Nuclear policy analysis

On uranium mining, there is no difference between the ALP and the Coalition at the federal level. One point of policy difference − the ALP’s principled policy of refusing to allow uranium exports to countries that have not ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) − was abandoned at the ALP’s National Conference in 2011.

More broadly, the major difference between the major parties is that the ALP continues to oppose the introduction of nuclear power in Australia while the Coalition’s policy is that Australia “should not reject the possibility of adding nuclear power to our long-term energy mix” and that a Coalition government would “remove Commonwealth legislative impediments to a nuclear industry and set up a rigorous regulatory framework”.

There is widespread agreement that the Howard government’s promotion of nuclear power damaged the Coalition during the 2007 election campaign. At least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distanced themselves from the government’s policy of supporting nuclear power during the election campaign.

The Coalition is not actively promoting nuclear power in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election but it is worth remembering how quickly this situation could change. Before May 2006, the Howard government was steadfastly opposed to nuclear power; indeed it was the Howard government that legislated to make nuclear power illegal in Australia. But in May 2006, Prime Minister Howard became a vocal supporter of nuclear power following a visit to Washington. He established the Switkowski panel, comprised entirely of “people who want nuclear power by Tuesday” according to comedian John Clarke. Businessmen Ron Walker, Robert Champion de Crespigny and Hugh Morgan established Australian Nuclear Energy and there were, according to Mr Walker, “intense” and “advanced” negotiations with GE for the supply of nuclear power plants until the change of government in November 2007.

The ALP government’s track record is one of broken promises and backflips. Examples concerning uranium mining include:

• The government’s failure to require an Environmental Impact Assessment to be carried out before approving the Beverley Four Mile uranium mine in SA.

• The government’s failure to implement election commitments to strengthen the nuclear safeguards system. Indeed safeguards have been weakened by the government’s 2009 decision to permit uranium sales to Russia despite revelations that not a single nuclear facility in Russia had been inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency since 2001. The government simply lied − claiming that “strict safeguards” would “ensure” peaceful use of Australian uranium in Russia, and the Coalition was happy to parrot that lie.

• The government’s failure to in any way advance its policy of “limiting the processing of weapon usable material (separation of plutonium and high enriched uranium in civilian programs)”. The ALP government has provided open-ended approval for the separation of Australian-obligated plutonium even when that results in the stockpiling of plutonium (as it does in Japan and some European countries). No request to separate Australian-obligated plutonium from spent fuel has been rejected.

• The government’s failure to implement ALP policy that uranium mining must be based on “world best practice standards”. Permitting in-situ leach uranium mining with no requirement to return polluted groundwater to its previous state is one example of this failure.

Examples of backflips and broken promises concerning other aspects of nuclear policy include:

• The government’s failure to pursue its policy of “support[ing] exploration of potential legal frameworks for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would ban nuclear weapons and provide a global framework for the elimination of existing arsenals.” The government has conspicuously failed to promote a Nuclear Weapons Convention in international fora.

• The government has abandoned its previous position that “as a unilateral response to the problem of ballistic missile proliferation, national missile defence is disproportionate, technically questionable, costly and likely to be counter-productive.”

• The government’s support for the ongoing operation of the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor despite the ALP’s previous opposition to the construction of the reactor.

• The government’s failure to revisit the botched ‘clean-up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site in SA despite having called for a more thorough clean-up when in opposition.

The Coalition Opposition has been unwilling to oppose government policy no matter how blatant the contradiction between the government’s actions and binding ALP platform policy, and even in circumstances when there would seem to be obvious political gain in mounting a critique of government policy.

Many of the above-mentioned issues illustrate the point. Another important example is the government’s National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, which overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, all state/territory legislation which could in any way impede the government’s plan for a Commonwealth nuclear waste dump, and upholds the strongly contested nomination of a potential dump site at Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek in the NT. (The nomination is the subject of a legal challenge by Traditional Owners in the Federal Court.) The ALP has failed to implement its policy of addressing radioactive waste management issues in a manner which is “scientific, transparent, accountable, fair” or to “ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes” − yet there has been no opposition from the Opposition.