Climate change and nuclear policy in Australia: lots to do with Canada

Two months ago, Australia’s anti-Kyoto PM, John Howard, lost that country’s general election. One of the first moves of his successor, Kevin Rudd, was to bring Australia into the Kyoto club.

The pro-Kyoto crowd has applauded this move. From their point of view, anything that gets in George Bush’s face is good. But let’s take a real look at Australia’s newfound Kyotophilia. Will it lead to actual emission reductions, which, though only dimly remembered, were the main point of Kyoto? Or will it just add another voice to the politically correct cacophony that drowns out intelligent climate change discussion in international circles?

Sadly, the second alternative is the right one. Rudd’s next move was to put a freeze on his predecessor’s ambitious plans to introduce nuclear power to Australia’s highly coal-dependent electricity generation sector. This virtually ensures that Australia’s climate change contribution will be negligible.

Rudd’s alternative to nuclear is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a fanciful scheme whereby the CO2 from fossil fuel exhaust is captured and pumped underground. CCS is a familiar concept to anyone who has followed the travails of the U.S. utility sector. While it may be viable in certain limited instances, it is more public relations than anything else; Rod Adams has a good piece about it.

The CCS PR gambit seems to be succeeding, and not just in Australia and the U.S. Politicians from western Canada have seized on it as a way of dealing with the massive emissions from the oil sands. But it is a big strategic gamble, especially in the U.S. By the time people figure out they’ve been had, many new coal-fired plants will have been built. And if a climate-change lawsuit against a coal-fired generator succeeds in the U.S., we could see a corporate meltdown that rivals the bust of 2001.

Rudd hasn’t limited his nuclear moves to domestic power generation. He has also reversed a Howard decision, taken in mid-August 2007, to consider uranium exports to India.

Howard’s India move followed the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal of 2005. India is not party to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and won’t allow IAEA inspections at some of its nuclear sites. For this reason, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) doesn’t allow its members, which include Australia and Canada, to export nuclear material or equipment to India. The U.S., for strategic reasons I discussed back in September, wants the NSG to make an exception in the case of India. Howard said he would consider it.

It is difficult to tell if Rudd’s India reversal is more a product of overheated election rhetoric than sober deliberation. My guess is that, unlike the electricity decision, it is the latter.

Regardless, it puts Canada into a delicate position. We joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) very recently, presumably as a supplier state. We have also been under concurrent pressure from the U.S. and India to ease the NSG trade sanctions in order to clear the way for the U.S.-India deal.

The problem is, we have an, uh, history with India when it comes to nuclear issues. India manufactured the plutonium for its first bomb using a Canadian research reactor, which we sold in the 1950s on what we felt was the condition that India would use the reactor for peaceful purposes only. Well, India successfully tested a plutonium bomb in 1974. It now refuses to allow the IAEA to inspect the reactor, and this is a bit of an issue with the Canadian government.

In light of this, how have we responded to the pressure from the U.S. and India to change the NSG rules, and from the Arms Control Association to maintain them?

There are voices pro and con in the Canadian government bureaucracy, and according to Mark Hibbs some of the strongest con voices last summer were at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, whose president was fired two weeks ago. If we support easing the NSG sanctions now, some people may note the temporal proximity to the decision to join GNEP and wonder if we bailed on a long-standing international principle for the chance of making a few bucks in India. Worse, they’ll wonder if there’s any connection to the CNSC head’s dismissal.

These are just a few of the reasons why Canada ought to delay deciding on the NSG rules for as long as possible.

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