ON MY DESK there sits a well-thumbed copy of the 1976 Fox Report, the first report of the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. I grew up in New South Wales, where most electricity came from coal-fired power stations, but miners were often killed or injured and the air pollution from burning coal was obvious. So as a young scientist I was attracted to the idea of replacing our dirty and dangerous coal-fired electricity with nuclear power. That report changed my thinking. And the sight of it is a reminder that while Australia has a very long history of involvement in nuclear issues, it’s one of the few advanced countries that does not have nuclear power stations. It would now be very difficult to make a rational case for taking that step, but a small group of pro-nuclear enthusiasts continues to urge greater Australian involvement in the so-called nuclear fuel cycle. I want to summarise the history of this enthusiasm and use it to explore the continuing interest in that deeper involvement – because nuclear issues have always been intensely political. In practice, debates about nuclear energy are essentially arguments about what sort of future we want.
Uranium ore was discovered at a remote site in the north-east of South Australia in 1906. The prospector thought he had found a deposit that would yield tin or tungsten, but the young geologist Douglas Mawson showed the ore contained uranium and radium. He named the site Radium Hill, and its mine operated from 1906 to 1914, from 1923 to 1931, and again from 1954 to 1961. In the middle of this came the Manhattan Project, the secret research conducted during World War II to develop nuclear weapons, which changed the world forever.
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