Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bombs Away!

By Ian Lowe

Australia has been obstructing international efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

Those who are promoting the proposal for South Australia to store radioactive waste claim that Australia has a good record on nuclear issues. Certainly we are a respected member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and our regulatory agency, ARPANSA, is prominent in global committees setting guidelines for peaceful use of nuclear materials.

But the claim that Australia is respected has been disputed by some analysts. They say that our governments have not let proliferation concerns get in the way of uranium exports. For instance, the Abbott government approved the export of uranium to India even though it is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and used peaceful Canadian technology to develop nuclear weapons.

Now former foreign minister Gareth Evans has written a stinging critique of how recent governments have opposed international moves to phase out nuclear weapons.

The NNPT was initially seen as a hopeful agreement. It required those countries that had nuclear weapons when the Treaty was negotiated to systematically disarm in return for the other nations of the world agreeing not to develop their own weapons. Progress has been disappointing, as the five countries that had nuclear weapons still hold significant stocks, and they have been joined in the nuclear club by India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, whose recent actions have provoked South Korea and Japan to talk about the need to respond.

Evans notes there are more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of those nations, with more than 2000 of the US and Russian weapons “on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each President of four to eight minutes”.

While there was widespread concern about the risk of nuclear war in the 1960s and 1970s, the world became complacent about the risk in recent decades. However, the spread of weapons in unstable regions like the Middle East, the Indian sub­continent and the Korean peninsula has brought the issue back to the attention of United Nations bodies.

This is where Australia has been playing a significant role obstructing progress. In four recent UN votes, all supported by about 130 nations, our government opposed moves to start a serious process to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Its argument seems to be that we are implicitly protected by the US nuclear arsenal, so disarmament would make us more vulnerable.

The Rudd government had joined with Japan to initiate an international commission on nuclear disarmament, which set a realistic timetable to dramatically reduce weapons stocks by 2025. Evans makes a compelling case for Australia to join the international movement to eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

Australian households have enthusiastically embraced solar power, with more than 1.5 million roofs now sporting solar panels. However, we lag badly in the use of large-scale solar power installations. One recent study found that we ranked 20th in the world for the percentage of our power coming from large-scale solar. Cold, cloudy and wet Britain ranked third.

Now there is good news on the horizon. Twelve large projects have been given funding by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA): six in Queensland, traditionally self-styled as “the sunshine state” but historically slow to embrace solar energy. They range in scale from a 15 MW scheme at Longreach to a proposed 110 MW solar farm at Dalby on the Darling Downs. ARENA has also funded five projects in NSW and one in Western Australia.

Altogether the agency has committed $92 million to those projects, less than 10% of their total costs but an essential contribution. Together they will triple the large-scale solar capacity of Australia from about 240 MW to 720 MW, possibly as early as the end of next year.

ARENA was threatened by the Abbott government, which tried unsuccessfully to close it down. Now there is a new political battle. While the Turnbull government does not have the same overt hostility to renewables as the Abbott regime, ARENA’s funding is under threat. Renewable energy advocates have been lobbying to fight a proposed $1 billion budget cut, which would cripple the agency’s capacity to fund new projects.

That is a dark cloud on the horizon for solar power.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.