Wednesday, March 29, 2006

When green is the new red

The mining and nuclear industries are getting themselves into a lather over Howard government plans to sell Australian uranium to China, and they are finding themselves unexpected supporters.

While the government is intent on approving the sale of Australian uranium to China and allowing them to explore for the mineral here, the ALP Opposition is happily singing along in the chorus. The idea of massive investment from China and profits from uranium exports is blinding every wannabe mining magnet and Canberra's finest to the dangers the industry poses to our land, water, air and children.

The wide range of dangers, from radioactive waste (mis)management, to the potential poisoning of our groundwater, to the possibility that China will use the uranium for its military nuclear weapons capability, seems to be pooh-poohed by the pundits for hire.

Instead, we are being sold on how much this venture would mean to Australia monetarily. (i.e. big business: the miners, the bankers, the lawyers, and the schmoozers – oh, lobbyists.) Next, I bet we will be told that the 'mums and dads' of Australia will benefit from uranium exports because their investments and superannuation funds will be making big bucks from backing those digging the poison out of the ground.

But the argument supporting the uranium industry that has the greatest potential to win over many more people is the green one. Yes, environmental concerns can, ironically, be the clincher as attention turns more and more to global warming and the massive impact of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels on our climate.

It is no secret that Lovelock, the originator of the gaia principle of earth ecology, argued that the threat of global warming from CO2 emissions was so serious that nuclear energy should be embraced to replace it. Crackpot nuclear lobbyists had to name-drop Lovelock after that.

However, more highly respected environmentalists and scientists argued against Lovelock's support for nuclear power, and put far more cogent arguments in favour of renewable energy such as wind and solar power. Tim Flannery was such one.

When I first blogged on Flannery's book The Weather Makers, I pointed out in the comments that Flannery argued against nuclear power because it is insufficiently effective and safe to be a viable alternative to coal power. I felt reassured that Flannery argued for wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources as far more desirable than nuclear.

Well, how things change. On 10 March, The Age reported that Flannery told a British audience that nuclear power would have to be embraced by energy hungry India and China to prevent CO2 emissions from skyrocketing and global warming increasing.

Despite insisting that Australia would have enough gas, solar, wind and geo-thermal power as viable alternatives to coal and nuclear, Flannery argued that Australia should sell its uranium to those who needed it.

Just before that Age report, we witnessed the ‘debate’ over whether India should be allowed access to Australian uranium without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After appearing to ride on Bush's coat tails in favour of doing so, Howard seemed to relent. India’s nuclear weapons programme seemed too hot a potato for the moment.

Three weeks later, we now see the Howard government whole-heartedly spruiking the impending uranium deal with China. Apparently because China is a signatory to the Treaty and such big business for Australia...

So far, I haven’t come across arguments supporting the nuclear deal based on global warming fears. Money is talking loudly enough for now. Only the Greens have raised the specter of China’s nuclear missiles, pointing to China’s threat to use them if the US intervenes over any dispute with Taiwan and the fact that Chinese missiles can reach Australia. (Don’t ask me why China would want to nuke one of the biggest destinations for its cheap exports…)

However, I don’t think it will be long before global warming will be trotted out as ‘exhibit A’ in favour of the nuclear lobby’s arguments. And this will become the most twisted legacy of global warming – an urgent global environmental concern will be used to legitimate nuclear energy and uranium mining, which have been for so long the antithesis of being green.

Just as anti-communism – that intense fear and hatred of the red invaders – legitimised the American embrace of nuclear weaponry and its corollary, nuclear power, in the advent of the Cold War, so will fear of the greenhouse effect be used to legitimate nuclear power. And so, green will be the new red.

The industrial powers that have directly caused the greatest global warming impact through CO2 emissions from fossil fuels will be the biggest voices in favour of legitimising nuclear solutions. It certainly won’t be the rank-and-file greenies or the community based environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth, whose fundemental platform has been no-nukes.

However, more and more the arguments of scientists like Flannery will be trotted to out support digging it out of the ground, carting it across the country and seas, and shoving it into fancy, super-expensive machines that boil water for steam to run electricity turbines. A nuclear powered steam engine. Welcome back to the nuclear age. It’s so twentieth century.

Only time, and a massive campaign for the hearts and minds of Australians, will tell if we turn a blind eye to history – to the dangers of nuclear power demonstrated by Chernobyl; to the incapacity of India to safeguard its citizens from industrial accidents or compensate them where it has failed – as in Bhopal and Union Carbide; to the refusal of a secretive, uncompromising and authoritarian state like China to deal transparently over nuclear matters – as seen in the parallel of the Soviet Union handling Chernobyl, or China dealing with its dissidents.

If not, we will have massive – poisonous – holes in the ground in Australia, processing and transporting plants that will be just more tantalising targets for terrorists, more Aboriginal people forced from their land by mining, and the constant fear that the cloud coming over the horizon is not a storm cloud whipped up by climate change but something far more terrible.

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