Chernobyl: 20 years on
Sydney University Labor Club
H.V. Evatt Annual Lecture
26 April 2006
The melt down of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor 20 years ago today was one of the most significant disasters of the 20th Century, and the effects of it are still being felt.
Like a wound that won’t heal, the ongoing sickness and the danger of further radiation from Chernobyl continues to ensure that these traumatic events are relevant for today and the future, not just the past.
Chernobyl is just one reason why Australians are reluctant to be further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. The intractable problems of economic cost, safety, nuclear waste disposal and nuclear proliferation remain.
Yet the Howard Government wants to develop a domestic nuclear power industry. They want to remove any restrictions on new uranium mines and they have raised the prospect of removing export restrictions to states outside the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty such as India.
The same Ministers who claim to have no idea how $300million was paid to Saddam in the wheat for weapons scandal, claim absolute diligence in ensuring our uranium can never contribute to weapons development.
If that is the standard of national security diligence at a time the Howard Government was preparing to send young Australians to war, no wonder Australians are concerned.
My position on further involvement of Australia in the nuclear fuel cycle is that it is an unnecessary risk and today I want to outline some of the reasons why Labor’s current policy is worthy of support.
As Mikhail Gorbachev declared this month: “Chernobyl opened my eyes like nothing else: it showed the horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when it is used for non military purposes”.
To get a sense of the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, just think of this – 20 years after the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl melted down they are still trying to prevent more radiation from leaking and there is still a 30 kilometre security radius around the site.
The Chernobyl power station was situated near the Belarus-Ukraine border. Four kilometres away from the reactor was the town of Pripyat, which was built especially for the power station employees. 45,000 people lived there.100 km to the south of the power station lies Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. 4 million people live in Kiev.
According to the website chernobyl.info (which is supported by the UN and the Swiss Government), the accident in reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station took place in the night of 25 to 26 April 1986, during a test.
30 seconds after the start of the test, there was a sudden and unexpected power surge. The reactor’s emergency shutdown failed.
Within fractions of a second, the power level and temperature rose many times over. The reactor went out of control. There was a violent explosion. The 1000-tonne sealing cap on the reactor building was blown off. At temperatures of over 2000°C, the fuel rods melted.
To get a sense of just how hot that was, the temperatures were about 4 times that used in a crematorium.
The graphite covering of the reactor then ignited. In the ensuing inferno, huge amounts of radioactive toxic material was sucked up into the atmosphere.
We had a nuclear disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that radiation exposure from the Chernobyl disaster will lead to the deaths of up to 4,000 people and there have been 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mostly in children.
The IAEA found that 350,000 people were displaced, noting that relocation was a “deeply traumatic experience” for these people.
Chernobyl.info has a series of interviews with people affected in different ways by the nuclear disaster.
A 59 year old pensioner, Alexander Kratsov, was asked how Chernobyl affects his life today. He said:
“Chernobyl scattered my…friends all over the world. We go mushrooming, fishing and pick berries very cautiously now. Honey and milk are often contaminated. Children spend more time indoors. Over the 20 years we have got accustomed to the high mortality rate. The birth rate has gone down”.
Chernobyl showed the world that nuclear power was not safe, but just twenty years later our Prime Minister wants a domestic nuclear power industry.
Only two and a half weeks ago, on 7 April 2006, the Prime Minister said on Southern Cross Radio: “my philosophy is that if it became economically attractive, I would not oppose [nuclear power] any more than I oppose the export of uranium.”
The Prime Minister has joined the long line of Coalition Ministers clamouring for nuclear power in Australia. The Treasurer, the Defence Minister, the Industry Minister and the Environment Minister have all said Australia should consider establishing a nuclear power industry.
As sure as night follows day, if the Howard Government is re-elected we will see nuclear power in Australia.
The Labor Party has been fundamentally opposed to nuclear power in Australia for decades. The ALP Platform states that, “Labor will prohibit the establishment of nuclear power plants and all other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle”.
Nuclear energy doesn’t add up economically, environmentally or socially. After more than 50 years of debate, we still do not have an answer to the issues of nuclear proliferation or of nuclear waste.
Of all the energy options, nuclear is the most capital intensive to establish, decommissioning is extremely expensive and the financial burden continues long after the plant is closed.
On 30 March 2006, Britain estimated it will cost $170 billion to clean up their 20 nuclear sites.
In the United States, direct subsidies to nuclear energy totalled $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, with a further $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar combined during the same period totalled only $5.5 billion.
Those costs don’t include the black hole of nuclear waste because there is no solution to the nuclear waste problem.
The Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, said on 27 November 2005:
“in terms of high-level waste, if it were ever to be produced from an Australian nuclear industry, well that will be a matter for the governments of the day”
That was an extraordinary statement from a senior Government Minister and leading proponent of nuclear power.
