The idea to promote a debate about nuclear power, to raise awareness about energy policy, was much discussed by the John Kerry US Presidential Campaign team. Though the Senator’s energy policy was admirable, we knew it was of little political advantage unless we could heighten public perception about the comparative importance of energy issues.
While the debate would have engaged people and “lime-lighted” our policy, it was concluded that such promotion would have done more for the subsidy-hungry nuclear power industry than it would have for the campaign. The idea was dropped, no substitute was found and regrettably, energy and climate change remained marginal campaign issues.
As a public policy catalyst though, nuclear power has what it takes. It has what the pundits crave: simple recognisable conflict.
Such a debate is wholly worthwhile in Australia as we do not have a nuclear power industry. But make no mistake, the debate’s worth will be measured by how well informed Australians become and how much we value their views.
Long-term issues pose fundamental problems for modern democracies. It requires much optimism and courage - formally known as statesmanship - to successfully steward innovation in the short-term to bring about gain in the long-term. Such stewardship requires a degree of public discourse almost impossible to initiate with sound bites, and demands strength sufficient to overcome both influential lobbyists and disabuse the public of outdated understandings.
So now that nuclear power is on Australia’s policy radar, what can be gained? Hopefully we can keep the nuclear issue under columnists’ noses long enough to establish a productive debate about all energy policy options. We can do this by detailed and costed reference to all available and all prospective energy opportunities.
Projects underway in the UK provide current examples of two such options. The bill for replacing 11 nuclear power stations in the UK is reported to be $AUD30 billion. If built in Australia today, these reactors could supply about half our electricity, which would offset one quarter of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Off-shore wind farm networks currently being built in the UK will have a normal operating capacity larger than Victoria’s peak electricity demand. These labour intensive heavy manufacturing projects dotted along the coast require no fuel, produce no waste or greenhouse gas and will cost $AUD10 billion. Along Bass Strait, just as in the North Sea, the wind is always blowing somewhere, so concerns about inconsistent supply don’t apply to mega-scale off-shore wind farm networks.
Notwithstanding the communities near Three Mile Island who still tell you that modern technology cannot assure the prevention of nuclear meltdown, bangs-for-your-buck remains the key. Historically, nuclear power stations have relied heavily on government subsidies. The issue of subsidies, assuming the absence of nuclear-state aspirations, have to be very clearly addressed.
The nuclear power debate also puts climate change into perspective. As the Prime Minister recently acknowledged, climate change is real. Australians lag behind every other country in the world when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, we have the highest emissions per capita and our net emissions are rising. As a wealthy and just country we can afford to thoroughly review all options to ensure we adopt lasting economic and morally defensible courses of action.
Like all infrastructure development, energy policy must be guided by national strengths and long-term growth prospects. Ideally, Australia should develop energy and climate solutions which we could also export to the world. Should Australia commit decades of investment to buying-in best practice technology (for example, nuclear energy) or further develop existing strengths and experience, such as innovative heavy engineering?
The sooner we have a sensible debate about our energy options, the sooner we can get an honest look at our situation and our prospects. Securing our energy future and taking a lead on climate change will take statesmanship. Hopefully our children’s children will be able to name the statesmen and stateswomen who take advantage of this debate.
First published in the Financial Review on June 9, 2005..
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