Essay

A long half-­life

Nuclear energy in Australia

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.

When the US declined to share its frightening new bomb with the UK, the British government urged Australia to provide uranium for its own separate clandestine weapons program. At the same time, as a public-relations exercise, the UK government decided to use the Calder Hall reactor in West Cumbria – designed to produce plutonium for the British bomb – to generate a small amount of electricity: the newly installed Queen Elizabeth II formally turned it on. The US was also singing the praises of nuclear energy as a potential power source through its ‘Atoms for Peace’ program. This was a radical reframing of nuclear science, until then known only to the public as the basis for fearsome weapons, but now being portrayed as a possible source of unlimited clean energy.

When Prime Minister Robert Menzies opened a uranium mine at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory in 1953, he too invoked energy supply as he gave a misleading slant to the operation. This ore body, he said, ‘can and will within a measurable distance bring power and light and the amenities of life to the producers and consumers and the housewives of this continent’. That never happened; the ore simply enabled the UK government to design and build its nuclear weapons and then test them at three sites in remote parts of Australia.

Three scientists who were centrally involved in both closed-­door discussions and public debates about nuclear issues in Australia had been central figures in the Manhattan Project. Mark Oliphant – a researcher in Ernest Rutherford’s famous Cambridge group that developed the basic physics later used to design and build the first bombs – returned to Australia after World War II to head the physics department at the newly established Australian National University (ANU). While an academic in England, he had supervised the research of Ernest Titterton, who triggered the Trinity test at Los Alamos in July 1945, the world’s first nuclear explosion. After helping to develop the British bomb, Titterton became the foundation professor of nuclear physics at ANU and was a member of Australia’s Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, charged with assuring the government that the British tests were not a risk to Australian people. It later transpired that there had been serious impacts on local Indigenous people and, on one occasion, a wind change caused a cloud of radioactive debris to drift over a number of South Australian settlements. Titterton became a prominent advocate for Australia using nuclear power and developing nuclear weapons.

This was also true of the third central figure in this field, Philip Baxter. He was a chemical engineer working for ICI when he was asked in 1940 to produce quantities of uranium hexafluoride ‘for research’. He worked at the Oak Ridge laboratory in Tennessee, helping with the bomb project, and after the war was instrumental in designing and building the plant to separate plutonium for the British bomb. Arriving in Australia in the early 1950s, he was appointed deputy chair of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) when it was established in November 1952.

When the Menzies government approved the Commission’s proposal to build a small nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, then a remote bushland site well outside the suburban area of Sydney, it also expected the AAEC to develop the expertise that would allow Australia to build nuclear power stations. Baxter became chairman of the AAEC in 1956, by which time he was also director of a new tertiary institution, the New South Wales Institute of Technology. Under his direction its status was soon raised and it became the New South Wales University of Technology, specialising in applied sciences and engineering, before expanding in 1958 to become the University of New South Wales. The AAEC, under Baxter’s chairmanship, built the HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights and explored two possible designs for power reactors: high-­temperature gas-­cooled reactors or liquid-­metal-­fuelled reactors. As it turned out, neither became commercially successful.

Baxter and Titterton, both knighted for their services to atomic science, were also both prominent advocates of nuclear power for Australia. In an extraordinary comment, Baxter described Australia in 1957 as ‘the last big continent which the white man has to develop and populate. It will be a difficult task, but the full use of atomic energy should make it both easier and more certain.’ At that time, there was a widespread acceptance that nuclear power would displace coal-­fired power stations to become the main source of electricity. In 1969, Baxter confidently estimated that Australia would have 44,000 megawatts of installed nuclear power by the year 2000. To put that figure in perspective, the 2020 maximum demand in the national electricity system was just over 35,000 megawatts.

Electricity supply in Australia was then operated by state and local governments; Brisbane City Council, for example, ran two power stations to provide for the city’s needs. The South Australian premier, Thomas Playford, proposed building a nuclear power station near Port Augusta, while Queensland’s Joh Bjelke-­Petersen said he would be keen to use nuclear energy as long as the power station was not in his state.

When no state proved willing to risk the large capital expense of a nuclear power station, Baxter persuaded the Gorton government to propose building a 500-­megawatt reactor on Commonwealth land at Jervis Bay, on the New South Wales south coast. While the plan was deferred when Gorton was displaced as prime minister by Bill McMahon, Baxter still believed ‘Australia would certainly begin building nuclear power stations within the next ten years.’ The Jervis Bay project was subsequently terminated by the Whitlam government, and there was no serious proposal to consider nuclear power for several decades after that. With plentiful cheap coal in the eastern states, there was little political interest in this more complex technology.

