This article was first published on The Guardian.
At the height of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japanese prime minister Nato Kan was faced with a decision: would he have to order the evacuation of Tokyo.
“Three of the reactors also experienced hydrogen explosions, he said. “If this situation had exacerbated any further we would have been faced with the situation of having to evacuate Tokyo.”
Kan wrote two years later on the Huffington Post that a worsened situation at Fukushima would “mean the realization of the worst-case scenario: a situation where 50 million people within a 250-kilometer radius of Fukushima, including Tokyo and its greater metropolitan area, would have to be evacuated.”
The Japanese government was nearly paralysed by the panic over the possibility of large radiation releases, and the government went to significant lengths to hide the true extend of the meltdown from the public, and from their ally the United States, according to a report in the New York Times. Although Tokyo was not evacuated, over 300,000 people from the Fukushima area were; those who remain, as well as emergency workers, are facing extremely high risks of cancer.
Before the Fukushima accident, with the belief that no nuclear accident would happen as long as the safety measures were followed properly, I had pushed the policy of utilizing nuclear power. Having faced the real accident as Prime Minister, and having experienced the situation which came so close to requiring me to order the evacuation of 50 million people, my view is now changed 180 degrees. Although some airplane crashes may claim hundreds of casualties, there are no other events except for wars that would require the evacuation of tens of millions of people.
Although the Fukushima disaster seems confined to Japan, the story of this particular nuclear disaster started in a big yellow truck in an Australian uranium mine.
One hundred percent of Australian uranium is exported, and our export industry is one of the largest in the world, supplying between 12-20 percent of the global market. We have around 30 percent of the world’s reserves of uranium. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan bought around 2,400 tonnes of uranium from Australia, our second largest market next to the European Union.
A 2003 Senate inquiry into the Ranger uranium mine found that “a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance”, with a “large number of incidents attributable to unsatisfactory management practices and, many have argued, the inadequate monitoring and oversight by regulating authorities.” This 2003 inquiry was the last significant examination of the Australian uranium industry.
More recently in February 2014, Australia faced a uranium contamination scare in New South Wales, after a Santos coal-seam gas well in the Pillaga Forest spilled water contaminated with uranium and arsenic into an aquifer. The details of the spill were not made public until after The Wilderness Society uncovered the spill through freedom of information applications to the Environmental Protection Authority. Santos was fined $1,500 for this spill and has paid $55,000 in fines for at least “20 toxic coal seam gas waste-water spills”, according to The Wilderness Society’s national director Lyndon Schneiders
Australia has a moral obligation and a humanitarian responsibility for the hazards posed by the uranium we sell. Even once it leaves our shores, there are many risks that Australians should care about: proliferation, nuclear waste and nuclear disasters could all have catastrophic impacts on Australia and our neighbours.
After Fukushima, we cannot return to business-as-usual when it comes to uranium exports.
Yet the Australian government not only plans to expand our uranium exports, but has substantially lowered the standards that we once required through the recent deal that was signed with India.
For decades, Australia’s policy was to only sell uranium to nations which were signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. While this treaty exists primarily to defend the “nuclear club” dominated by the USA, Russia and Britain, it is an important treaty to restrict and reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
India is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, but pressure from the US was brought to bear on Australia to sell our uranium to India. It has at least two large reactors that are “apparently run as military plutonium producers”. There is no doubt that Australian uranium would free up local Indian reserves to be used for weapons. In 2005, former head of India’s global strategic development task force K. Subramaniam wrote in the Times of India:
Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible deterrent as fast as possible, it is to India’s advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapon-grade plutonium production.
This sale deal is irresponsible and violates Australia’s long-standing position of adhering to international treaties. We should be wary of selling uranium to a nation that will not sign the non-proliferation treaty and refuses to decommission its nuclear weapons. It may not be our uranium in those bombs, but by exporting our uranium to India we are facilitating their military nuclear program and are more generally increasing the risk of proliferation and disaster.
David Sweeney is the long-standing nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation. He visited Fukushima after the meltdown in 2012. His account is heartbreaking and poignant.
A farmer accepts that his current rice crop will be destroyed after harvest because it will be too contaminated. But he hopes next year’s might be better. I sit by a pond in his rice paddy as he explains his hope that if the ducks eat enough worms and grubs they might remove the radiation. No one has the heart to contradict him. Beside his house is a cedar tree that is 1,200 years old and his ancestors had the honour of supplying rice to the Shogun feudal lords. The rice from those same fields is now radioactive.
He said to me that the Indian uranium deal is “a retreat from reason and responsibility”. Sweeney sees uranium as the asbestos of the twenty-first century: “there’s no doubt it works – but there’s also no doubt its environmental, human and economic cost is high and there are safer and cleaner alternatives.”
Australia did not stop extracting and exporting asbestos because we ran out of the resource, we stopped because the resource ran out of social license and the companies involved in this toxic trade ran out of excuses. The same will happen with the uranium sector.
Sweeney and the Australian Conservation Foundation are deeply critical of the Indian uranium deal, arguing that the “so-called safeguards referred to by the Prime Minister are meaningless”.
“In the shadow of Fukushima – a continuing nuclear crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium – Mr Abbott has no excuse or mandate to undermine renewable energy at home while pushing long term radioactive risk abroad,” Sweeney said.
The questionable morality of uranium mining is well-known in the USA, where uranium “booms” and “busts” created an “epidemic of abandoned mines” riddled with toxins, radiation and pollution. Freelance writer Tara Lohan explains:
Poor or non-existent regulations, including allowing radioactive waste to be dumped into unlined pits, has left a legacy of toxic pollution and poisoned communities in the West, many on tribal and federal lands. (There are 520 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land alone.) American taxpayers have been stuck with cleanup bills in the billions of dollars.
Globally, nuclear energy is facing a structural decline. The Fukushima disaster has added a 10 year delay to the “anticipated growth” before the accident, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and has ended talk of a “nuclear renaissance”.
“There are 388 operating reactors around the world, 50 fewer than in 2002.” https://t.co/xbPGsTjV1Q
— Alexander White (@alexanderwhite) September 29, 2014
Robin Bromby, a columnist with The Australian wrote recently:
In all, there are 67 “current” nuclear reactor projects, which sounds impressive until the report explains that eight of those reactors have been listed as “under construction” for more than 20 years; at least 49 have encountered construction delays, some for several years, and for the first time Chinese projects have also been delayed; for the remaining 18 reactors, either construction began within the past five years or the reactors have not yet reached projected start-up dates.
Meanwhile, pro-nuclear energy advocates continue to promote the so-called merits of constructing nuclear power stations in Australia, despite the fact that it is “not a remarkably cheap option, nor a simple one; 10 or 15 years could be needed before a decision to go nuclear leads to an operating plant”, according to Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox.
Nuclear energy is a risky and high cost source of electricity that produces intractable challenges of militarisation, waste and proliferation.
With the horror of Fukushima still clearly visible, the morality of exporting Australian uranium to India is on shaky ground indeed.