Peter Costello was pretty full and frank on
ABC earlier this week on the economics of nuclear power.
“Here’s what I think; we mine uranium, we sell it around the world for people
to use to make energy, so how could we be opposed to the principle?” he said. “Does
that mean we should build a nuclear energy plant? No. Not unless it’s
competitive and economical… You know, [the report] may say that it’s not
competitive now but it will be in ten years’ time. Or it’s not competitive now,
and it will be in 20 years’ time. Let’s get a handle on it. I’ve got my own
hunches as to where this’ll end up but I think we ought to do the math, as the
Americans would say.”

The remarks echoed his earlier comments to
the party room on the issue. Other ministers, though, seem to be getting ahead
of things. Yesterday, Federal Environment Minister Ian
Campbell ruled out introducing a “stupid” carbon tax to help reduce greenhouse
gas emissions.
He told an Australian Institute of Energy function in Perth that taxing
companies in relation to their carbon dioxide emissions would only discourage
investment in Australia and push the greenhouse problem to another country. “What we want to do is put in sensible
incentives to develop low-emission technologies and zero-emission
technologies”, he said. “We are massively incentivising not only coal, but also
solar and wind and a range of others.”

Nuclear power would cost twice as much to
produce as coal-generated electricity, a Victorian Government study says,
according to newspaper reports today. And The Canberra Times says the Federal Government is about to kill off the
fledging ethanol industry as it embarks on a review of nuclear energy,
according to industry and interest groups. It’s getting harder and harder to avoid the
conclusions Ross Gittins aired in The SMH earlier this week:

So… we need to have a full debate about
the merits of switching to nuclear power and find out if it’s economically
feasible. Trouble is, in a country where coal is
so readily available, we already know it isn’t. Take the latest report,
prepared by a British scientist for the Australian Nuclear Science and
Technology Organisation…

Apparently, the knowledge that nuclear
power could only be introduced with heavy public subsidies hasn’t deterred Mr
Howard from spruiking it. So here we have the self-proclaimed father of
economic rationalism, happily flirting with the notion of picking winners in a
big way. Mr Howard’s economic rationalism
extends only as far as refusing to contemplate any kind of leg-up for renewable
energy (always excepting ethanol, of course).

So what gives? One minute climate
change is a beat-up and in no way urgent, the next we’re really worried about
it. One minute we’re not wasting the taxpayers’ hard-earned on renewable
energy, the next we’re happy to contemplate establishing an industry that could
only survive in a government-provided iron lung.

The conventional wisdom is that Mr
Howard’s only interest in the nuclear debate is to use it as a diversion and a
way to drive a wedge through the ranks of the Labor Party. I’m sure those benefits wouldn’t have
escaped his attention. But, when you think about it, there is a logical connection
between these two apparently contradictory positions: both fit the interests of
the mining industry.

Peter Fray

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