Australia would be "foolish" not to consider using nuclear energy, given its vast reserves of uranium, Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday, giving his strongest hint yet the government planned to kick-start an atomic energy industry.
"Nuclear power is potentially the cleanest and greenest of them all," Howard said in a speech to the Queensland state branch of his Liberal Party.
"And we would be foolish, from the national interest point of view, with our vast resources of uranium, to say that we are not going to consider nuclear power," he said.
Australia is one of the world's biggest producers of uranium, the ore used to fire nuclear reactors, but has only one reactor, a small medical facility.
Nuclear issues have been contentious in Australia for years because many people are worried about the dangers of radiation and how to dispose of nuclear waste.
Howard said growing concern about global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels to make electricity was causing people to rethink their opposition to nuclear energy.
"I believe that the world attitude to nuclear power is changing and Australia's attitude to nuclear power is changing," he said.
His comments came as the leaked findings of a government-ordered inquiry into nuclear energy appeared in some newspapers.
The Australian and other newspapers owned by News Ltd reported yesterday that a task force headed by former Telstra head Ziggy Switkowski had concluded that nuclear energy could become a viable industry in Australia within 15 years, as nuclear technology becomes cheaper.
The review is expected to find the cost of nuclear power would fall over time as an increase in energy needs and moves to fight atmospheric pollution caused by fossil fuels put more of a focus on a technological solution to climate change, the Australian reported.
A predicted rise in the cost of carbon fuels over the next decade would erase the cost difference between carbon and nuclear energy, the newspaper reported a source as saying.
The task force's full report is due to be released before the end of this month.
"What we are seeing in the community is a willingness now to consider nuclear energy," Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane said, commenting on the newspaper reports.
He promised a public debate on nuclear energy would follow the publication of the Switkowski review, which he said showed the commercial viability of the controversial industry.
"We want to see debate that is based in understanding and knowledge not a debate based on scare tactics," he said.
Meanwhile, thousands of people marched through central Sydney to demand a focus on renewable energy, and protest against global warming.
Before an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people, opposition leaders attacked Howard's policies on climate change, and demanded leadership on renewable energy.
"I say, and Labor says, renewables, not reactors, are the solution to climate change," Labor environment spokesman Anthony Albanese said.