In a debate that looks set to mirror the one taking place in the UK, the Australian federal government has announced a review to assess whether the country needs to invest in nuclear power infrastructure.

Currently there is just one small nuclear reactor in Australia, at Lucas Heights in Sydney, which is used for research purposes. Indeed, the announcement by the prime minister John Howard is all the more surprising given that the country is one of only two major industrialized nations not to have signed the Kyoto protocol (the other being the US).

However the BBC reports that the country is coming under more pressure to curb its carbon emissions. Yet any move to establish nuclear power remains some way off, as reports from Australia suggest that both the environmental and coal mining lobbies will vigorously contest any such plans.

Already the debate appears to have been sidetracked before the study is even complete amid fears of a list of 14 potential sites for reactors that the government is alleged to possess. News of the list has provoked a backlash from politicians representing areas purportedly included on it.

The government insists that the list of sites was prepared for a decision over the future of the Lucas Heights research reactor in 1997, when it was decided a new plant should be built on the same site rather than elsewhere. The prime minister therefore insists the list is now outdated and irrelevant.

If it is economically feasible, then people will come forward with investments, then you start talking about sites, he said.