What an abrogation of responsibility! Does this Government take responsibility for anything?
The problems of safe storage of nuclear waste have been reinforced by the inability of Governments to find a suitable site to store low level waste from medical procedures in Australia. State Governments have passed special legislation prohibiting storage in their States.
The Federal Government has passed special legislation overriding the Northern Territory Government and shortlisted three sites for further investigation. However, the site at Fishers Ridge was recently flooded during last months Katherine floods. We cannot afford the policy sloppiness which characterises the Howard Government, when it comes to nuclear issues.
Of course safety issues related to the nuclear cycle are relevant well before the stage of nuclear reactors.
The Senate Inquiry into Environmental Regulation of Uranium Mining was established in 2002 in response to numerous leaks and spills at Australia’s uranium mines.
There have been more than 130 reported leaks and spills at Ranger in the Northern Territory.
In 2004, ERA pleaded guilty to three counts of breaching the NT Mining Management Act following a series of radiation accidents.
The same year, workers at Ranger were exposed to drinking and washing water with uranium levels 400 times greater than the maximum Australian safety standard.
In a separate incident, approximately 150,000 litres of contaminated water leaked into a feeder creek system of Kakadu’s World Heritage listed wetlands.
In November 2004, the Commonwealth Government’s Supervising Scientist stated:
“a general inspection of the [Ranger] mill noted that leaking pipes were common, valves were broken and corroded, temporary hose connections were present and the colour coding of pipes was in many instances obscured by dust and grime.”
The issue of nuclear proliferation is another critical concern that cannot just be left to a future government.
The current crisis in Iran has reminded us yet again of the link between nuclear energy for peaceful means and the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Iran is a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty.
According to the Oxford Research Group, a nuclear weapons designer could construct a nuclear weapon from 3 or 4 kg of reactor-grade plutonium.
About 250,000 kg of civil plutonium has been reprocessed worldwide – enough to generate 60,000 nuclear weapons.
The Oxford Research Group has also suggested that 2 or 3 people with appropriate skills could design and fabricate a crude nuclear weapon, using a cricket-ball sized sphere of reactor-grade plutonium.
Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed El-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned about the dangers of nuclear proliferation:
“Our fears of a deadly nuclear detonation…have been re-awakened… driven by new realities. The rise in terrorism. The discovery of clandestine nuclear programmes. The emergence of a nuclear black market…”
This is the cold, hard reality that must shape the nuclear debate and the debate over uranium.
The issues of safety in production, nuclear waste and nuclear proliferation are as relevant to the debate on uranium mining, as they are to the debate on nuclear power.
There are some in the Labor Party who are pushing for a change to Labor’s uranium policy. I don’t see a need to change that policy, and it is incumbent upon those who are pushing for change to answer the intractable problems of economic cost, safety issues, nuclear waste and the effects of nuclear proliferation.
Labor’s policy is an anti-uranium policy. We will “prevent, on return to Government, the development of any new uranium mines” (Clause 68). That is a responsible position, given the ”production of uranium and its use in the nuclear fuel cycle present unique and unprecedented hazards and risks” (Clause 66).
Labor’s Platform also recognises the issue of sovereign risk. If a Coalition Government agrees to new uranium mines, it enters into contractual arrangements which can’t be broken, unless we want to pay compensation which could add up to billions of dollars.
Difficult issues can require complex solutions – and they always require a level head. Labor’s Platform achieves economic responsibility in not repudiating existing contracts whilst opposing Australia being further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle.
This is consistent with the policy of European Governments such as Germany and Belgium who are decommissioning nuclear reactors as they go offline and massively expanding their renewable energy industry.
Labor’s policy gets the balance right, and I will continue to argue in favour of that policy. In doing so, I know I will supported by rank and file members of the party, the trade union movement, the environment movement and the majority of the Australian community.
I am encouraged by the strong, positive feedback that I have received recently by rank and file members of the party and concerned members of the community.
Many of the commentators calling for change have not bothered to read the policy. The continued reference to a “three mines policy” that has not existed this decade is at best intellectual laziness, in some cases deliberate misinformation. Like all of our Platform, it was completely rewritten in 1998 under the guidance of Gareth Evans.
Of course the proof that the policy moved on wasn’t just theoretical – it was given practical effect when Narbalek closed and the Federal Labor Government refused to allow Jabiluka to be mined.
It is argued by conservative commentators that our anti nuclear position holds us back electorally. Does anyone seriously believe that there are a group of people in marginal electorates whose position is, “I would change my vote to Labor if only they would change to a pro uranium and pro nuclear policy?”