The public debate about nuclear issues took a new turn in the 1970s. While relatively small mines at Rum Jungle and the Queensland site of Mary Kathleen had been quietly supplying uranium for British bomb production, the discovery of a large deposit of uranium ore in the Kakadu area of the Northern Territory prompted the Whitlam government to hold a public inquiry into the possible environmental impacts of the proposed new mine. This was the Ranger environmental inquiry, conducted by Justice Fox, Dr Kelleher and Professor Kerr. It almost inevitably broadened into a study of Australia’s role in the wider nuclear industry. As already mentioned, their first report is still on my desk.

My first academic appointment was in the Faculty of Technology at the UK Open University, where some of my colleagues were raising important questions about the safety and economics of British nuclear power stations. Others were asking more fundamental questions about the long-­term problems of managing radioactive waste and avoiding nuclear war. The long arguments with my respected colleagues shifted my thinking from enthusiastic support of nuclear energy to a more nuanced position, still cautiously in favour of replacing coal-fired power stations but acutely aware of the need to manage the long-­term problems. When I returned to Australia for a six-­month appointment at Griffith University in 1977, the Fox Report had just been published, and I was drawn into the resulting discussion of its findings.

The report questioned the widely assumed objectivity of science, noting that ‘many wildly exaggerated statements’ had been made about the risks of nuclear energy, and adding: ‘What has surprised us more is a lack of objectivity in not a few of those in favour of it, including distinguished scientists.’ It went on to say that those involved in nuclear energy had ‘painted excessively optimistic pictures’ of performance and safety: Titterton, for example, had described nuclear energy as ‘the cheapest, safest and cleanest means of power production yet devised’. The report also commented that some of those who supported nuclear energy had questioned the motives of critics. Baxter had dismissed opponents of nuclear energy as ‘a small, well-­funded, vocal minority’ who used ‘a mixture of untruthful and hysterical statements, emotionally concocted to frighten the lay public’. He later went even further, claiming, ‘The Australian anti-­nuclear conspiracy is a political thing with links to international communism and the general motive of reducing the economic and military strength of the West.’ While some of the opposition to nuclear energy was political, there is no evidence that it was either well-­funded or linked to international communism.

The Fox Report found that the proposed expansion of uranium exports raised two important issues: the potential for fissile material to be used to produce nuclear weapons and the need to manage the radioactive waste from reactors. ‘The nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to the risk of nuclear war,’ it said, recommending that uranium exports should be strictly controlled to prevent weapons proliferation. It also noted that the 1976 Flowers Report from the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution had argued that development of nuclear power should be limited until it had been demonstrated that radioactive waste could be ‘safely contained for the indefinite future’.

The Fox Report sparked vigorous debate in Australia, with community groups sponsoring public discussions. I remember a panel one Friday night in the town hall at Nambour, a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, where a public meeting had been convened by their Apex Club. About 200 people turned up to witness a debate that became quite heated. I was vigorously attacked when I quoted from the UK nuclear industry house journal to show that the uranium mining representatives were lying to the meeting.

There was also division within the ALP. In a precursor of the contemporary differences about the Adani mine, those on the left of the party mostly opposed the mining and export of uranium, while those on the right supported the potential jobs that would be created. In 1977, the ALP national conference adopted a policy opposing expansion of uranium mining. But the Whitlam government, which began the inquiry, had been removed from office in 1975. Under Malcolm Fraser, the Coalition government was enthusiastic to see the Ranger mine go ahead and actively encouraged other possible export ventures. Fraser tried to elevate the program to a moral issue, claiming ‘an energy-­starved world’ needed our uranium. He also stated that the waste problem had been solved. That was a barefaced lie. Since it was not prudent for a young scientist to accuse the prime minister of lying, I pointedly described it instead as ‘a very modest announcement of a great scientific advance’. Of course, the problem had not been solved; over forty years later, it is still an issue. Huge volumes of nuclear waste are stockpiled at power stations around the world. Sweden and Finland have adopted a good process of community involvement and are well on the way to a potential solution involving storage in deep underground repositories – but the issue remains contentious everywhere else.

The South Australian government was also under pressure to approve the development of a major copper mine at Roxby Downs that would also produce uranium. In one of his last acts as premier before illness forced him to resign in 1979, Don Dunstan said, ‘We simply cannot assure the people of SA that mining or treatment of uranium and the sale of uranium to a customer country is yet safe.’ That opposition remained ALP policy until 1983, when the newly elected Prime Minister Bob Hawke persuaded the party’s national conference that opposing the Roxby Downs mine would harm the party’s chances at the forthcoming South Australian state election. After an acrimonious debate, the ALP adopted its ‘three mines policy’, qualifying its overall opposition to uranium mining and export by allowing three large mines. Hawke laughed off journalists’ criticism of this obvious double standard.

