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Let's stop avoiding the nuclear question

By Tristan Prasser - posted Tuesday, 25 February 2020

In the wake of the recent bushfires that have destroyed lives, wildlife, homes, and livelihoods, climate change is firmly back on the policy and political agenda in Australia. The Morrison Government today finds itself under increasing pressure from an ever-growing chorus of voices to 'do something' about climate change. Despite winning what was deemed by some commentators as the 'climate change' election in May 2019, the Morrison Government has failed to contest the energy and climate policy space with a credible alternative narrative. Rather, it has sought the road of least resistance, surrendering the initiative to its opponents time and again.

This was again on display last week after the Prime Minister played down the prospect of nuclear power being part of Australia's future energy mix.

The Standing Committee of Energy and the Environment which has reviewed the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia handed down its report in December last year, recommending that:

  • the prospect of nuclear as part of Australia's future energy mix is explored;
  • a body of work to progress the understanding of nuclear energy technology is undertaken by Australia's highly respected nuclear science and economic bodies;
  • and, the partial and conditional lifting of the moratorium on nuclear energy is allowed.

Despite these recommendations, the Prime Minister is reluctant to talk about nuclear power until there is bipartisan support, while the Labor Party continues to refuse to even consider it and the Greens remain ideologically opposed to it.

This is disappointing, but not surprising. The reluctance of major political players - the government, the opposition, and the Greens - to discuss nuclear energy goes to the heart of what is wrong with the energy and climate debate in Australia. It is giving Australian voters no opportunities to hear the arguments for and against. Instead, except for the parliamentary committee report - the first report in over a decade - we are having a non-debate. In public policy terms, this is called 'non-decision' making whereby governments and others conspire to keep certain issues off the agenda.

Here is a proven, scalable, safe and clean source of energy that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency "…avoids [worldwide] the emission of nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year - the equivalent of taking over 400 million cars off the road per year." Nuclear energy is seen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as "a mitigating technology for climate change". Yet it bizarrely remains omitted as a possible solution to Australia's energy and climate woes.

Part of the reason is, as the International Energy Agency's Dr Fatih Birol astutely observed earlier this year, "…the Australian energy debate [is] far too emotional, far too nervous and far too hot. It is hotter than climate change itself." It remains hostage to short-termism, emotive rhetoric, virtue signaling, and ideology as demonstrated by the mind-numbingly binary coal vs renewables and climate denier vs climate catastrophist arguments. There seems to be little bipartisan interest in exploring, discussing, and implementing real-world solutions that actually protect the environment, while simultaneously ensuring people's livelihoods and standard of living are not eroded.

The other part is that energy and climate change remains an area of policy friction within the Coalition. This reflects perhaps the varying outlooks of both parties, with the National Party - or parts of it - seeing climate change and energy differently from the inner-city orientated Liberals. On the other side, the Labor Party remains captured by the Greens, who are ideologically intransigent on these issues.


Yet in spite of these issues, if the Morrison Government wishes to be seen to be 'doing something' on climate change, then now is not the time for political half-measures or taking the road of least resistance. Good government is not achieved by avoiding practical policy measures simply because it may involve having a controversial conversation.

The climate is changing on nuclear energy as demonstrated in the Senate this week where a Greens motion supported by the ALP to affirm the Senate's commitment to a complete moratorium on nuclear energy failed. The government with the support of some cross-bench members defeated this motion. The Australian Workers Union, Industry Super Australia, and now the CFMEU Victoria have come out in support of nuclear. Economist Brian Fisher and Australian of the Year Finalist Prof Al Muderis are also in favour of nuclear energy. Finally, there is the inquiry in NSW that is underway and the inquiry that is about to begin in Victoria.

So now is the time - economically, environmentally and politically - to make the case for nuclear energy to be included as part of Australia's future energy mix.

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This article was first published on Urban Source.

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About the Author

Tristan Prasser is co-editor and contributor for Urban Source. He is a graduate of UQ and ANU and has worked previously in the Queensland State Government and higher education sector in Australia and the UK. He has a keen interest in energy and urban policy and advocates the use of nuclear power in Australia.

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