and is likely to stay that way for some time. Some people, including advisory committee member John Carlson, have tried to make a case on non-proliferation grounds that Australia should offer itself as a location for an international enrichment center, but such a center will not be viable as long as there is a global surplus of enrichment capacity, apart from which it is very doubtful whether it would represent a positive contribution to non-proliferation anyway.

That leaves expanding current uranium mining activities and establishing a nuclear waste dump as the likely real aims of the Royal Commission. In 2012 BHP Billiton shelved indefinitely for economic reasons plans to embark on a massive expansion of its Olympic Dam mine, but it still has in mind a less ambitious expansion. There are also other uranium interests in South Australia, but a major expansion is unlikely while world uranium prices remain low. As for a nuclear waste dump, that would require overturning a state government ban that was legislated in 2000, when South Australia was targeted for a dump to take medical radioactive waste and waste from Australia’s research reactors (one currently operational in Sydney). At the time the state government opposed the project, which was also strongly opposed by the local indigenous people.

A more ambitious suggestion is that Australia should take the world’s spent nuclear fuel and/or high-level radioactive waste. It is argued that Australia has some of the most geologically stable locations in the world. Furthermore, it is claimed that we have a moral obligation to take back the waste produced from the uranium we export. Such a proposal was advanced by a consortium called Pangea Resources in the 1990s and remains a dream for true believers, who think that Australia could provide a service to the world by liberating nuclear energy from its radioactive waste problem, thus allowing it to fulfil its true mission of rescuing the world from climate change. People who advance this argument neglect to mention that the waste they are referring to is a million times more radioactive than the uranium we exported. They do not explain how we have a moral obligation to accept cesium and strontium and plutonium when all we exported was uranium. Nor do they consider the fact that no one ever asked us, or respected the views of the Aboriginal traditional owners when they said they did not want uranium to be mined on their land.

Offering itself as an international nuclear waste dump could make South Australia very interesting to countries, including Japan, who are having a hard time persuading their own population to deal with the stuff. Mind you, the popular image of Australia as a clean country might suffer. People might think the red glow of Uluru at sunset was radioactive; or that those strange Australian animals were mutants. And they might be less confident in the safety of Aussie beef. But these would be minor considerations for people who believed they were saving the world from climate change, or for people who thought they could cash in on a niche market for desert real estate.

But seriously, there are important connections between Japan and Australia on this issue. Nuclear proponents in Australia have been particularly strident in belittling the impact of the 3.11 nuclear accident on the people of Fukushima. They claim that no one has died of radiation and blame the anti-nuclear movement for the suffering caused by the evacuation. These opinions need to be countered by nuclear critics everywhere.

Japanese companies are investing in Australian uranium mining and exploration and will no doubt take a keen interest in any expansion in Australia’s nuclear activities. Also, one of the members of the expert advisory committee (Timothy Stone) has a special connection with Japan. He is listed as having become a Director of Horizon Nuclear Industry in October 2014. Horizon Nuclear Industry was acquired by Hitachi Ltd in November 2012 and plans to build nuclear power plants at Wylfa and Oldbury in the UK. Stone was formerly Expert Chair of the Office for Nuclear Development in the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change.

The Royal Commission plans to visit Japan, Finland, the UK and other countries (dates not yet announced) “to assess how the industry operates”. Friends of the Earth Adelaide has demanded that the Royal Commission meet not only with industry and government officials, but also with nuclear critics in these countries. We have no idea at this early stage how responsive the Royal Commission will be to our demands, but if they do agree to meet nuclear critics, it would be very helpful if people in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan and in other countries could provide advice about who they should speak to.

The Royal Commission has published issues papers on its web site:

The deadline for responding to these papers is 24 July. I encourage nuclear critics from around the world (individuals and organizations) to make submissions.


Philip White is Friends of the Earth Adelaide(former CNIC’ International Liaison Officer)

* A Royal Commission is a commission of inquiry established by the Governor (the Queen’s representative) at the request of the government.

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