 

IN SUBSEQUENT DECADES, Australia’s involvement in nuclear issues has been confined to exporting uranium and operating the Lucas Heights reactor. When HIFAR reached the end of its life, the government approved its replacement by the OPAL reactor, mainly used to produce radioactive isotopes for medical and industrial purposes. But there have been attempts to expand our nuclear role.

Cabinet documents released in 2003 revealed that the Queensland government had secretly sought Commonwealth support to build a uranium enrichment plant near Rockhampton thirty years earlier. The process of enrichment is used to provide the uranium needed for most power reactors. Natural uranium consists of two isotopes: small amounts of Uranium-235 with larger quantities of Uranium-238. The lighter isotope is much more radioactive, so separation processes are used to ‘enrich’ the uranium, increasing the ratio of Uranium-235 to Uranium-238. The techniques developed as part of the Manhattan Project are still used in this work, and they require enormous amounts of energy. The proposal put forward secretly in 1972 would have been the biggest industrial plant ever built in Queensland and would have cost a billion dollars in 1970s money. The plan had been quietly shelved after the election of the Whitlam government, but surfaced in a different form a decade later. An angry rally filled Caboolture Town Hall during the 1983 federal election campaign, when a leaked report showed that the Fraser government would support a uranium enrichment plant in that area if re-elected.

There have also been several proposals over the decades for Australia to store radioactive waste from offshore nuclear power stations. Our political and geological stability is seen to make us ideal for permanent disposal of this waste. As prime minister, Bob Hawke supported a plan by a company called Pangea to store waste in outback Western Australia. Later, in 2015, the South Australian government initiated a Royal Commission into the possibility the state could store waste from other countries. Its report argued that it would be a great economic opportunity for South Australia, but the proposal foundered when a 350-­person citizens’ jury opposed it. The fundamental problem was trust. The members of the jury effectively said they were not confident such a project would be responsibly managed by either a government agency or a private corporation. The jury also questioned the projected financial claims for the project; since there is no operating market for the services being discussed, the figures were inevitably rubbery.

This lack of trust is a fundamental problem for any project involving radiation. For over twenty years, the Commonwealth Government has tried to establish a repository to store low-­level radioactive waste: comparatively benign items such as gloves and other protective gear used in nuclear medicine. Despite clear assurances from experts, several communities have defeated proposals for waste-storage facilities. Low-­level waste remains in a wide variety of locations around the nation, including hospitals and university laboratories, still awaiting agreement on a possible site for a permanent storage facility.

The question of nuclear power stations was not seriously raised for more than thirty years after the Jervis Bay project was cancelled. A few advocates kept writing to newspapers, but the economic reality was that nuclear energy could not compete with coal-­fired power, while the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown and the 1986 Chernobyl explosion discredited any claims of safety. A 1985 report by the Australian Science and Technology Council about nuclear science and technology said nothing about nuclear energy. It endorsed the proposal to rename the Atomic Energy Commission as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, recognising that its mission was no longer to provide the expertise for nuclear energy.

 

GLOBALLY, THE NUCLEAR power industry appeared dead in the water. After Chernobyl, political support in Europe evaporated. Planned reactors were deferred or cancelled, and the amount of nuclear power gradually declined. Then a small group in the UK came up with an idea to salvage the industry.

After decades of violently opposing environmental groups, they decided to conveniently accept the science of global climate change and proposed nuclear reactors as the low-­carbon power source the world needed. Concerned by this argument, I addressed the National Press Club in 2005 to remind Australian journalists of the case against nuclear energy. I argued that promoting nuclear power as the solution to climate change was like advocating smoking as a cure for obesity; the nuclear option would make it more difficult to move to the clean energy future that climate change demands. When asked why I was bothering, I said that I was worried that John Howard, then prime minister, might propose nuclear power as a distraction from his studied inaction on climate change.

My fears were well founded. In 2006, when his failure to respond to climate change became a political issue, Howard hastily set up an inquiry into the possibility of using nuclear energy to reduce the carbon footprint of our electricity industry. The process of assembling a group that the late comedian John Clarke described as ‘people who want nuclear power by Tuesday’ was so rushed that the taskforce was incomplete when Howard announced its formation to the media; it was several days before all the names could be revealed. Chaired by Dr Ziggy Switkowski, the group toured the world to find support for the idea of using nuclear energy. In a classic Freudian slip, the headline in The Australian acclaimed its 2007 final report as hailing ‘a glowing future’.

