Nuclear power and Australia's culture wars

By Jim Green

Nuclear power is currently enjoying a flurry of interest in Australia. But those promoting nuclear power are almost exclusively from the far right of the political spectrum. They include far-right politicians from the Coalition and One Nation; the Minerals Council of Australia (who lobby furiously for clean nuclear and clean coal) and the Business Council of Australia; media shock-jocks and the Murdoch media; and the Institute of Public Affairs.

Beyond the far right, support for nuclear power in Australia has ebbed due to the Fukushima disaster, catastrophic costs overruns on reactor projects, and the falling costs of renewables. Nuclear lobbyists routinely acknowledge that nuclear power is in "crisis" and wonder what if anything can be salvaged from "the ashes of today's dying industry".

The far-right won't let facts get in the way of their promotion of nuclear power. NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro claims, against all the evidence, that nuclear power would probably be the cheapest power source for the average Australian household and is "guaranteed" to lower power bills.

Tony Abbott's rationale for supporting nuclear power ‒ and repealing Howard-era legislation banning nuclear power plants ‒ is to "create a contest" with the unions, GetUp, the Greens and the Labor Party. Likewise, he said last year that promoting nuclear power "would generate another fight with Labor and the green left."

Abbott ‒ and some others on the far-right ‒ would undoubtedly oppose nuclear power if Labor and the 'green left' supported it and they would be pointing to the A$17‒24 billion price-tags for new reactors in western Europe and north America.

Abbott seems to have forgotten the experience in John Howard's last term as Prime Minister. Howard became a nuclear power enthusiast in 2005 and the issue was alive in the 2007 election contest. Howard's nuclear promotion did nothing to divide the Labor Party. On the contrary, it divided the Coalition, with at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distancing themselves from the government's policy during the election campaign. The policy of promoting nuclear power was seen to be a liability and it was ditched immediately after the election.

Inquiry

Those of us opposed to nuclear power can take some comfort in its increasing marginalisation to the far-right. But there are far-right-wingers highly placed in the federal government and a number of state governments.

Right-wing National Party MPs lobbied for a Senate inquiry and for a repeal of the legislation banning nuclear power. It had the sense of a political set-piece: the far-right wins control of the numbers on a Senate inquiry and the government agrees with its pro-nuclear findings and repeals the legislation banning nuclear power.

But would Prime Minister Scott Morrison agree to repeal the ban given that there is no prospect of nuclear power being a viable option for Australia in the foreseeable future? Surely that would be an own goal, providing ammunition to political opponents and opening up divisions within the Coalition.

The Prime Minister has set two tests for nuclear power: it must be able to stand on its own feet without government subsidies, and it must reduce household power bills. There isn't the slightest chance that nuclear power could meet either test.

The Prime Minister's solution to this dilemma has been to announce a faux inquiry with a prefigured outcome. Federal Parliament's Standing Committee on Environment and Energy has begun an 'inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia'. The Government states unequivocally that "Australia's bipartisan moratorium on nuclear energy will remain in place" regardless of the findings of the inquiry.

Further emphasising the uninquisitive nature of this inquiry is its truncated timeline: submissions must be received by September 16 and the whole inquiry will be done, dusted and forgotten by the end of the year.

The inquiry's terms of reference specifically mention 'small modular reactors' (SMRs). Amanda Stoker, Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland, summed it up thus: "The modern nuclear reactor is small, modular, self-contained and safer than any other energy generation method."

In the Senator's imagination, perhaps. But SMRs don't exist and recent history is littered with SMR corpses. The Generation mPower project in the US was abandoned. Transatomic Power gave up on its molten salt reactor R&D. MidAmerican Energy gave up on its plans for SMRs after failing to secure legislation that would force rate-payers to part-pay construction costs. Westinghouse sharply reduced its investment in SMRs after failing to secure US government funding. Rolls-Royce scaled back its investment to nothing more than paying for "a handful of salaries" and is threatening to abandon its SMR R&D altogether unless hefty government grants are made available by the UK government.

There was a wave of enthusiasm for SMRs in the late 1980s. It came and went without a single SMR being built anywhere in the world. A Chain Reaction article about SMRs, written 30 years ago by anti-nuclear campaigner John Hallam, could have been written this year with scarcely any changes ‒ and perhaps it will be just as fresh 30 years from now.

More information: www.nuclear.foe.org.au/power

SMRs: WISE Nuclear Monitor #872‒73, 7 March 2019, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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Published in Chain Reaction #136, August 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction


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