I really miss the middle ground. John Howard has confiscated it again: “Those who say they are in favour of doing something about global warming but turn their faces against considering nuclear power are unreal.” So, it seems we’re either with nuclear power, or we’re with global warming.

OK. Will nuclear energy generation significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to traditional coal fired stations? Yes. The full nuclear cycle, including mining, construction of generation and storage facilities and waste disposal, isn’t emission-free, but it is undoubtedly a saving on coal.

But if we substituted all coal-based generating capacity for nuclear worldwide, we’d run short of uranium quick smart (assuming existing technologies, estimates vary between a few years to a few decades), forcing us to mine progressively lower quality and more difficult to access ores, thus pushing emissions intensity back up.

So clearly, even if we consider nuclear a solution, it is a short-term, non-renewable one at best. But what if it is just one part of an overall emissions reduction strategy? The most sensible approach here is to prioritise the mitigation options that return the greatest reduction per dollar spent, frontrunners among which include energy efficiency gains, gas-fired power generation and wind power. And since it was introduced in the context of climate change, making these comparisons is what the UMPNER review should have been all about (my submission here).

This is without even touching on nuclear’s perpetual elephants in the room – accidents and attacks on nuclear facilities, waste disposal and contamination issues, and weapons proliferation. The nuclear zealots do their own cause no service by pronouncing their technologies safe and clean and denouncing all dissenters as “emotional” or “irrational”.

Even if we accept that the risks are minimal – and this is very much open to debate – this is only half of the point at issue. Balanced against the risk must be the magnitude of consequence should a problem occur. Interestingly, the insurance industry, which presumably understands risk quite well, has quite an aversion to nuclear facilities.

With the drought crippling primary producers in a graphic and televisable way, the PM can’t be seen to be doing nothing on climate change, whatever his personal views. But he also has no desire to ruffle any feathers among the big miners whose sales are fuelling economic growth.

Thus the big “solutions” to climate change favoured by the coalition begin with mining something out of the earth’s crust and end with sticking the noxious leftovers back in there for somebody else to worry about. There’s nothing sustainable about that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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