The nuclear power debate revisited


In March, the UN released its ground breaking Millennium Assessment, the most thorough analysis of human impacts on the planet ever carried out. The authors described it as a ‘stark warning’ to humanity and noted that human activity is putting such a strain on the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. The report managed a front page in some of the national dailies but was quickly bumped by the Pope’s ill-health.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

The environment has been slipping as a matter of concern to the Australian population, and the media, in recent years; due in part to the Howard government’s clever repositioning of the issue.
The environment clearly still has electoral power, as evidenced by John Howard’s announcement on Tasmanian forests classic green-movement turf he has historically avoided but the Coalition seems determined to repaint the environment in a way that suits their agenda. Think about where the government is most vocal on environmental issues: plastic bags, Japanese whaling operations, natural resource management. The high profile given to these easy targets gives a sense of action, but behind the scenes we are witnessing a regression on most environmental indicators.

At the core of the environmental debate is a struggle between a ‘back to the 50s’ approach to resources with exports of coal, uranium, woodchips and other resources as a continued cornerstone of our national economy and the many options for investment in renewables, efficiency and a remaking of our approach to how we live on this old and dry continent.

The recent rebirth of the nuclear power debate is indicative of the Howard government’s failure to take environmental threats seriously and should be seen as a sign of what is in store for the environment come the 1 July shift in the Senate.

A domestic nuclear industry (generating energy) is not on the cards, and would face fierce resistance from most state governments if it were, but there can be little doubt of the Coalition’s commitment to Australia playing a key role in any overseas flourishing of the nuclear industry. The Howard government is keen to boost any export earnings and Australia would be well placed to provide much of the uranium needed in any future nuclear industry resurgence. It is therefore keen to repaint nukes as being not only being safe but also ‘climate friendly’.

Unlike the ALP, the Coalition also has an ideological commitment to nuclear as an energy source. While the ALP has been split often bitterly so over uranium mining, the waste dump previously slated for outback South Australia, and the research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney’s south west, the Coalition has none of this ambivalence. A significant number of senior figures in the Coalition actively support Australia going down a nuclear path.

Following the last federal election, popular resistance in South Australia forced Howard to back down on his plans to build a radioactive waste dump in that state. Plans have just reemerged to locate it elsewhere, with the Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane as the current advocate for this unwanted and unnecessary facility.

Driven by Brendan Nelson, and more recently Bob Carr, the ‘revisiting’ of nuclear power as a solution to global warming has received support from some unlikely corners, including Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute and Peter Garrett. While both Hamilton and Garrett go to some length to say they do not support a shift to nuclear power, the question must be asked why such pivotal figures are even flagging the need for this debate.

The business-orientated media have lapped the debate up, and been keen to highlight a ‘split’ in the green movement. In reality, there is no split, just a handful of prominent people changing sides or joining a debate on nukes, as Garrett and Hamilton have done. What is scary is that a small but growing number of people seem to be crossing the line not out of a hope that the nuclear industry will solve our problems, but out of a sense of despair at the lack of movement and action by our governments on the most pressing environmental and human rights issue of the twenty-first century: global warming.

It is unfashionable to say that the sky is falling. But it is clear that things are not right; all serious science backs up this assessment. The nuclear power debate is about the politics of despair, and a business that is past its use-by date being thrown a potential lifeline through the misfortune of global warming. How we respond to it will speak volumes about our ability to address the very real ecological challenges coming our way in the next couple of decades.

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