AWU joins big business push for nuclear power

By Andrew Martin

The enthusiasm for nuclear power in sections of the ALP that was nurtured during the government of the previous prime minister, John Howard, has not been dampened. If anything, the election of the federal ALP government has led to renewed pressure from powerful pro-nuclear advocates, including within the ALP itself, most notably some officials of the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

A surge of interest in nuclear power has been sparked by the alarm bells of catastrophic global warming. The justification put forward by proponents of nuclear power, such as former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr, is that growing electricity demands in China and India and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions leave no alternative for electricity generation. They claim that renewables cannot deliver a continuous reliable supply on the necessary scale.

Internationally, nuclear power is having a renaissance. The US government has been actively promoting this renaissance through its Nuclear Power 2010 Program, which coordinates efforts for building new nuclear power plants. While the US was the world’s largest supplier of commercial nuclear power with 104 power plants as of 2005, no nuclear plant had been ordered in the US without subsequent cancellation for over 20 years. However, in September 2005, it was announced that two sites had been selected to receive new power reactors. Meanwhile China and India are planning to quadruple their nuclear energy capacity by 2020. China is about to start construction of several large reactors, some of them locally designed.

Australia contains 30% of the world’s uranium ore. Under the Rudd Labor government, Australia’s uranium mining industry is expanding, with proposed exports to China, India and Russia. Some Labor parliamentarians are urging the government to cancel an agreement to export uranium to Russia — not because of uranium’s inherent dangers, but as part of Washington’s campaign to punish Moscow for smashing the aggression unleashed by US satellite state Georgia in August against South Ossetia.

Uranium from Australia is also sold to South Korea, even though it has been revealed that numerous nuclear weapons research projects were secretly carried out there from the 1980s until 2000, in direct violation of Seoul’s commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — a treaty the Rudd government claims it wants to see stricter compliance with. Uranium sales to the US, the UK and France are just as questionable. These nuclear weapons states have failed to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations even though the NPT places no stronger obligation on the five “declared” nuclear weapons states — the US, Russia, UK, France and China — than to engage in negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

Plutonium

A by-product from nuclear power generation is plutonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapon powerful enough to destroy a city requires a mere 10 kg of plutonium. Australia’s uranium exports, after having been fissioned in nuclear power reactors, have produced about 80 tonnes of plutonium — enough for about 8000 nuclear bombs.

Acting as a lobbyist for Australia’s uranium mining companies, the largest of which is BHP Billiton, AWU national secretary Paul Howes is calling for the expansion of uranium mining and urging the federal government to embrace nuclear power. Howes wants the Rudd Labor government to make nuclear energy a short-term “solution” to global warming until alternative technologies are developed. The AWU represents around 130,000 workers, of whom many work in emission-intensive and polluting industries such as aviation, mining, electricity generation, aluminium production and petrochemicals.

In an interview with the June 27 Australian, Howes stated: “If we are going to be a green Labor government, then we have to look at nuclear. If we don’t start today, we are going to put ourselves in a very precarious position in 10, 15 or 20 years time. I’ve told ministers in the Rudd government this is my view and the view of my union. I can’t tell you how concerned I am about this. It’s the greatest challenge the union movement has faced since trade liberalisation in the 1980s, if not greater.”

The Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) would do far too little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But for Howes, even too little is too much — he opposes the scheme, claiming that it could cause desolation in the Australian mining and metallurgy industries. Howes has formed an alliance with business figures such as Commonwealth Bank chairperson John Schubert and has the backing of Qantas, Rio Tinto, Shell, Alcoa, BlueScope Steel, ExxonMobil, OneSteel and Dick Pratt’s Visy to stop any emissions regulation. While failing to outline any solutions to the global warming crisis, Howes claims the Greens are the real enemy, accusing them of wanting to close down the mining industry, which he asserts is “death for my members and death for the economy”.

The Maritime Union of Australia has also voiced opposition to the ETS, claiming that Australia’s liquid natural gas export industry will not be eligible for government financial support as an emissions-intensive trade exposed industry. In other words, it will not be eligible for free permits to pump out pollution. Likewise, Transport Workers Union Queensland secretary Hughie Williams is opposed to the ETS because it does not reimburse truck drivers for any increase in the price of fuel.

Howes’ support for nuclear power and uranium mining is not new for the AWU. Before the former AWU national secretary Bill Shorten received ALP preselection for federal parliament, he campaigned heavily for nuclear power and the scrapping of the ALP’s no new mines policy. The AWU has been at the forefront of efforts to change Labor’s policy and to lay the groundwork for a nuclear industry in Australia.

In 1983 the ALP won office with a pledge to stop uranium mining. After the election it broke its promise and adopted the three mines policy. The uranium industry in Australia owes its survival and massive expansion to Labor governments from 1983.

The adverse environmental impacts of uranium mining in Australia have been significant. Further attempts to establish new uranium mines would also likely result in more examples of mining companies exerting pressure on Indigenous communities, as with the attempt to override the Mirarr traditional owners’ unanimous opposition to the Jabiluka mine in the NT.

Nuclear power generators produce intermediate and high-level radioactive wastes that will have to be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years. High-level waste — which includes spent nuclear fuel and the waste stream from reprocessing plants — is by far the most hazardous. A typical power reactor produces 25-30 tonnes of spent fuel annually. Each year, 12,000-14,000 tonnes of spent fuel are produced by power reactors worldwide. About 80,000 tonnes of spent fuel have been reprocessed, representing about one-third of the global output of spent fuel. Not a single repository exists anywhere in the world for the disposal of high-level waste from the nuclear power industry.

Greenhouse gas free?

Claims that nuclear power is “greenhouse-gas free” are false because substantial greenhouse gas emissions are generated across the nuclear fuel cycle. The processing of uranium ore into nuclear fuel employs energy-intensive techniques dependent on vast quantities of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels. The hazards associated with nuclear power include the risk of potentially catastrophic accidents, routine releases of radioactive gases and liquids, the intractable problem of safe nuclear waste storage for thousands of years and irreparable damage to the human gene pool. Furthermore, the global expansion of nuclear power has fed the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

In contrast to the obsessive pursuit of some ultimate techno-fix, the real solutions are already here. Renewable energy, mostly hydroelectricity, already supplies 19% of world electricity, compared to nuclear’s 16%. The truly climate-friendly solutions to Australia’s energy and greenhouse problems lie in renewable energy — such as wind, wave, geothermal and solar power — and reducing energy wastage. As carbon capture (geosequestration) remains unviable, a massive and rapid increase in the use of renewable energy sources and energy savings will require a centrally directed program to transfer investment and workers out of coal mining and burning and out of petrol-fuelled transportation.

Any such centrally directed program will be stymied from the outset as long as society’s productive resources are owned by private corporations and oriented to maximising corporate profits and we are saddled with governments that put corporate interests ahead of a habitable environment. Working people — those who will be the ones who will chiefly bear the burden of catastrophic climate change — need to be educated and organised to create a government of their own, a government resting upon the working people’s self-organisation and mobilisation. The orientation that Howes proposes for trade unionists heads in exactly the opposite direction, tying working people to the profit-making chariot of big business as it drives toward an environmental abyss.

[Andrew Martin is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and an activist in the Queensland branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.]