Nuclear and the Chasm between Science and Politics

In a democracy, political policy is shaped by the views and opinions of the community. Nuclear technology carries significant historical baggage, often fuelled by a political, media and pop culture landscape unfamiliar with the technology, which leads to portraying nuclear with dramatic inaccuracy. Is it any wonder such misconceptions manifest as poorly constructed political policies?

Australia has no nuclear power or weapons and is a non-nuclear weapons state according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). Australia’s involvement in the nuclear industry is predominantly uranium mining and export, and nuclear research. Lucas Heights, in Sydney’s south-west is home to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), a world-class nuclear science laboratory.[1]

The Greens are an Australian political party with a strong focus on ecological sustainability, social justice, peace and non-violence[2]. Their policies relating to nuclear and uranium demonstrate their ideological opposition to, and poor understanding of the technology.[3] They explicitly oppose uranium mining and export, nuclear power and weapons. Australia does not partake in two of these three activities. Furthermore, the Greens principles and aims demonstrate they have an implicit opposition to nuclear science and research.

The Greens make no attempt to separate nuclear technologies. This is clearest in their stated first aim of a ‘nuclear free world’. This literally would require abandoning large fields of scientific study such as medical radiography and nuclear physics, and severely handicap other fields such as materials science. This position is highlighted by aim number 10; ‘Closure of the OPAL nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights and development of non-reactor technologies, such as particle accelerators, for the production of radioisotopes for medical and scientific purposes.’ Calling for the restriction of one aspect of nuclear science, only to promote another is contradictory.

The OPAL (Open Pool Australian Light water) reactor is the centrepiece of ANSTO’s operation and was officially opened in 2007. It is primarily a research reactor, but is also utilised for the production of medical radioisotopes such as Molybdenum-99 and Iodine-131 for domestic and global markets.[4]

To consider the Greens aim, refer to the report released by the Nuclear Energy Association (NEA) in 2010[5] comparing molybdenum-99 production technologies. Comparing a low enriched uranium (LEU) reactor (such as OPAL) to a cyclotron particle accelerator, a cyclotron can potentially produce Molybdenum-99 with less nuclear waste. This aligns with The Greens fourth principle ‘Future generations must not be burdened with dangerous levels of radioactive waste.’ Unfortunately, this is impractical as the production rate of medical isotopes in a modern day cyclotron is a tiny fraction of that achievable with a reactor. Reactors can also co-produce a variety of different isotopes simultaneously. A cyclotron can only produce one at a time and the range of isotopes that it can offer is limited.

The versatility of the OPAL reactor means that it can offer more than just isotope  production. It can be used to irradiate other materials, such as silicon, which is used as a semi-conductor in the electronics industry.

The OPAL reactor is a neutron source. The Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering (A department within ANSTO) has 14 neutron beam instruments providing material analysis capabilities, which are available for use by research scientists across the globe. Without a neutron source such, these machines are useless.

As current cyclotron technology is ill-suited to molybdenum production compared to research reactors, and considering the additional capabilities that fission reactors offer, the Greens aim to close OPAL in favour of developing particle accelerator technology is ill-conceived.

Aim 13 is the ‘Full implementation of the… NNPT, including the commitment to irreversible nuclear disarmament contained in the Treaty and its Review Conference documents.’  This treaty (Which Australia ratified in 1973) has  three pillars; non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peacefully use  nuclear technology[6]. Article IV of the treaty explicitly states that the NNPT does not infringe on the rights of member states to develop peaceful applications of nuclear technology, and that all parties to the treaty have the right to partake in peaceful applications of nuclear technology.[7] It is contradictory to advocate for ‘full implementation’ of the NNPT while simultaneously calling for closure of research reactors.

Full implementation of the NNPT conflicts with many of The Greens other aims; such as aim 3 ‘The cessation of Australian uranium mining and export.’ Uranium mining and export is a peaceful activity. Tracking of fissile material by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)[8] (Mandatory for all nuclear programmes run by signatories to the NNPT) and the Australian Safeguards Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO)[9] stops  diversion of uranium to non-declared purposes (such as clandestine nuclear weapons programmes).

Aim 17 states ‘The prohibition of government funding of mining, research, development and commercialisation of technologies directly related to the enrichment or weaponisation of nuclear material.’ Again, this aim is in contradiction with full implementation of the NNPT, as enrichment has relevance to peaceful application of nuclear technology. Uranium enrichment of around 3-5% is necessary to fuel the majority of power reactors in the world.[10] The OPAL research reactor uses fuel enriched to just under 20%, keeping it below the Low-Enriched uranium (LEU) threshold.[11] Both of these are peaceful applications of nuclear technology. Weapons grade uranium requires enrichment to 90% or more.[12]

Aim 10 is the ‘Prohibition of food irradiation and the importation of such food.’ Foodborne pathogens can be killed by exposure to ionising radiation, such as gamma or x-rays. This has been in practise since the 1950’s.[13] Apart from the fact that this too is a peaceful application of nuclear technology; food irradiation processes have demonstrated themselves to be a safe alternative to heat and chemical treatments [14]. It is a field so well understood that it is standardised in several nations. Australia and New Zealand have such a document, the ‘Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 1.5.3 – Irradiation of Food’.[15] It is disappointing to see an ostensibly pro-science[16] political party that simultaneously opposes an established scientific field.

Irrespective of whether this stems from misguided benevolence or deliberate misrepresentation, such policies are problematic because if enacted, they place foolish restrictions on legitimate scientific research . Fortunately, the Greens do not win enough of the vote to form government in their own right, as the aims covered above would cripple industries such as medicine, material research, food importation and preservation, just to name a few. This demonstrates why it is necessary to continue supporting science and technology, and why it is necessary that politicians who want to create national policy relating to nuclear technology need to understand it.

[1] (AUSTRALIAN NUCLEAR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY ORGANISATION (ANSTO), 2017)

[2] (THE GREENS, 2017)

[3] (THE GREENS, 2017)

[4] (AUSTRALIAN NUCLEAR SCIENCE AND TECHOLOGY ORGANISATION (ANSTO))

[5] (NUCLEAR ENERGY AGENCY (NEA), 2010)

[6] (DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE (DFAT))

[7] (UNITED NATIONS OFFICE FOR DISARMAMENT AFFAIRS (UNODA))

[8] (INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY (IAEA), 2017)

[9] (AUSTRALIAN SAFEGUARDS AND NON-PROLIFERATION OFFICE (ASNO))

[10] (WORLD NUCLEAR ASSOCIATION (WNA), 2017)

[11] (AUSTRALIAN NUCLEAR SCIENCE AND TECHOLOGY ORGANISATION (ANSTO))

[12] (WORLD NUCLEAR ASSOCIATION (WNA), 2017)

[13] (DICKSON, Jim, 2012)

[14] (FOOD STANDARDS AUSTRALIA NEW ZEALAND, 2015)

[15] (FEDERAL REGISTER OF LEGISLATION, 2017)

[16] (THE GREENS, 2017)

 

References

 

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