The opposite is certainly true. There are many Australians who would be extremely disappointed by a shift in our position and who may consider changing their primary vote.
These Australians may have noticed that those outside our Party pushing for a change in policy are also pushing for a small target approach to other policies. Some conservative commentators argue for a zero target approach.
They can’t have helped but notice that some of those who argue for nuclear energy to combat climate change, in the very next sentence question the very existence of climate change!
This is also a debate about values.
Whether commodities are reduced to economic value, regardless of social or environmental consequences.
Labor’s Platform reflects Labor’s values that we will consider all of the consequences of political decisions and that we believe society is made up of communities, not just transactions between economic entities.
Alternatives to Nuclear Power
The nuclear debate is a subset of the real debate about how we transform our economy into a clean energy economy that recognises the reality of climate change.
That transformation has to happen, and only Labor has a policy framework to do it.
Think of this – if we doubled the global use of nuclear energy we would use all known reserves of uranium in 25 years. We would achieve emissions reductions of only another 5% compared with the 60% reduction that is required to avoid dangerous climate change.
The clean and proven alternatives are available now. Consider that a wind turbine can take days to install, a solar panel only hours. Compare this to a nuclear reactor which takes 12 to 15 years to come on line. We need to begin to make cuts in emissions today, not in 15 years.
The clean, safe options are also the only options when it comes to combating climate change.
Australia should be leading the world in the adoption of clean energy. We can do it, and we should be doing it today. We should be seizing the economic benefits of the worldwide push to cleaner energy and more renewable energy.
There is a trillion dollar industry emerging globally in carbon-friendly technologies. During last month’s visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, a $300 million deal was signed by Tasmanian renewable energy company Roaring 40’s to provide 3 windfarms in China.
China’s renewable energy target of 15% by 2020 puts the Howard Government’s pathetic 2% target in perspective.
I was disappointed that the $300 million deal didn’t get the attention from the media and the Government that it deserved, but there just seems to be an obsession with all things nuclear.
Remember this – Australian exports from uranium mining generated $475 million in 2004/05. $475 million in total, but a single deal on wind farms to China – which is just the tip of the iceberg – generated $300 million.
We received the same amount of export dollars from manganese ore and concentrate as we did from uranium in 2004/05.
With the right investments in solar and wind power, clean coal and gas technology and with the right price signals in place, Australia can transform today’s energy industry into tomorrow’s energy economy. Australia can do all that without investing in nuclear power and opening up new uranium mines.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges confronting Australia and the climate change solution is one of the biggest differences between a complacent Howard Government and the forward-looking Labor Party.
Last month, Kim Beazley released Labor’s Climate Change Blueprint.
It sets out a comprehensive action plan to protect Australia from the threat of climate change.
Labor will ratify the Kyoto Protocol, will work towards a 60% cut in our emissions by 2050, will establish a national emissions trading scheme and significantly increase the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target.
Labor will create the economic incentives to change energy use and drive investment.
Labor will take action to avoid dangerous climate change and Labor will make sure that we never see nuclear power in this country.
That is the responsible position for Australia to have. It’s not only sound policy, it’s good politics.
Now is the time to reflect on the lessons from the Chernobyl disaster.
Twenty years on, the options are getting clearer; do we want a clean energy future or a toxic waste future?
Chernobyl has resulted in no new nuclear reactors being established in Western Europe since 1986.
It is true to argue there have been technological improvements in nuclear reactors and safety procedures as a result. It is also true that ongoing issues remain, as evidenced in Japan just last month, when a court ordered a shutdown of Japan’s second largest nuclear reactor due to concern about the effect of earthquake activity.
It is also true that Brendan Nelson’s answer to what to do about high level waste – “well that will be a matter for the governments of the day” – represents the best that nuclear advocates can come up with after 50 years of research.
It is therefore not surprising that environmentalists, with their focus on sustaining the world of tomorrow, not just of today, remain hostile to an expansion of Australia’s role in the nuclear fuel cycle.
Senior Howard Government Ministers claim ignorance of how $300 million was given to Saddam’s regime in the Wheat for Weapons scandal, at a time they were preparing to send young Australians to war and in spite of at least 27 warnings.
These are the same Ministers who assure Australians that none of our uranium could ever assist in the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Is it any wonder that Australians are cautious about Australia getting further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle.
There is a clear distinction between Labor’s plan for a clean energy future, with its emphasis on solar and clean coal technology and John Howard’s risky plan for dangerous nuclear energy and dirty toxic waste.
I know the future I want for Australia. There are many millions of Australians who have publicly demonstrated their anti nuclear position in the past. The pro nuclear vote in Australia is non existent.
Those yet to make up their minds on these issues are likely to err on the side of caution.
Chernobyl is just one reason why.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.