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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

nuclear power in Australia? « Previous | |Next »
March 17, 2011

The big concern of the pro nuclear lobby in Australia is that an attempt to rely on nuclear power and to build nuclear power stations to ensure energy security may well be stymied now because of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan.

The lobby had been hoping for a nuclear renaissance in the context of global warming after the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, effectively shut down new commercial nuclear projects across the globe.

Their argument was that in order to address climate warming and to solve our energy security Australia needed to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants. If new-build nuclear plants was the most rational way to go, then the future bright for nuclear energy required easing the dark fears and anxiety amongst the public through education.

BellSNuclearpower .jpg Steve Bell

Many in the nuclear camp---though not Barry Brook---are of the view that steering any investment toward alternative forms of renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal) that would almost certainly be less dangerous and, possibly in the long run, cheaper is absolutely out of the question. Those who advocate this approach to a low carbon economy are dismissed as anti-nuclear and as prejudiced and so not rational.

So they end up trying to reassure us that everything at the Japanese plant was working according to plan and there was no real cause for concern and they critique the media for cashing in on the business and politics of fear. Advocates of nuclear power maintain that failure is very rare, that new reactors are safer, that the benefits outweigh the costs and that nuclear energy is a solution to the energy and climate crisis that is available immediately.

The problem I have is that many in favour of nuclear power are also deeply opposed to pricing carbon, either in the form of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme. Yet nuclear power is extraordinarily expensive, especially for a country like Australia that has neither nuclear power construction experience, nor regulatory infrastructure. There is no energy utility in the country that possesses the balance sheet to contemplate the scale of investment, let alone the risk that is attached to it.

The industry depends heavily on cheap, long-term loans, which usually need government guarantees; whilst the additional and massive cost of decommissioning reactors and storing radioactive waste is so great the cost burden must be borne by governments, not industry.

The problem that the pro nuclear lobby has is that they need what they oppose---a big carbon tax--- to get a nuclear industry off the ground in Australia. As the Switkowski report commissioned by the Howard government, pointed out in the absence of a substantial carbon price nuclear power is not competitive with coal. It states:

Cost estimates suggest that in Australia nuclear power would on average be 20–50 per cent more expensive to produce than coal-fired power if pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions, is not priced....Nuclear power can become competitive with fossil fuel-based generation in Australia, if based on international best practice and with the introduction of low to moderate pricing of carbon dioxide emissions.

The figures range from a minimum of A$25 to $40 per ton of carbon dioxide.

The contradictions in the conservative position don't matter. Believing in nuclear power is increasingly become a question of identity---rather than public policy--for conservatives, just as denying climate change has become a question of conservative identity. This then leads to the war on natural science.

The political reality is that no nuclear energy industry will emerge in Australia, or at least not for another decade or two. The push for a nuclear industry within a mildly reformist Gillard Government has been ruled out, in favour of investing renewable technologies and cleaner fossil fuels, whilst the Coalition won't go there in the short term, given their intense opposition to both a carbon tax and big government intervention.

The nuclear lobby are whistling in the wind. Their current energies at the moment will be taken up in damage control, as the poor public image of nuclear power has taken a battering.

Tom Koutsantonis, South Australia's Minister for Minerals Resources and Development, has argued to the Paydirt Uranium conference, that it is now necessary to step up to the plate and argue for nuclear power in Australia.

In doing so he attacked the hysteria around the effects of radiation given the safety of nuclear reactors in Japan. There were no deaths from radiation unlike the thousands of deaths from the earthquake and the tsunami. South Australia, in his view, should be enriching uranium within 10-30 years and its storage in South Australia.

Kevin Foley, the ex -Treasurer of SA, then came out and backed Koutsantonis: mine it, enrich it, store the by-product, produce energy, and store the waste. The SA Labor Party is now officially divided.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:15 AM | | Comments (10)


"denying climate change has become a question of conservative identity. This then leads to the war on natural science."

The Coalition's opposition to the basic findings as to the reality of global warming and the threats of climate change has brought both a mainstreaming and a radicalization of antiscientific thought.

The conservative movement has decided to take on the scientific establishment. The war on science is seen as good politics.

