Julie Bishop is right. We need to talk about nuclear power.

Bishop raised the issue yesterday. It shouldn’t be confused with the emissions trading farce in shadow Cabinet — it wasn’t mentioned there — but she’s right that we need to drop the ideological and emotive approach to nuclear power and consider it seriously in the context of carbon abatement.

That’s not to say it might be a viable option in Australia. On the plus side, apart from its low carbon emissions, its polluting by-products are far easier to geosequestrate, and it’s well-established technology. On the negative side, it’s enormously expensive, and even a high carbon price under emissions trading may not be enough to make it competitive with coal. If it needs taxpayer handouts to be viable, then there may be other, better uses of our dollars than smashing atoms.

But it’s impossible to have a serious debate on the issue at the moment. The Government’s eyes light up whenever nuclear is mentioned. It conjures visions of power plants mushrooming — sorry — in suburban Australia. That the citizens of the socialist nirvanas of France and Sweden somehow cope with nuclear power gets overlooked. Peter Garrett correctly says we need to invest in solar (presumably by limiting access to the solar panel rebate?) and geothermal — he could’ve added better energy efficiency as well — but neither provide off-the-shelf solutions for the problem of replacing coal-fired base power generation.

The Coalition won’t go any further on the domestic nuclear issue than proposing it be debated. You can’t blame them — they can’t afford to if the Government is going to use it as a political weapon.

Where they’ve been stronger is on uranium exports. Andrew Robb has consistently argued that we should be selling uranium to India rather than being hung up, like the Government is, on India’s non-membership of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Robb argues that nuclear power currently reduces global emissions by more than two billion tonnes a year and that up to 35% of India’s energy needs could be met by nuclear power by 2050 if they have access to the right technology and uranium.

Garrett suggested today that the Indians should focus on clean coal. Presumably he doesn’t mean that India should simply stall its economic development until we come up improved carbon capture technologies, because even Martin Ferguson admits that that’s going to take years. Clean coal’s a nice idea. When it’s anything more, maybe we can pay attention to its advocates.

The complicating factor with uranium sales is what to do with the by-products of the stuff we export. There’s a strong moral argument that if we sell the stuff, we should be prepared to take back the waste. No-one likes the idea of a nuclear dump, but Australia is about the best place for one you could find.

These are all issues that warrant debate, rather than reflexive opposition. As a species we use vast amounts of energy. Barring the discovery of a miracle source of limitless, non-polluting power, we’re stuck with picking the least-worst option amongst technologies of varying levels of utility, pollution, cost and development.

If we’d started doing something about carbon emissions a decade ago, we could have focussed on seriously developing renewable energy options, but it’s too late in the day to rely on that exclusively. We should consider whether existing technologies like nuclear need to be pressed into service here and overseas.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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