The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi may derail Australia's nuclear plans

Australia rethinks nuclear plans after Japan crisis

Australia's plans to overturn a ban on selling uranium to India may be derailed by the Japanese nuclear crisis.

The Labor government had planned a policy-making debate on relaxing the long-running ban and a push to use nuclear power domestically.

Australia has prohibited uranium exports to countries like India which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has been pushing to modify the ban, which has been criticised by India as it wants nuclear fuel for its booming electricity sector and growing economy.

It also plans to build five new nuclear reactors by 2016.

However Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that the events in Japan would trigger a global debate on nuclear energy and that she did not believe Australia needed nuclear power plants.

"I don't see nuclear energy as part of our future," she said. "We are blessed with abundant sources of renewable energy, of clean energy, of solar, wind, tide, hot rocks. 

"That's our future, not nuclear - a clean energy future with carbon pricing as part of it."

Polls show that 53 per cent of Australians opposed to nuclear power at home, while leading lawmakers and business leaders are calling for a domestic nuclear power industry to reduce Australia's impact on climate change.

Greenhouse emissions per capita in Australia are the world's highest due to reliance on coal-fired electricity.

Australia has almost 40 per cent of the world's known uranium reserves, but supplies only 19 per cent of the world market.

It has no nuclear power stations and only three mines, including BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam, the world's biggest uranium mine.

The others are Energy Resources Australia's Ranger mine in the Northern Territory, and the Beverly mine, owned by U.S. company General Atomics.

Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute for International Policy said that even if Australis agreed to sell uranium to new markets, such as India or the United Arab Emirates, there could well be political pressure to add strong environmental conditions.

Those conditions could add even more complexity, and potentially costs, to bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements focused previously on the spread of nuclear weapons.

"The Fukushima disaster is prompting India to review its own nuclear safety. Following the crisis in Japan the intended expansion of India's nuclear footprint may well slow or even stall," Medcalf said.

Australia has 22 bilateral nuclear safeguard agreements, which allow exports to 39 countries.

It has recently signed agreements with Russia and China, and has already sent its first shipments of uranium to China, where uranium consumption is projected to grow by 44 per cent to 18,000 tonnes by 2016.

At a uranium conference in South Australia state, Australian Uranium Association chief executive Michael Angwin said the economic factors driving countries to nuclear power use had not been changed by the Japan crisis.

"Countries turn to nuclear energy because they wish to improve their energy security and expand their electricity generating capacity in a way that does not increase their carbon emissions. That remains the case," Angwin said.

Australia's uranium exports in the year to July 1, 2011 are forecast at 8,700 tonnes, an increase of 21 per cent on the previous year.

Production is set to expand an average 15 per cent per year to July 2016 as several new mines set to start production.

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