Yes to the best of my knowledge no serious private investors are clamouring for permission to build nuclear power stations here. It's become another of the symbols that right wing radicals use in their revolution by stealth. Very fast trains are another, for some obscure reason. It is now an article of faith amongst radical righties that VFT is a bad idea, presumably for no better reason than that some Green groups support it.

Michael Bérubé in his The Science Wars Redux in Democracy Issue #19, Winter 2011
says that:

now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists, just as I predicted–and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind. Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of “experts” and “professionals” and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research.

The attacks by the right--ie., the religious and the free-market fundamentalists--- on climate science has mobilized a public distrust of scientific expertise.

re: "The nuclear lobby are whistling in the wind."

The Japanese situation has demonstrated that nuclear power plants need ready access to lots of water - preferably treated - and therefore can only be reasonably built along the coast -or near rivers. That limits the locations---they cannot be located in the desert a unless they pump from the great Artesian basin

Nuclear isn't going to happen in Australia, despite the push from the WA Liberals (eg., Julie Bishop) and Paul Howes---National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union--- both of whom speak on behalf of the mining industry.

A quick guide to the war on natural science:

"There was a time when science was Good. That was when science gave us antibiotics and The Bomb (or, if you prefer, The Bomb and antibiotics). Associated with The Bomb were, of course, satellites for spying on the Commies, fighter planes for fighting the Commies, missiles for dropping The Bomb on the Commies, and nuclear subs for carrying the missiles closer to the Commies. Now science is Bad, because scientists talk about radiation, and pollution, and climate change and Commie stuff like that. Bad scientists! Bad! Bad! Bad!

"But things can change. Remember that once economists were Bad. They talked about aggregate demand, and government action, and policies, and Commie stuff like that. But that got fixed. Now economists only talk about free markets, and deregulation, and privatisation, and reform and Good, anti-Commie things like that. We need to fix the scientists like we fixed the economists".

George Monbiot agonises quite intelligently over the choice facing people who are wedged, as it were, between desire to mitigate AGW and distrust of the nuclear industry.

He comes up with four conditions which, if met, would lead to his supporting nuclear energy:

1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.

2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.

3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay.

4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

To this he adds a fifth, that nuclear installations not be placed at locations subject to earthquake, tsunami or other natural disasters.

It's and interesting article, but I fear that, since his five conditions are a long way from being met, he has only succeeded in articulating the reasons for his opposition to nuclear.

not all in the pro nuclear power camp are conservatives who accept the science supporting nuclear power while simultaneously denying the science of climate change.

thanks for the link to his Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate in the Guardian.

I agree with him when he says:

it's not a straight fight between coal and nuclear. There are plenty of other ways of producing electricity, and I continue to place appropriate renewables above nuclear power in my list of priorities. We must also make all possible efforts to reduce consumption. But we'll still need to generate electricity, and not all renewable sources are appropriate everywhere. While producing solar power makes perfect sense in north Africa, in the UK, by comparison to both wind and nuclear, it's a waste of money and resources. Abandoning nuclear power as an option narrows our choices just when we need to be thinking as broadly as possible.

Solar makes sense in Australia as it does in Africa. Nuclear looks to be a waste of money and resources with current technology.

Further to G.Monbiot's agonising, we might remember that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl happened without any help from earthquakes or tsunamis.

It's important to remember this because we are now seeing some nuclear advocates trying to imply that, in the absence of earthquakes and tsunamis, nuclear power is entirely safe. Not only is this illogical, it's unhistorical. And bloody wrong.

OK, somebody has to say it. Those who are so committed to the AGW mitigation campaign as to forget everything else they ever learned about sustainability are the best allies the nuclear lobby has.

They are an extreme example of the tendency I have lamented previously for Greenies to put all their eggs in the AGW basket. There are other threats to the environment, and though I'm not a denialist I've got to say that nobody really knows whether it is logical to stop worrying about eg. depletion of fisheries, invasive species, habitat loss, chemical pollution etc. etc. because of AGW or not.

I think these other issues should not be forgotten because of AGW. One good reason for not forgetting them is that, if the whole AGW policy hurlyburly runs into the sand and nothing ends up being done - which is quite likely - then we will have ended up doing nothing about anything. If we continue to pay attention to other sustainability issues, on the other hand, we might make some progress even if AGW policy fails or is very slow.