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Federal

Aug 19, 2009

Rundle: Who ate all the yellowcake?

If you think it's tough to get an incinerator built these days, trying putting a nuclear waste dump anywhere. Voters wouldn't allow it, not in their backyards. Nuclear power is the defining struggle, around which a new politics is organised.

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“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel is fond of saying — as countless, clueless pundits now tell us, unaware that it’s a political saying as old as the hills, in a hundred different versions.

It’s certainly not an insight that has escaped Paul Howes of the AWU, the employers enforcement authority, sorry, right-wing trade union, who used an occasion at one of the Sydney Institute’s all gruel-and-gravel evenings to spruik the idea of Australia developing a nuclear power industry.

Howes’s voice joins the chorus that began in the Howard government, as it used its acknowledgement of climate change to open a fresh front in the culture war, and get out from under the awful prospect of admitting that the Greens were right about something.

Howes attacks the Rudd government’s continued commitment to not starting an Australian nuclear industry as the continuation of a superstitious attitude. Actually it’s because there is no way to start up a nuclear power industry without a multi-billion dollar state commitment involving a direct transfer of government money to private industry to create institutions that have no power pay-off for a decade or more, and that generate a lethal poison by-product the disposal of which raises NIMBYism to the highest power imaginable.

If you think it’s tough to get an incinerator built these days, trying putting a waste dump anywhere. Whatever seat and state you put it in, you can guarantee the government will lose both, and the election. Labor knows that nuclear plants would be a godsend to the Green movement, uniting greens, locals, farmers, indigenous groups, run a split right down the middle of the party, and give the Greens second Senate quotas across the mainland.

So no nuclear power during the life of Rudd Labor, Gillard Labor and whoever the education office for Queensland Uni student union currently is Labor stretching over the 15 years or so they hope to be in power. Even the Coalition — if it still exists in that form when Labor finally falters — will shy away from it, most likely.

Howes is right about nuclear power. It is a superstitious issue. Trouble is the superstition is all on the side of the nuclear power lobby. Nuclear isn’t a new technology. It’s the last of the old technologies, one where you use a massive amount of energy to get a greater amount, the gap between energy expended and created being your dividend.

With fossil fuels you use chemistry to unlock the stored energy of given compounds. With nuclear power you use a greater level of abstraction and go to physics to unlock the energy contained within atoms. With fossil fuels you’re time travelling back hundreds of millions of years to release the energy laid down by geo and bio processes, with nuclear power you go back to the formation of the universe itself.

Nuclear power thus appeals as a promethean technology — after the mythical figure who gave technology to man, and got his liver pecked out by birds in Hades for ever as a result of the Gods’ anger. Screw all this fart-arsing around — let’s bang the rocks together! Let’s bang the atoms together! Hear us roar!

A moment’s thought will see that this is pretty much the dumbest way to extract energy, if the possibility of energy sources with a minimal and diminishing cost of extraction are available. Once you build a wind turbine or install a solar panel they keep on giving without further input, until they need to be replaced.

Not only is start-up cheaper, and the energy contribution immediate, but the transition cost as you come down the other side of the peak oil curve is lower. It should be obvious that our decades-long underinvestment in transition out of oil has put us in a bind – as it becomes more expensive (added to by increased demand from the China, India etc), transition becomes a second additional cost. Leave it too long to really start this process, and you face a genuine economic crisis in the west, based on rising costs of everyday life.

It’s not the opposition to nuclear power that shows old thinking, or lack of imagination — it’s the belief that renewable energy is bound by the limits of the pathetic level of commitment we’ve made to it over past decades, as if aviation were to stop at the biplane.

There’s a deeper cultural aspect to the pro-renewable technology however, and that’s the very different nature of nuclear power in producing a by-product substance that is not merely damaging in excess amounts (as CO2 is), but lethally poisonous by its very nature. To conclude that, with all the options available to us, the best way to go is to produce that sort of lethality, is to choose death over life.

It’s an expression of the thanatophilia at the heart of the west that it could simultaneously maintain itself in a state of hysteria over terrorism, while running pointless wars of occupation, contemplate massively expanding production of material conducive to WMDs, in a world where stable state forms are coming under pressure other forces — all set within a growth-consumer-turnover economy that cannot continue in its current form indefinitely.

The Simpsons got it right when they made Montgomery Burns, local purveyor of nuclear excellence, a walking corpse. The Montgomery Burns club — and have you ever seen them and Gerard Henderson together, significant, no? — are simply quietly hysterical about the fact that things cannot go on as they are. Their answer is desperate improvisation around a dead politics — more war, failed war, ramrodding the engine till it blows.

There is no need to do that — and most sensible people realise that, which is why nuclear power remains popular among a power elite, and the power intellectuals who gain their energy from attaching themselves like suckfish to their hulls. The trouble is that they are right about one thing — a cult of austerity and anti-humanism has attached itself to the new energy movement.

The point to make about renewable energy is not that it confines us to austerity, or to being under the domain of “mother nature”. What could be more in servitude to “mother nature” than having to find a rock cavern within which to seal its lethal poop for tens of thousands of years? With the application of human genius the creation of a plentiful supply of clean energy should be straightforward.

That would see us go beyond the centralised power utility for most of our daily needs, with local power co-ops, sub-grids, and two-way flow of power, its generation cost heading asymptotically towards zero. Quite aside from getting us off fossil fuels, that would be a major step towards a post-capitalist future.

And that of course is the other thing all the angst is about — because the nuclear power push takes us back to the beginnings of mass power generation, and the re-enclosure of what is an abundant resource, i.e. electricity, sub-atomic flow as power. One of the reasons why the enigmatic figure Nikola Tesla is getting such renewed interest these days is because his — ultimately unsuccessful — approach to electricity distribution effectively imagined that it would be beamed wirelessly and hence unmetered.

Small scale power — solar, wind etc — revives Tesla’s dream in a more achievable fashion. Nuclear power means in grosse plante right at the centre of things, owned by someone. Furthermore, the lethal nature of both the raw material and end product of nuclear power demand a level of security involving the state, and a widespread nuclear system is incompatible with democracy.

It is a recipe for turning the world into one big China — authoritarian rule over a red-in-tooth capitalist system — and if it can be argued that this is a necessary phase for the Middle Kingdom to pass through, as a destination for the west and the world, it is death itself, a kind of hell.

So yes, nuclear power is the defining struggle, around which a new politics is organised — one with new divisions. Hence the resonance of Peter Garrett’s compromise on a fourth uranium mine — it wasn’t any old compromise, it went to the defining heart of his previous politics. The silly goose traded his role in history to be junior minister in a middling centre-right government.

Hence also Paul Kelly’s bizarre article in The Oz today suggesting that anti-nuclear politics was symbolism, acknowledging that there was no credible revenue model for Australian nuclear industry — and then suggesting we look at it anyway! Talk about meaningless symbolism.

We’ll have to keep moshing through these delusions for some years to come. If the GFC of 08 proves to be the first act of a three act crash, then those issues will come to the fore. If not, we’ll have to wait for the global crash of 2017-19, for things to really be shaken out. But the dunces who think that nuclear is just another technology are living in a world of signs and wonders, drinking the kool-aid and eating the yellowcake.

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