Will Australia Be a Nuke Bank & Dumpsite?

Article excerpt

SYDNEY (Reuters) -- Australia, a top US ally, could become the world's nuclear bank, leasing enriched uranium to other countries to generate power and then storing depleted fuel rods in its vast, empty outback.

But analysts say it won't happen without a spirited debate.

Prime Minister John Howard reignited the nuclear debate in Australia after a visit to the United States last month, and a prime ministerial task force is to report on all aspects of the industry by the end of the year.

Domestic debate has centered on possible nuclear power stations, but Howard has talked up the benefits of adding value to existing uranium exports and a small lobby is pushing for the geologically stable continent to be used for waste storage.

The scenario would fit US President George Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plan, which aims to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by controlling access to enriched uranium.

"I do think it's something Howard wants to lay the ground for, and I think the Americans are deeply involved because this can tie in with nuclear non-proliferation," said Australian National University political analyst Michael McKinley.

The US proposal calls for advanced nuclear nations to provide nuclear fuel and recycling services for energy generation to other countries, which would then forgo developing nuclear technologies of their own.

Australia holds 40 percent of the world's known recoverable uranium and is a major producer, but would have to move from selling yellowcake, or uranium concentrate, to an enrichment and fuel fabrication program and storing nuclear waste.

"The issue is whether Australia is a stable enough country both politically and geologically, and I think the answer is probably 'yes' to both of those," said Aidan Byrne, head of physics at Australian National University.

"Technologically, it's certainly a feasible option."

Australia's role in the potentially lucrative business is being pushed by the Nuclear Fuel Leasing Group (NFLG), an international grouping of private sector interests that has lobbied governments around the world.

"Australia has without doubt the best geology in the world in terms of being dry, stable and flat to store spent fuel," said John White, a member of the group and chairman of the government's Uranium Industry Framework. …