Australia has resisted the use of nuclear power for decades. Here’s why the AUKUS deal makes people angry
But it’s not just the French who are furious. Anti-nuclear groups in Australia and many citizens are expressing their anger at the deal, fearing it may be a Trojan horse for a nuclear power industry, which the nation has resisted for decades.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken personally with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, to tell him that ships would not be welcome in the waters of his country, which has been a non-nuclear zone since 1984.
So why all the fuss? Here’s why some Australians are embarrassed by this deal.
How is nuclear energy made?
Power comes from a process known as nuclear fission, which involves the splitting of uranium atoms in a reactor that heats water to produce steam. This steam is used to turn turbines, which in turn generate electricity.
Although the process itself does not generate any emissions, greenhouse gases are typically emitted during uranium mining and the enrichment process can be carbon intensive.
Is nuclear renewable?
The simple answer is no. “The energy produced by nuclear power plants is itself renewable, and the steam produced in nuclear reactors can be recycled and turned back into water for reuse in the nuclear fission process.
The materials used in its production, however, are not renewable – the metal is technically finished. But there is an argument that it can be used sustainably; uranium resources around the world are so great that energy experts don’t expect them to run out.
However, many groups that oppose nuclear power do so because of the destruction of the environment caused by uranium mining.
Governments in many parts of the world rely on nuclear power to help decarbonize their economies. It is widely regarded as an efficient way to generate electricity, and depending on the energy used to mine and enrich the uranium, it could potentially be a zero-emission energy source.
Nuclear power can prevent millions of tons of emissions from entering the atmosphere each year, compared to fossil fuels.
Great. So why are so many Australians against it?
It’s not just Australia. Several countries have slowed down the development of the nuclear industry since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 in Japan. Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant lost electricity during an earthquake and tsunami, causing cooling systems to fail, leading to nuclear fusions and hydrogen explosions and sending out radiation harmful to the atmosphere. Some parts of the city remain closed.
It is the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, when a test gone awry sparked an explosion and a fire, releasing devastating amounts of radioactive material into the air. Thirty-one people were killed in the crash itself, while many more died from the effects of radiation exposure in the following years, with some estimates in the tens of thousands.
But Australia’s anti-nuclear movement goes back further than that, to a strong protest movement in the 1970s. This arose in large part because of concerns about the environmental impacts of uranium mining – of which Australia has many. ‘huge reservations – but also because of concerns about public health risks, especially among communities living near the proposed facilities.
There are also concerns about how to safely store nuclear waste. Explosions or leaks of stored waste can also impact human health, although such disasters are much less common than they once were.
In 1977, the Movement Against Uranium Mining in Australia collected 250,000 signatures for a moratorium on metal mining, even though nuclear power was not used in the country. But Australia still extracts the metal today and exports it to produce nuclear power in other parts of the world.
There is growing political pressure in Australia from the leaders of the Liberals – which is Australia’s Conservative Party – to start using nuclear power. Without it, some say, it will be impossible to reach net zero by 2030. It has resisted nuclear largely because it had plentiful supplies of coal and gas, but Australia is under pressure to gradually reduce its use of fossil fuels.
Bob Brown, a former Greens leader who campaigned against nuclear warships entering Tasmania in the 1980s, told the Financial Review on Thursday that the deal brought the country closer to developing an energy industry nuclear and warned of a backlash.
“I think it’s very cowardly what the government has done,” Brown said. “He made a decision without reference to the public, knowing the public would oppose it.”
And what is New Zealand’s position?
New Zealand is one of the few developed countries that does not have a nuclear reactor. It also has a zero nuclear zone that prevents nuclear weapons or nuclear ships from entering its territory.
In September 1978, the New Zealand government issued a Royal Commission on Nuclear Energy, and a decision was made for the country to use its own resources to generate electricity, rather than set up nuclear power plants.
Hydroelectric power – which harnesses power from the movement of water – now provides 80 percent of the country’s electricity, and investing in nuclear power plants is still not seen as profitable. The initial cost of building nuclear facilities is extremely high, according to the World Nuclear Association.
However, the main reason for New Zealand’s opposition to nuclear power is, as in Australia, public opinion and concerns about safety and nuclear waste disposal.
New Zealand’s anti-nuclear position applies to nuclear power, nuclear-powered ships and nuclear weapons.
CNN’s Angela Dewan contributed to this report.