Australia is to study whether to set up a nuclear power and enrichment industry, Prime Minister John Howard said on Tuesday, angering environmentalists who want the country to maintain its nuclear-free stance.
CANBERRA Australia is to study whether to set up a nuclear power and enrichment industry, Prime Minister John Howard said on Tuesday, angering environmentalists who want the country to maintain its nuclear-free stance.
Australia holds about 40 percent of the world's uranium reserves and is a major exporter of the material, but has no nuclear power or enriching industry of its own and has only one research reactor, in suburban Sydney.
"I have always maintained that holding the reserves of uranium that we do, it is foolish to see ourselves simply as an exporter of uranium," Howard told reporters.
"I think we should also look at the value-added process, which is principally enrichment, and we should also look at whether nuclear power stations become economically feasible," he told reporters.
The Australian Greens said Howard's position put the environment behind the needs of the international nuclear industry.
"The nuclear debate is a sideshow to the greatest challenge facing Australia, and that is climate change," Greens Senator Christine Milne said in a statement.
There are currently 441 nuclear power plants worldwide. More are planned in China and India to meet growing energy demands, while South Korea and the Russian Federation also intend to increase nuclear power generation.
Australia is one of the world's biggest exporters of coal, a resource used more widely in power generation. Howard's conservative government has strongly supported coal mining companies despite calls for more renewable energy.
But he said on Tuesday that support for nuclear energy was growing, adding that even some environmentalists supported it because it was a cleaner energy source.
A survey in 2005 found 47 percent of Australians supported nuclear power, while 40 percent opposed it.
Howard announced a task force to inquire into the issue and report back by the end of the year. The government's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation has already said that four or five nuclear power stations would have to be built in eastern Australia for the industry to be viable.
The coal industry welcomed the inquiry, but said the development of low-emission coal technology meant zero-emission coal-fired power stations would be available by the time nuclear power could be generated in Australia.