It put as good a case as it could, but the facts could not be fudged. This report accepted that both a carbon price and other forms of financial support would be required for a nuclear power station to be economically viable. It also conceded that it would take at least ten years and possibly fifteen to build one nuclear power station, given that Australia had neither the construction experience nor the regulatory structure that would be needed. Before the 2007 election, The Australia Institute mischievously released a map showing possible sites for a first nuclear power station, setting off a tsunami of panic among sitting MPs. That reaction showed there was little community support for nuclear energy.

The election that year of Kevin Rudd – who had described climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our time and promised Australia would finally ratify the Kyoto Protocol – effectively ended the debate about nuclear power. The following period of unprecedented political turmoil saw Julia Gillard replace Rudd as prime minister (the subsequent hung election leading to her negotiating a package of measures responding to climate change, including a carbon price) and Tony Abbott displace Malcolm Turnbull as leader of Liberal Party (and demonise the carbon price as ‘a great big tax on everything’). Abbott then won an election and wound back the national response to climate change – before being displaced as prime minister by Malcolm Turnbull, who was in turn himself displaced, after a disappointing result in the 2016 election, by supporters of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison.

Perhaps to distract attention from its own inaction on climate change, the Morrison government started a parliamentary inquiry ‘into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia’ in August 2019. I gave evidence, arguing that nuclear power does not make economic or political sense in twenty-­first century Australia.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering had previously urged replacing coal-­fired power by nuclear energy; in this inquiry the academy argued that ‘development of a regulatory framework for nuclear fuel cycle activities without a clear business case would be a challenging exercise, and consume valuable policy and regulatory design resources that might otherwise be dedicated to more pressing challenges in energy policy’. The academy also contended that the legislative barriers that now exist should be removed ‘so that nuclear energy can be considered on its own merits’, while conceding that the cost-­effectiveness of the approach remains uncertain. In its final report, the parliamentary committee did not recommend adoption of nuclear power, but it did advocate repealing the current law that expressly forbids its use.

That raises the question I posed at the start of this essay. If there has never been hard evidence that nuclear power would be cost-­effective in Australia, why does it keep coming back into the debate?

 

MY OWN PERSONAL journey speaks partly to the reasons nuclear energy was supported in the 1960s. As I studied electrical engineering and physics, I saw nuclear reactors as offering a cleaner and safer way of producing electricity. So I accepted a scholarship funded by the UK Atomic Energy Authority when I went to England to pursue doctoral research, investigating the basic physics of a problem that limits the useful life of uranium oxide fuel elements in nuclear power stations. While I contributed to understanding this science, the problem has not been solved and these fuel elements still have a limited life.

The funding came from the group operating the prototype fast breeder reactor at Dounreay in the north of Scotland. Their approach seemed a logical next step in the development of a nuclear electricity supply. The design was called a ‘breeder’ reactor because it did not consume its nuclear fuel; instead, it used this fuel to ‘breed’ nuclear materials for future power stations. This promised virtually unlimited clean power, potentially avoiding the long-­term problem of radioactive waste from conventional reactors by converting it into fuel for the next generation of reactors.

When I joined the UK Open University, I found some colleagues critical of nuclear energy. I listened carefully to their arguments about the problem of managing radioactive waste and the risks to humanity from nuclear weapons. And they were constructively critical of the fast breeder program, suggesting its technical difficulties might never be overcome. They were right; despite expenditure of unbelievable amounts of money by the UK, the US and France, the dream of a commercial fast breeder reactor has never been realised. They also worried – correctly – that it might be very difficult to secure community support for waste storage in any specific locality.

There remained the issue of economics: was nuclear power cheaper than coal-fired electricity? As I pored over reports prepared for the UK government, I was puzzled by an obvious discrepancy. Those promoting nuclear energy had published peer-­reviewed papers showing it was the cheaper approach, but those who opposed it had also published peer-­reviewed papers showing it was more expensive! How could that be?

The explanation lies in the fact that there is no agreed basis for making an honest comparison over the lifetime of a power station. It costs more to build a nuclear power station than its coal-­fired equivalent because a nuclear reactor is a more complicated way of boiling water than burning coal. But the running costs are much higher for a coal-­fired power station, which requires the mining and transport of millions of tonnes of fossil fuel. Any comparison required making estimates of future coal prices to determine whether they offset the higher capital costs of nuclear power – and different credible estimates of future prices lead to different estimates of overall costs.

