On the Bulletin website yesterday, Max
Walsh
noticed an elephant in the room where John
Howard’s nuclear debate is taking place that nobody is talking about – nuclear
weapons and the prospect of Australia becoming a member of the nuclear
club.

Walsh is right as far as that goes, but his Jumbo is just one of a
whole herd of elephants, in the room but not up for discussion, in one of the
strangest debates in recent times.

Start at the
beginning – climate change, which we were told for the first ten years of the
Howard Government was not a reality. There has been no discussion about how it got that matter so
wrong for so long, even though it raises serious questions about the quality of
scientific advice to government, and whether good advice was ignored.

The
inquiry into nuclear energy was obviously a decision made on the run, as The Agenoted
yesterday
when it reported on the trouble the
government was having getting people to join the inquiry panel. And talk about
the fact that most panel members are nuke-friendly is, according to the PM,
bordering on unseemly.

When the panel gets down to discussing the
economics of nuclear power, it must not discuss the mother of all political
elephants – possible locations for reactors, even though building one out of the
back of Bourke would be vastly different from slapping up a couple of new ones
at Lucas Heights.

Another elephantine aspect of the whole equation –
demand – hasn’t figured at all, apart from this
column
by Nir Frances in yesterday’s
Australian. You’d reckon that free-marketeers would know supply and
demand are two sides of the one coin, and that if you reduce demand through
efficiencies, you not only need less supply, but you cut costs which would
increase national competitiveness. Worth wasting a word on two on,
perhaps?

Ultimately the debate is about Australia’s future energy sources
in a time of climate change and galloping international demand, but so far there
has been no talk about supply from renewables, just a hint that they might get
some attention down the track. Which might explain some of what is
occurring. After all, the mining industry is the most powerful lobby group in the
country bar none, and uranium has to be dug up. And the most powerful part of
the group, bar none, is the coal industry, which loudly reminded the PM on
Tuesday that it has a future role in supplying
clean energy
.

Today we learn that a Victorian
Government report has already established that nuclear electricity would
cost
twice as much
as that produced from coal, and that
the world’s viable uranium supplies could be depleted within 24 years. That’s a short term
future, if accurate. Many terms could sum up that
weird mix, but good governance and sound public policy formulation are not among
them.

Peter Fray

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