Scott Morrison may have inadvertently stumbled into dangerous territory in re-opening the nuclear debate in Australia while out in election campaign mode last week.
At a meeting with older voters in Corangamite, when asked why Australia didn’t have nuclear energy generation, the Prime Minister largely dodged the question. Later on Launceston radio, he added that nuclear power was “not ‘not’ on the agenda…but it’s got to be self-sustaining” — insinuating that he would be open to the idea if re-elected to government.
Labor’s environment spokesperson Tony Burke immediately seized on the remarks, reminding voters that nuclear power is currently illegal in Australia and asking the PM to kindly specify: “Where is Morrison proposing to put his nuclear power plants? Which coastal community is under threat?”
The clearly rattled PM took to twitter later that day to declare: “Labor are getting desperate, and we are only 8 days in. This is not our policy and we have no plans to change it.”
ScoMo’s backtracking may have staved off a potential torrent of community resistance that has greeted Australian political leaders who have opened the nuclear bottle in recent decades. Nuclear power has been an almost untouchable issue in Australian politics for decades — and with good reason.
The history of uranium mining and nuclear testing in Australia has been highly fraught with controversy. Way back in the 1950s the British conducted 12 nuclear weapons tests in Australia between 1952 and 1957 that saw three major explosions occur at Montebello Islands, two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga in South Australia.
While many Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the lead-up to the tests, many more had no idea the blasts were coming — about 1200 people were exposed to deadly radiation, as revealed in the McClelland Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia in 1984.
The report concluded Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had approved the British nuclear tests without having received scientific advice about the hazards to humans.
By the 1970s, drilling for uranium had commenced at the Ranger Uranium mine in the Northern Territory. When the Howard Liberal government was elected in 1996, the uranium deposits that had been discovered at Jabiluka were quickly moved into the development stage.
Local Indigenous leaders Jacqui Katona and Yvonne Margarula of the Mirarr people put out the call for activists from all over Australia and the world to come to the site to blockade the mine’s construction. Over eight months of blockading, more than 500 people were arrested among the thousands who turned out for the protest. Mining company ERA eventually announced the mine would not go ahead after its parent company North Ltd was bought by Rio Tinto. The Mirarr people are still fighting to get the mine site cleaned up and have it restored to Kakadu National park.
And in 2011 Australians became acutely aware of the nuclear accident in Japan that saw three nuclear cores melt within the first three days following a major earthquake at Fukushima Daiichi power station. The accident at Fukushima carried an extra sting for Australia, given at least some of the uranium inside the reactors that melted down was sourced from rocks dug out of the ground from uranium mines in Kakadu and South Australia. This was later confirmed in Federal parliament by Robert Floyd, director general of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
In August 2012 I joined a delegation of international doctors and NGOs who traveled to the Fukushima region to see the damage for ourselves. To the sounds of a scratchy geiger counter, we traveled by bus through towns that had been abandoned, met farmers whose livelihoods had been destroyed, and visited bleak temporary housing shelters of people who had lost their homes.
After the Fukushima disaster, Mirarr senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula wrote to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressing her people’s sorrow about Japan’s suffering.
“Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, being fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands,” she said. “This makes us feel very sad.”
While Scott Morrison’s suggestion that his government may be open to pursuing a nuclear power industry may have been little more than a thought bubble on the election hustings, his immediate backtracking suggests he or his advisers are well aware of the deep, historically rooted opposition to nuclear expansion in Australia.
He may have wisely concluded that, with an election looming, he had better keep the nuclear genie in the bottle. But his comments do reveal that some within the Liberal Party may be open to Australia taking the nuclear path. Just last month departing Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said that while he believed a nuclear industry being established in Australia was unrealistic due to the community’s overwhelmingly disapproval, he wished that wasn’t the case.
“I wish we’d had a nuclear energy industry from the 1950s onward and then this wouldn’t even be an argument,” he said.
However history shows us that the nuclear industry is fraught with dangers to people and the environment, and after 50 years of commercial nuclear power production, no satisfactory solution has yet been found to the problem of how to dispose of high level nuclear waste.
But one thing seems certain — at a time of runaway climate change and while the energy debate continues to confound governments and divide communities, going nuclear will likely be an option we will hear more about after Australians go to the polls next month.