Why nuclear must be part of a considered response to climate change

nuclear-power

Source: Unsplash/Viktor Kiryanov.

In a recent article, we highlighted how history was repeating itself with the increasingly isolated band of climate denying MPs apparently seeking to stonewall the government, despite the majority of people wanting meaningful and prudent action on climate change. It appears they have been shut down — at least for the present.

As always there is another side to that story, with another group holding back change by advancing outlandish, economically destructive actions.

This group of climate zealots — in particular the Greens — are demanding action, and are right to do so. But their proposals are too extreme to be palatable to most Australians.

Their posture is one of self-righteous indignation and they are deeply disrespectful of those affected by immediate change. So much so that all they have managed to do is mobilise too many against their proposals, which has created uncertainty and therefore achieved little in the way of meaningful action.

Now we have the climate deniers showing little respect for the majority’s desire for climate action and the climate zealots showing little respect or regard for those who would be socially and economically affected by a poorly implemented transition to a net-zero economy. 

The climate zealots live on the moral high ground, but thanks to sanctimonious preaching they do nothing but generate noise. The same can be said of the climate deniers, except this group is very happy to achieve nothing.

We need to talk about nuclear

It is time to put this acrimonious, useless debate to bed once and for all. We need to find modern, low-carbon solutions that don’t destroy the social and economic fabric of our society, and certainly don’t force regional communities to bear a disproportionate cost of the transition relative to capital city dwellers.

There is an obvious solution staring us in the face. One that provides zero carbon emissions and provides power regardless of whether the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing. And one that increases our country’s capacity to maintain energy self-sufficiency while allowing us to export a resource that is abundant in Australia.

Let’s say it out loud: nuclear power. This is an issue that, to date, has been dominated by the anti-nuclear fanatics who just happen to be the same people as the climate zealots. The debate has become so hot, so baseless in regards to actual facts, that our politicians have refused to even mention the word, despite many other countries having incorporated nuclear energy as part of their climate response. 

The irony here is that while standing still on climate change has been the goal of the climate deniers, doing the same on nuclear remains a goal for the climate zealots. Achieving nothing is rarely good for anyone, and this is especially the case with respect to an energy option that delivers zero carbon emissions while also providing a transition path that will enhance the social and economic well-being of our national community.

We must, in the wake of the apparent bi-partisan agreement on net-zero emissions by 2050, have a fair dinkum and adult debate about the merits of nuclear energy in this country. 

On the one hand, there are safety issues that must be addressed as we must avoid catastrophes like Chernobyl or the Japanese nuclear disaster of 2011. There will be the understandable push back from voters and economists about the well-documented safety issues, as well as the high cost and long lead and exit times involved in construction and closure of these massive, complex power stations. 

Yet times and technology have changed markedly in recent times. Apart from the obvious lessons about not building these facilities in areas that are prone to earthquakes and tsunamis — as was the case in Japan — technology is now available that allows the construction of “Modular Nuclear Reactors”. These reactors are much smaller than traditional nuclear reactors, and the technology allows the reactor to be constructed at a manufacturing facility and then transported to the installation sites. Their small and self-contained nature increases the capacity for containment which in turn increases the safety of power generation — as well as reducing the site remediation costs at the end of their life.

The projected benefits for business, industry and the wider community are obvious. They include zero carbon emissions, greater reliability of power generation during extreme weather events, and national energy self-sufficiency given Australia’s abundant resources — Australia has around one third of the world’s uranium resources.

While we were left at the starting gate in terms of large nuclear plant technology, if we move fast enough we have an inherent strategic advantage that could be used to make Australia a world leader in the design, manufacture, installation and maintenance of these plants. To say nothing of the incredible opportunity to add another bow to our mighty, globally significant resources sector.

The creation of a new technology and export sector will lead to new opportunities for small business and regional communities — a goal that must be considered as Australia climbs out of the economic downturn created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Small businesses often lead the lead the way in developing change in new technology frontiers, as they are more agile than large businesses that are invested in the existing energy paradigm, and can move quickly to take advantage of change and innovation.

So the challenge is whether Australia has reached the point of being able to have an adult and fact-based debate about the merits or otherwise of including nuclear power in our net-zero strategy. Surely such a conversation offers more value than the political stunts, like the one performed by former Greens leader Bob Brown. He travelled to Queensland in an electric vehicle as part of a bigger ‘climate caravan’, only to be shunned by local businesses in the Queensland community he visited for his lack of understanding of their desire for an economically sound and socially just transition to cleaner energy.

The Greens will obviously go ballistic about nuclear but we must not let them stop us having the conversation — we have let the climate deniers do that on climate action for too long and we cannot have another extreme and noisy minority hijack the national conversation sought by the majority of the country.

Nuclear power — at least on paper — provides an opportunity to transition to a zero-carbon power source that has a greatly improved safety performance and offers the opportunity to enhance the economic vitality, social cohesion and environmental amenity of Australians.

Let’s bring together sensible balanced people and experts and work out what can we do, safely, soon, and at the right cost. If we cannot do anything yet, let’s determine that without rhetoric or emotions and seek other solutions, of which energy from hydrogen is one. 

Let’s consider, unemotionally, all options with up-to-date facts. That’s business.

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