There is also a more fundamental problem involved in calculating overall lifetime costs. The comparison requires choosing what economists call the discount rate, recognising that future costs and revenues have a reduced value. The whole money-­lending industry reflects our preference for funds available now over funds available at some time in the future. There are different views about appropriate discount rates for future costs, and some analysts clearly had a vested interest: those who worked for the coal industry or in nuclear organisations understandably chose assumptions that gave their preferred overall results. It remains difficult to determine a legitimate basis for comparing the long-­term costs of different energy supply technologies, because we cannot know what the operating costs will be in thirty years’ time.

With the economics uncertain, there remained the underlying issue of what sort of future we wanted. In the 1970s, some nuclear scientists genuinely believed that nuclear power would be a cleaner approach. According to Titterton, writing in 1979: ‘It has been demonstrated to cause no more nuclear radiation issues, and far less environmental damage, than the coal-­fired electricity generating industry.’ In the short-­term, that is true. Coal contains small amounts of radioactive minerals, so a large coal-­fired power station actually releases more radiation into the environment than a normally operating nuclear reactor. The argument is sound only when normal operation is considered; it overlooks the possibility of whole regions being contaminated by serious accidents such as occurred at Chernobyl and in the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, and also ignores the need to contain long-­lived highly radioactive waste.

Some critics have argued that scientists and engineers who worked to develop nuclear weapons then sought to expiate their guilt by promoting the potential community benefits of nuclear energy, even accepting the 1950s American delusion that nuclear power would be so cheap its use would not even be metered. It is true that nuclear science was used to develop weapons of terrible power, but it has also provided relatively clean energy in many countries, and in Australia is critical to healthcare by enabling medical imaging and cancer treatment. The other side of that coin is that any country that has nuclear power stations can use that technology to develop nuclear weapons. The UN treaty preventing the spread of nuclear weapons has been subverted by countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel, all of which have used fissile material from power stations to produce bombs. Most observers think the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has followed suit, while there is tension in the Middle East about whether Iran’s nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful.

We should not ignore the awkward reality that it has been suggested from time to time that Australia should consider developing nuclear weapons. Ernest Titterton stated that we should consider ‘a nuclear weapons stockpile sufficient for us to be able to repel an attempted invasion’. Philip Baxter argued from the 1950s that we should base our defence on nuclear weapons. After the Vietnam War, he asserted that we could not rely on the US to defend us and called on the government to develop ‘a varied array of missile of short and medium range, some of which should carry nuclear warheads’. As recently as 2020, leading defence analyst Emeritus Professor Hugh White expressed concern about Australia’s implicit reliance on US nuclear weapons and argued that we should at least consider developing our own. And within the defence industry, there is a vigorous debate about whether the next generation of submarines should be nuclear powered.

 

LET ME RETURN to the issue of what sort of future we want. I was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering in 2005, a recognition of my decades of work in the field of sustainability, particularly concerned with energy supply and use. Many of the Academy’s Fellows support nuclear energy – including some who were until recently not convinced about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Engineers and scientists tend to be comfortable with high-­technology projects and believe they can be well managed for community benefit. They are reluctant to rely on the intermittent flows of sunlight and wind, but are usually comfortable with large-­scale hydro-­electricity projects. Many support Snowy 2.0, the large-­scale energy project proposed by Malcom Turnbull that would massively expand water storage and hydro-­electric generating capacity in the Kosciuszko National Park – even though the scheme appears to be economically unsound and environmentally irresponsible. I suspect some would welcome the technological challenge of building and operating nuclear power stations; some actively endorsed the South Australian Royal Commission’s proposal to establish a radioactive waste industry.

An obvious conclusion flows from the Fox Report’s 1976 comment about a lack of objectivity. We are not objective observers of the world: we all see reality through the lenses of our values and our experience. We all have a tendency to see what we would like to see. I’m constantly struck by the optimism of football fans about their team’s prospects at the start of a new season, even if the players consist mostly of those who did poorly the season before. The probability that any person will be favourably disposed to the idea of nuclear power can be predicted from their values and from their view of the sort of future they would like to see. Fellows of the Academy of Technology and Engineering tend to favour a high-tech future, while conservationists are much more likely to favour small-­scale local supply systems.

This is a reminder that the future is not somewhere we are going, but something we are creating. From my perspective, nuclear power now looks like an intractable problem we were just lucky to avoid. Most developed nations have nuclear power stations with mountains of accumulated waste, for which there is no effective permanent solution. The urgent task of moving to clean energy supply, mostly from solar and wind, is made more difficult when resources have been sunk into the nuclear power industry. I believe we dodged a bullet.

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