Killer Cheese!!

A recent article in The Australian by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam about nuclear power was, predictably enough, severely fact-challenged. Ludlam tries to make out that nuclear power reactors are on the way out, when in fact, they are making a big comeback, particularly in Asia. No fewer than 88 new power reactors are scheduled to open in the next seven years.

Another example of his wrongheadedness is the statement that private companies won't invest in nuclear – but they do. I could go on, but it's much easier to pick out the things he says that are true, such as, "We still earn more from our cheese exports than from uranium."

Surprisingly – at least in the most recent 2008/2009 figures – this one checks out, reflecting on how successful Australia's dairy industry is, and how restricted our uranium mines have been over a long period of time. But this got us to thinking – how does Australia's cheese export industry compare to Australia's uranium export industry in other ways?

Firstly, to safety: Australia's dairy industry is far more dangerous than our uranium industry. There have been numerous on-farm deaths recorded most years - including deaths of children - while uranium mining, often carried out in open cut mines or in-situ leaching, are pretty safe forms of mining, particularly in comparison to coal mining. Certainly, if the same number of deaths that occurred on dairy farms occurred in uranium mines, it would make headline news.

But what about the end results of the production?

Nuclear is easily one of the safest forms of energy production, and if it replaces coal mining, it probably saves lives of people working at energy plants and the general public who have to breathe the air.

Meanwhile, in developed countries, the biggest cause of death is coronary disease. One of the contributors to coronary disease is fatty foods - like cheese. So arguably, uranium is better for us than cheese. But who cares about the welfare of people, I hear you cry – what about the environment?

Dairy farms take up about 2 million hectares of Australia's most fertile land – some of it that might be rainforest if left to its own devices - while uranium mines scarcely take up 50,000 hectares in arid and remote parts of the nation.

Dairy farming is also Australia's thirstiest agricultural endeavor, taking up about 25 percent of all the water used in Australia for irrigation.

How about carbon emissions?

Cows emit large amounts of potent greenhouse gases, whereas the uranium we export has the potential to replace about 80 percent of all of Australia's carbon emissions.

Aha - but what about radioactivity, I hear you ask?

Nuclear power reactors do not emit much radioactivity - indeed, you are far better living next to one than a coal-fired power station, which spews out nasty radioactive elements in fly ash. Radioactive waste can be dropped down a hole, where it can rest with all the other radioactive elements. It's no biggie.

Cheese, on the other hand, contains potassium 40, a radioactive element with a half-life of 1.3 billion years. Combine this with the nasty doses of radiation you can get from your cheese grater – and even worse from your kitchen bench top and you have a recipe for more than just a cheese sandwich.

So, given all of these factors, why is it that the government is not banning the export of this potentially harmful, yet simultaneously delicious, cheese?

The answer is because it would be a very, very stupid idea – but it's actually somewhat less absurd than Scott Ludlam's antiquated anti-nuclear arguments.

Gavin Atkins blogs for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement, under the title The Shadowlands ( )