Federal science minister Julie Bishop said yesterday that Ziggy Switkowski was an “an ideal choice to head up ANSTO as we move into this period of seriously discussing nuclear power as an alternative.”

But will the government live to regret the decision? A high profile nuclear campaigner in a very public position could make life difficult if public opinion suddenly cooled on a nuclear future.

Last year Switkowski headed the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review (UMPNER). The report produced by the panel was very much in line with the government’s (or at least Howard’s) support for nuclear power.

The UMPNER report also reflected political imperatives. It ignored the original term of reference asking the panel to investigate the “business case” for establishing an international nuclear waste repository in Australia. Perhaps that political hot potato was overlooked on advice from the UMPNER secretariat in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – but Switkowski is on a longer leash now.

The government faces problems at every turn in the nuclear debate it has unleashed:

  • The government wants to talk nuclear power but goes feral at any mention of potential locations for power reactors.
  • Julie Bishop waxes lyrical about the need for a more polite, civilised society, but she could hardly have been more impolite with her repeated refusal to meet Traditional Owners being targeted for a national nuclear waste dump in the NT.
  • Switkowski describes waste, accidents and nuclear terrorism as “deeply emotional” issues but Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says “the awful consequences of nuclear terrorism make it imperative the global community take this emerging threat seriously.”
  • Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane stresses the need for a fact-based debate then routinely gets his facts wrong – for example, claiming on ABC Radio National last week that nuclear power is as safe as all other energy forms.
  • The government says public support is a precondition for the introduction of nuclear power but refuses to rule out overriding state government opposition to nuclear power reactors.

Meanwhile, the government’s planned imposition of a nuclear waste dump in the NT stands as a clear example of the crude methods it will use to pursue its nuclear agenda. Two sets of legislation have gutted environmental and Aboriginal heritage protections in relation to the planned dump.

The government’s difficulties in managing the nuclear debate will most likely be exacerbated by the nuclear boosterism of the prominent new Chair of ANSTO.