Beazley on Uranium

Kim Beazley, leader of the opposition, is asking his colleagues in the Labor Party to support an about-face with regards to their long-standing “no-new-mines” uranium mining policy. Essentially, Beazley is now arguing that new uranium mines should be opened so that Australia can benefit economically from responsible mining of the fissile material. Nevertheless, Beazley is at pains to differentiate his view on uranium mining from that of the Liberal Party. Like Kim Beazley, the Liberals are keen for Australia to become an “energy superpower” on the back of uranium mining, but they are also open to the idea of establishing nuclear power generators as a means to reduce carbon emissions and to diversify Australia’s energy sources. Furthermore, John Howard is now speaking of the possibility that Australia could enrich the uranium that it mines, rather than leaving the enrichment phase of the nuclear fuel cycle to the nations that already have well-established enrichment facilities such as the US, France and Japan. Mr Beazley, however, remains firmly against the development of nuclear power plants and enrichment facilities in Australia, saying that Australia’s energy future is with renewables. In effect, Kim Beazley is saying that it’s okay for Australia to dig up uranium and export it to other countries where it will be enriched and then used as fuel in nuclear power reactors, but it’s not okay for Australia to generate electricity from uranium.

This new policy stance smacks of hypocrisy, and is surely no less arbitrary than Labor’s existing “three mines” policy. I can see absolutely no sense in Kim Beazley’s position on the use of uranium within Australia. Either uranium should stay in the ground or Australia should be able to use it to generate electricity as other nations do. Furthermore, if Australia is to increase uranium mining, why ought we not add value to that uranium by enriching it ourselves, especially if we are to develop a nuclear power industry. As John Howard notes, it would be ludicrous to sell uranium to, say, the US, and then buy it back in its enriched form for use in a nuclear power generator. If Beazley’s reasons for not developing a nuclear power industry were grounded in economics – that it is probably not cost effective to build nuclear generators – or a genuine concern that leaving behind radioactive waste for future generations is morally reprehensible, then fair enough. But his objections to this point have been totally unqualified.

Obviously, it would be great if Australia could develop its renewable energy industry to the point where fossil fuels and nuclear power aren’t needed. But the reality is, at this point, and for several decades to come, coal, gas, hydro and nuclear power are and will be the only technologies capable of meeting Australia’s base load requirements. Most renewable energy sources have the severe limitation that they cannot produce electricity on demand: the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, the waves aren’t always rolling in. For the same reasons, they cannot satisfy peak-load demand either. Things might change if some form of large-scale energy storage technology was devised, but this won’t happen soon. Even though the entire east coast of Australia (including Tasmania) is linked by an electricity grid, and it’s possible that the production peaks and troughs of renewable energy sources could be probabilistically compensated for (if the sun isn’t shining in Melbourne, the sun might be shining and the wind might be blowing along the coast of Queensland), demand would outstrip supply. This would be the case even if a huge increase in the efficiency of electronic equipment were factored into the equation.

I’m undecided on whether the nuclear power option should be pursued. But I do know that if we increase our mining of uranium, which both major parties seem to think is a good idea and which will therefore probably happen unless the Greens are miraculously handed government at the next election, then we should also consider developing our nuclear power industry if it is economically viable. Beazley’s position makes no sense at all. We ought to invest in research on renewable energy because Australia can eventually become an energy superpower by exporting renewable technologies too, but it’s fair to say renewables won’t be able to satisfy our power needs on their own for a long time to come.

Update (26/07/2006):

According to this report (pdf) from the CRC for Coal in Sustainable Development, Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) power may, in fact, be able to satisfy a large portion (if not all) of Australia’s electricity needs. One thing in its favour is that it can store energy as heat, which is much simpler and more cost-effective than using batteries. Although the report cites some sources that claim CST will be cost-competitive with coal by 2013, the lowest prices achieved by CST technologies are around US$120/MWh, which are the lowest of any solar technology. By comparison, the average price of electricity in Queensland in the 2005-2006 financial year was A$28.12/MWh.