Helen Caldicott, MD - The Age - Apr 17, 2006

The noted American writer Mary McCarthy once famously observed of the equally noted but politically discredited playwright Lillian Hellman: "every word she utters is a lie, including 'and' and 'but' ". As we have seen over the past 10 years, the same can be said of the Howard Government from the children-overboard scandal to "there will never be a GST" to "yes, there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq". Now - joined by misguided and misinformed members of the ALP and a few scientists who should know better - the Government is embarked on another mendacious, ill-advised, and downright dangerous enterprise: transforming Australia into a nuclear-powered, uranium-exporting nation, deploying as a rhetorical fig leaf the spurious message that nuclear power is emissions-free, green, and safe and will save Australia - and indeed the world - from the effects of global warming. Let's pull away that tattered fig leaf and look at the facts.

The global warming carbon dioxide (CO2) gas is released at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle - from uranium mining and milling, from uranium enrichment, from construction of huge concrete reactors, and from the transport and long-term storage of intensely radioactive waste. Nuclear power plants generate only one-third as much CO2 as a similar-sized gas-fired plant. But because the supply of highly concentrated uranium ore, which is relatively easy to mine and enrich, is limited, the energy eventually required to mine and enrich uranium will greatly increase. If today's global electricity production was converted to nuclear power, there would only be three years' supply of accessible uranium to fuel the reactors. Uranium is therefore a finite commodity.

is not the only global warming gas emitted by nuclear power. The Pacudah enrichment plant in Kentucky, which processes uranium from many countries, including Australia, annually leaks 93 per cent of the CFC-114 gas released by the US. Banned under the Montreal protocol, CFC is a prodigious destroyer of the ozone layer and it also is a potent global warming agent.

Furthermore, nuclear reactors routinely emit large amounts of radioactive materials, including the fat-soluble noble gases xenon, krypton and argon. Deemed "inert" by the nuclear industry, they are readily inhaled by populations near reactors and absorbed into the bloodstream where they concentrate in the fat pads of the abdomen and upper thighs, exposing ovaries and testicles to mutagenic gamma radiation (like X-rays).

Tritium, radioactive hydrogen, is also regularly discharged from reactors. Combining with oxygen, it forms tritiated water, which passes readily through skin, lungs and gut. Contrary to industry propaganda, tritium is a dangerous carcinogenic element producing cancers, congenital malformations and genetic deformities in low doses in animals, and by extrapolation in humans.

In the age of terrorism, nuclear reactors are inviting targets. It is relatively easy to induce a reactor meltdown by either severing the external electricity supply, by disrupting the 3 million litres a minute intake of cooling water, by infiltrating the control room, or by a well co-ordinated terrorist attack. Surprisingly, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has failed to upgrade security at the 103 nuclear reactors since the September 11 attack. A meltdown at the Indian Point nuclear power plant 56 kilometres from Manhattan could render that city uninhabitable for thousands of years if prevailing winds blew in the right direction.

Above all, nuclear waste is the industry's Achilles heel. The US has no viable solution for radioactive waste storage. A total of 60,000 tonnes are temporarily stored in so-called swimming pools beside nuclear reactors, awaiting final disposal. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, transected by 32 earthquake faults, has been identified as the final geological repository. Made of permeable pumice, it is unsuitable as a radioactive geological waste receptacle and recent fraudulent projections of the mountain's ability to retard leakage by the United States Geological Survey have rendered this project to be almost untenable.

Already, radioactive elements in many nuclear-powered countries are leaking into underground water systems, rivers, and oceans, progressively concentrating at each level of the food chain. Strontium 90, which causes bone cancer and leukaemia, and cesium 137, which induces rare muscle and brain cancers, are radioactive for 600 years. Food and human breast milk will become increasingly radioactive near numerous waste sites. Cancers will inevitably increase in frequency in exposed populations, as will genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis in their descendants.

Each typical 1000-megawatt reactor makes 200 kilograms of plutonium a year. Less than one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic. Handled like iron by the body, it causes liver, lung and bone cancer and leukaemia. Crossing the placenta to induce congential deformities, it has a predilection for the testicle, where inevitably it will cause genetic abnormalities. With a radiological life of 240,000 years, released in the ecosphere it will affect biological systems forever.

Because only five kilograms of plutonium is critical mass, countries importing our uranium to fuel their nuclear reactors could, theoretically, manufacture plutonium for many nuclear bombs each year. The under-resourced International Atomic Energy Agency admits that it is physically impossible to prevent a determined country, whether a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or not, from using imported uranium or its byproduct, plutonium, to make nuclear weapons.

A truly informed national debate about the production, export, and use of Australian uranium is imperative as China, Taiwan and India line up to receive our yellowcake.

Time is short. Once the waste is produced, its legacy will affect all future generations.

>Helen Caldicott is president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.

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