Although the Fukushima disaster has likely ended the risk of Australia going down the uranium-brick road called Nuclear Energy for a while longer, former government minister Andrew Thomson has started a new nuclear-waste debate by arguing that Australia should accept radioactive debris from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, stating that the move would help break a deadlock in Japan that is jeopardizing recovery efforts from last year’s March 11 tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
Mr Thomson, who now works for law firm Minter Ellison in Tokyo, said Australia could offer “ideal places to dispose of this debris and store it safely”. “This stuff is only mildly radioactive, it’s not going to harm anyone, but the last place you want to store it is Japan — it’s just too crowded,” he said. Andrew Thomson is a former Howard government minister, and has worked through Asia and the Middle East consulting on mergers and acquisitions, and government relations.
“Western Australia has benefited greatly from Japanese demand for iron ore and base metals and South Australia is launching a major uranium export industry. It’s only fair and reasonable if we propose to sell more uranium to Japan in future that we should offer such help now when Japan really needs it.”
Although some criticize that international transport would only increase the potential displacement of radioactive materials into the environment, many feel that Japan is overwhelmed in its response to the Fukushima crisis. It is a reminder that we should have a serious public debate about all parts of the nuclear industry from cradle to grave, including the mining and export of uranium. Yuki Tanaka from the Hiroshima Peace Institute noted: “Japan is not the sole nation responsible for the current nuclear disaster. From the manufacture of the reactors by GE to provision of uranium by Canada, Australia and others, many nations are implicated.” No one has demonstrated safe permanent storage of radioactive waste, despite over 50 years of production.
Australia is not immune to the risk or tragedies of nuclear power, Australia is the beginning of the nuclear fuel chain cycle. Australia has proposals to send uranium to India, Russia and China, where the technical capabilities are not as high as they were in Japan. In October 2011, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office acknowledged that: “We can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors — maybe five out of six, or it could have been all of them.”
Former Australian ambassador to Japan Murray Mclean, commented on the Fukushima disaster in an interview with The Australian. “It was very difficult indeed to know there had been obvious damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant and not be told very much about it,” he said. “We were not being told significantly more at all than what was being told to the public. We were not getting much from the Japanese government.”
The former ambassador confirmed Australia had evacuation plans in place but voiced the uncomfortable truth that, in reality, greater Tokyo (population 35 million) would have been almost impossible to evacuate.
“To be frank, I don’t know how it actually would have taken place without complete chaos,” he said.
“You can’t get everybody on the Shinkansen (bullet train), no matter how many there are; you can’t get them on the roads, because they would have been clogged. How do you get people out to Narita or Haneda or the US airbases to evacuate people?”
Australia wants Japan to cease its controversial killing of whales in Antarctic waters, and has even commenced legal action against Japan, but has remained hush about the nuclear safety issues in the island nation. Australia’s uranium industry did nothing in response to hundreds of findings of safety violations, including the systematic and routine falisification of safety data and breached safety regulations perpetrated by TEPCO in the last 40 years of operation. The industry did nothing in 2007 when more than 300 incidents of “malpractice” at Japan’s nuclear plants were revealed (104 of them at nuclear power plants).
When the plant began to overheat and spew radiation into the atmosphere, foreign countries including Australia set an 80km exclusion zone around the plant, while the Japanese government’s initial reaction was to set up a 10km evacuation zone. Australia could have played a role in breaking the vicious cycle of information mismanagement in the wake of the March 11th disaster, by making uranium exports conditional on improved management of nuclear plants and tighter regulations. Even a strong public statement of concern would have been heard by the Japanese, and it would have shown support for Japanese citizens.
However, the uranium industry has done nothing to date, therefore leading many to feel that the industry as a whole is in denial about its role in fuelling the Fukushima disaster, there is no reason to believe that it will behave more responsibly in the future. Despite some claims, there hasn’t been a renaissance of nuclear energy, only a resurgence of pro-nuclear talk. Nuclear power has remained expensive, requiring substantial public subsidies wherever it operates. Most insurance companies are unwilling to back nuclear energy, often the taxpayers are forced pay the bill when things go wrong.