Uranium is the key to curbing climate change

Adelaide Advertiser, Tuesday, 29 April 2008
, Page 18

If the world’s nuclear power revival is to be sustainable, the governance arrangements for it will have to be as effective as possible. Accounting for nuclear material, on which Jim Falk and Bill Williams place great emphasis (“Scientists drop nuclear bombshell”, The Advertiser, 22/4/08), is important. 

But their contentions about the strength or otherwise of nuclear materials accounting is really the small picture.  The bigger picture is the spread of nuclear technology.  

Proliferation risk does not arise primarily from trade in uranium, however extensive it is. 

It arises from the technology used to produce nuclear fuel.  Constraining the growth of the Australian uranium industry will not reduce proliferation risk.    

Only a small portion of natural uranium is able to produce energy in a nuclear power reactor.  This must be ‘enriched’ to a small degree to produce the large amounts of energy that generates electricity.

The proliferation risk arises because the plant needed to ‘enrich’ uranium for nuclear power can potentially produce highly-enriched uranium, at which point it can be used in nuclear weapons.

At present, enrichment plants are operated by only a small number of companies in a small number of countries.  The job to be done to manage proliferation risk is to control the spread of enrichment technology; and to detect efforts to enrich uranium beyond the point needed for electricity generation. This is the focus of anti-proliferation thinking and policy.     

For example, following proposals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia, and in connection with the US-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), there are moves to establish international uranium-enrichment centres so as to supply the world’s growing need for nuclear fuel while controlling the spread of the technology and the risk.

Our Government’s non-proliferation stance gives Australia an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to policy development in this area.

People would probably still ask, however, what is the risk of companies operating civil nuclear power enrichment plants or the countries in which they operate (such as Britain and the U.S.), allowing the plants to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Bearing in mind the high probability of detection of such crude breaches of their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations and the impact of that on their prestige, credibility and influence, the prospects of companies or countries doing that are very small.  

The remainder of Falk’s and Williams’ article was mostly a point scoring attempt. They disparage the uranium industry for being “small’.   Of course, even ‘small’ export industries play an important role in Australia’s prosperity.

Global demand for uranium is being driven by climate change and energy security. Australia’s exports will grow rapidly under those influences, with very substantial economic benefits for South Australia. 

Falk and Williams make the surprising claim that the Australian uranium industry ‘ignores’ greenhouse-friendly renewables.  This is classic verballing.  Renewables do have a key role in addressing climate change.   That role should ultimately be shaped by informed technological and economic judgements having regard to the energy issues facing the world.     

Finally, on climate change, it is worth bearing in mind that: nuclear power produces about the same amount of greenhouse gas as wind and hydro and less than solar power.

In addition, Australia’s uranium exports avoid about 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gas every year in producing nuclear power overseas, compared to the coal that would otherwise be used.

Expanding Australia’s uranium exports is the single largest contribution Australia can make to addressing climate change.

Michael Angwin is executive director of the Australian Uranium Association.