By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney
Australia's battle over nuclear power has begun.
Australia currently only has one research reactor
An inquiry set up by Prime Minister John Howard has ignited a red-blooded debate over a contentious issue.
Australia's plentiful and accessible supplies of coal have in the past pushed the nuclear option to the fringes of the energy debate. Not any more.
It is now centre stage following the Howard government's appointment of a panel of experts to look at the environmental, economic and safety aspects of an expanded nuclear industry.
"I don't expect to have nuclear power stations within Australia in the next
2-3 years," said the veteran conservative leader. "My sense is that we are some years into the future, but now is the time to begin to have the debate."
The prime ministerial task force will assess the extent to which nuclear energy could supplant fossil fuels.
Australia is the world's largest coal exporter. If the multi-billion dollar industry is concerned about the challenges that the nuclear option might bring, it isn't showing it.
The key to coal's survival in a future energy war will be its environmental credentials.
"Coal using low and ultimately near-zero emissions technologies is expected to be competitive with alternatives," said the Australian Coal Association's Mark O'Neill in a statement.
The association believes that the development of a cleaner product would help coal stay competitive.
"We welcome the nuclear inquiry as an opportunity for Australia to objectively assess its energy futures in the context of climate change," Mr O'Neill added. "
It will enable all types of low emissions technologies to highlight their potential contribution on both environmental and economic grounds."
'Renewables not reactors'
Environmental groups are worried that the government's hand-picked inquiry team will inevitably produce a biased set of recommendations later in the year.
"It's odds on that they're going to come up with a pretty rosy report on nuclear power, which is very concerning to us," said Don Henry from the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Mr Howard says he want to hear the debate
Mr Howard was quick to scuttle that suggestion.
"The credibility of the examination depends on the quality of the people carrying out the examination, so you start with people who know something about it, like nuclear physicists," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The main opposition Labor party believes nuclear power is unaffordable and should not be pursued.
"The whole debate should be about renewables, not reactors," said Labor leader Kim Beazley.
Labor's plan is to promote alternative energy supplies, such as wind, solar and tidal as the answer to Australia's future needs.
The opposition has been keen to point out that nuclear power plants would be built close to populated areas.
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) said it was likely that the facilities would have to be constructed in eastern Australia where they could be easily linked to the electricity grid.
Last year a survey found just under half of Australians supported nuclear power while 40% opposed it.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has claimed discussions have been disrupted by references to the Chernobyl disaster.
Opponents say Australia should explore renewable energy
"The problem with the whole of the nuclear debate in Australian... is that it's been driven too much by people who are opposed just for emotional reasons and they sort of descend to abusive and hysterical arguments very quickly," he told Australian radio.
Newspapers are awash with comments and advice.
"Even if Australia did have a shortage of energy, nuclear power is not the answer," declared the Sydney Morning Herald.
"It is not commercially viable anywhere in the world without substantial government subsidy. It is even less viable in Australia, a country awash in cheap alternatives."