The endless civil war among conservatives over nuclear power

Nov 22, 2021
Nuclear sign on a war

The case for nuclear power in Australia is overwhelmingly weak, but that doesn’t deter the culture warriors in the Morrison government or the Murdoch media.

Wars usually have a beginning, a middle and an end. Not so the nuclear power culture wars which just keep rolling on and on and on.

Australia’s nuclear culture war is best thought of as a civil war: conservative politicians — and to a lesser extent Murdoch/Sky media loudmouths — are at each other’s throats while the rest of us watch on in bemusement. Ironically, attempts to wedge the Labor Party and the environmental movement are at the heart of the conservative nuclear push, but those efforts have been singularly unsuccessful and the culture warriors succeed only in wedging themselves.

The Murdoch media’s recent pivot towards accepting climate science and the need for action immediately degenerated into a push for nuclear power. Sky News can’t get enough of it. In addition to dozens of news stories promoting nuclear power, Sky produced a “documentary” called Going Nuclear: The Clean Energy Debate aired on October 25.

Academic Barry Brook opined in the Sky “documentary” that nuclear power was the “silver bullet” to tackle climate change. A decade ago, Brook was insisting “there is no credible risk of a serious accident” at Fukushima even as multiple nuclear fuel meltdowns were in progress.

Brook told the “documentary”: “We are not ever going to get beyond about 50 per cent renewable energy and continue to have the type of energy use in a modern society that we have today.” Brook lives in Tasmania, fully powered by renewable electricity thanks to the state’s wind and hydro projects.

And he used to live in South Australia, where, according to a new report by the Australian Energy Market Operator, wind and solar has delivered 62 per cent of local power generation in the past 12 months, wholesale sales were the lowest on the mainland at an average of $48 per megawatt-hour MWh, and grid emissions have fallen to a record low. South Australia is on track to comfortably meet the state government’s target of 100 percent net renewables by 2030.

Pro-nuclear environmentalists

The Sky “documentary” also featured one pro-nuclear environmentalist, Zion Lights, to prove the point that environmentalists are falling in love with nuclear power. Lights was recruited to the pro-nuclear cause by the notorious Michael Shellenberger.

A 2013 article in Grist summed up the nonsense about pro-nuclear environmentalists:

 There is no budding environmentalist movement for nukes… This handful of converts is always cited with the implication that it’s the leading edge of a vast shift, and yet it’s always the same handful. Shellenberger says, ‘I have a sense that this is a beautiful thing… the beginning of a movement.’ I fear he has once again mistaken the contents of his navel for the zeitgeist.”

The same could be said for Australia: you could count the number of pro-nuclear environmentalists on the fingers of one hand.

Zion Lights told Sky that climate change “could be solved overnight” with nuclear power. But an analysis by economist Professor John Quiggin concludes that it would be “virtually impossible” to get a nuclear power reactor operating in Australia before 2040. Quiggin notes that, in practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. The promotion of nuclear power muddies the energy debate and helps to delay the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Presumably that is the goal of at least some of those supporting nuclear power.

An Australian Workers Union representative featured on Sky’s pro-nuclear “documentary”. No mention was made of the unions opposing nuclear power, i.e. pretty much all of them: the ACTU, Unions ACT, Unions WA, Unions SA, Victorian Trades Hall Council, Unions NT, Tasmanian Unions, United Voice, AEU, AMWU, ANMF, ASU, CWU, ETU, IEU, MUA, NUW, and the UFU firies who would prefer not to have to fight nuclear fires.

No space for critical voices

The Murdoch/Sky media empire has made almost no space for critical voices. There are a couple of notable exceptions, however — recent commentaries by former NSW premier Bob Carr in The Australian and on Sky, and Paul Kelly’s column in The Australian on November 10. Carr, a former supporter of nuclear power, notes that “nuclear is lumbering, subject to breakdowns and cripplingly expensive” and that “the contrast with the surge to renewables is stark”.

He’s right, the comparison is indeed stark. Last year, 256 gigawatts of new renewable capacity were installed around the world (that’s four times greater than Australia’s total capacity) compared to just 0.4 gigawatts of nuclear power.

Kelly’s column in The Australian points to the “popular pull of renewables” and their falling costs. He notes that “nuclear plant construction remains poor in advanced OECD nations, the main reason being not safety but its weak business case”. Kelly also questions the rhetoric around small modular reactors given that “none has so far been built in developed nations”.

On the politics, Kelly writes:

The populist conservatives have form. Before the 2019 poll, they campaigned on the mad idea that Morrison follow Donald Trump and quit the Paris Agreement. Now they campaign on the equally mad but more dangerous idea that he seek to split the country by running on nuclear power… As for those conservatives who say Morrison’s job is to fight Labor, the answer is simple. His job is to beat Labor. That’s hard enough now; vesting the Coalition with an unnecessary ideological crusade that will crash and burn only means he would have no chance.

Coalition wedging itself

The Coalition’s civil war over nuclear power reached its zenith just before the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, with media reports that the repeal of laws banning nuclear power might be a requirement for the Nationals to support a net-zero-emissions policy. But if such a demand was made by the Nationals, it was quickly retracted.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke bluntly to Sky: “Right now, there’s a moratorium on nuclear power here in Australia and the Labor Party are totally opposed to it. I’m just not going to put Australia through the argument which doesn’t get us anywhere… and for the Labor Party to run around at the next election and get themselves elected on the basis of a scare campaign.”

An interesting feature of the 2019 federal parliamentary nuclear inquiry was that a number of state Coalition governments and parties made submissions opposing nuclear power while none made submissions supporting it.

The South Australian Liberal government’s submission said that “nuclear power remains unviable now and into the foreseeable future”. The Tasmanian Liberal government’s submission said that “Tasmania will not pursue nuclear energy … and considers that Australia’s energy needs are best met by pursuing renewable energy options, such as pumped  hydro, with additional firming capacity supported through greater grid interconnection.”

The Queensland Liberal-National Party’s submission said that “the LNP does not support lifting the bipartisan ban on nuclear energy generation”, citing “unacceptably high health and safety risks” and “significant negative consequences for the environment”. The submission said that “Australia’s rich renewable energy resources are more affordable and bring less risk than the elevated cost and risk associated with nuclear energy”.

Likewise, the NSW government isn’t interested in nuclear power. Treasurer Matt Kean recently said that nuclear power was like “chasing a unicorn” and “doesn’t stack up at the moment on practical grounds or on economic grounds”. Kean said that nuclear is several times more expensive than renewables backed up with energy storage — a claim supported by CSIRO research.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described nuclear power as the “loopy current fad … which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench”.

Still, the Murdoch/Sky culture warriors continue to promote “the idiot’s choice“. As do culture warriors within the Coalition. Senator Matt Canavan campaigned furiously against a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. He opposes policies that will drive up power prices but supports nuclear power even though he has himself noted that nuclear power would increase power bills.

Confused? So is Matt Canavan.

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