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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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


“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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58 thoughts on “Rundle: Who ate all the yellowcake?

  1. Mark Duffett

    It’s not the opposition to renewable energy that shows old thinking, or lack of imagination — it’s the belief that nuclear 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.

    Remarkable how eloquently you can polemicise without the tedium of employing a single fact.

    Explain to us exactly how this chap is a dunce, Mr Rundle, and then I might take you seriously.

    Though I dips me lid for your honesty in acknowledging your deeper, Marxist motivation.

  2. TheOtherMichaelT

    Holy Cow, someone should quickly warn France that their country is about to become a fascist “red in tooth” state due to their 87.5% total reliance on nuclear power!

    Talk about delusional rantings….probably the most worthless article i’ve ever read, on any topic.

  3. Evan Beaver

    Ahhh, great to see 2 disagreers in the first 2 comments.

    I thought it was a great article and summarises fairly succinctly (but perhaps with a bit of exaggeration) the manifold problems with nuclear, particularly in Australia.

    Mark, what are you on about? World wide, nuclear energy has had absolute bucket loads of money thrown into it, mostly subsidised through the screen of the military. You want the bomb? Gotta have a nuclear power industry to support it. Then military dollars subsidise the development, enormously, and push the research along nicely.

    Fortunately this has come full circle now and the US have decided that all of their military bases need to be energy secure. Not for GHG reduction, but for the energy security side of the argument. We should see some terrific developments in renewables funded through this program, as the development of fuel cells before it can attest.

    The Other Michael, you’ve almost answered your own quesiton here. Yes France has tonnes of nuclear power, but it all exists in an enormous state controlled sealed facility, heavily subsidised by the Government. It’s an economy of scales decision; you can’t dip a toe into nuclear power, and the French jumped in head first.

    My question is this Guy; why did you use thanatophilia rather than necrophelia? What’s the difference?

  4. The Zebras

    Rundle – even when he’s talking shit he’s awesome but he’s really dropped a bollock on this one. Burning fossil fuels isn’t physics it’s chemistry?? Hee Hee. Science and technology are obviously not one of Guy’s strong points. I suggest he stick to the US health care debate where he is far more convincing. Rememer we only have a few decades to completely turn shit around and bi-plane to A380 took 100 years. We just haven’t got that long. To think that renewables alone can replace current power sources in that time frame is a f#cking fantasy Guy! A fast track to when co2 free renewable energy provides 100% of our energy must be our goal, but in the meantime we’re gunna have to eat a bowl of shit on this one and accept that we blew our chance and make nuclear part of the equation. Wind doesn’t vote green and uranium doesn’t vote conservative – they both just don’t emit co2 and that’s all that matters.

  5. Frank Campbell

    You should investigate wind power, Guy. It delivers a piddling amount of very expensive electricity at the wrong times (i.e. not peak demand, due to continental high pressure cells). No base-load generation is displaced: conventional power stations have to keep running. Typically wind turbines manage less than 20% of rated capacity (the spivs claim 30-35%).
    But wind turbines do deliver a great deal of pain. The carpet-baggers who spruik them never mention infra-sound, which literally drives some people mad. It is inescapable. The blades spin at nearly 300kph, slaughtering raptors and bats. The countryside is industrialised. No one in their right mind would live anywhere near them, including you, Guy. Property prices fall sharply. Intense hatreds develop between the mass of losers and the handful of rentiers. Jobs vanish in the bush as disinvestment accelerates.
    Urban greens contemptuously dismiss this misery as Nimbyism.
    The political fallout is yet more impetus for nuclear power, which would be a real disaster.
    There are many promising renewable-energy technologies, none of which generate controversy. Domestic solar, while still expensive, has the merit of reducing demand. For the price of three large useless windfarms, every house in Victoria could have solar panels. This would cut power consumption sharply and render new power stations unnecessary. In western Europe, heavy investment in wind has not reduced carbon emissions one scrap, and new power stations are still being built.

  6. John Bennetts

    Solar thermal? Photovoltaic? Wave power? Geothermal? Microbes eating plankton and producing oil substitutes? Tidal? Wind? Coal? Coal bed methane?… who cares?

    They all have major problems when used to produce electricity or liquid fuel at the scales demanded by human societies.

    Unable to contemplate that humanity’s consumption is inevitably going to cripple the world in one or another way for all species, we plunge forward.

    Nice work, Guy. Got ’em talking!

  7. Barry Brook

    Unfortunately, it would take many essays of this length to point out the flaws and fallacies in Rundle’s polemic. Fortunately, I and other ‘promethean environmentalists’ have been taking the time and effort to do just that, with no reward other than it’s the right thing to do.

    I thank Mark Duffett for linking to my website. You can find out more by specifically heading to this category:

    My position is one of a researcher of the impacts of climate climate, and one who has considered, from a scientific and logical perspective, the best chances we have to decarbonise our energy system within the next 40 years or so and avoid the worst consequences of global warming. In that assessment, nuclear fission power comes out as our best (not only, but top ranked) solution, and can supply sustainable energy for millions of years into the future.

  8. Adam Dale

    Just as there is no one answer now for energy, with Coal, Gas, Oil, Nuclear etc. there will be no one answer in 10 or 20 or 30 years time. We will still have to use a number of different sources to meet our current and growing needs.
    Wind as the comments say, is fickle, unreliable in the extreme. Solar is better, but again not going to supply our countries growing energy needs.
    And anything we decide to do will have a negative impact, it is impossible to please everyone. But that negative impact cannot be to simply provide less of what is required, and hope people and industry will get used to it.
    So we need to focus on what is required, now.
    Reduction of CO2, limited impact on the environment, long term reliability and supply, potential future replacement for current fossil fuels.
    I agree that renewables, given the time (and remember there are organisations pumping hundreds of millions into the development of this technology… it is not second rate now for lack of funding) will play a small but contributing part.
    But right now, and for the foreseeable future, Nuclear Power is the only power able to tick most of the boxes… and managed rightly with the requisite checks and balances, it may check them all.
    Is it as green as a wind farm slaughtering raptors and bats? No; A tidal generation system killing Nemo and his buddies? Probably not;
    But can it be managed? Yes.

  9. Evan Beaver

    I think calling it ‘sustainable’ is a bit of a stretch Barry. ‘Low Carbon’, yes, but sustainable, no. The waste is a huge issue, technically and politically.

    Also, I very much doubt the Australian voter will swallow it. They just won’t vote for reactors in their neighbourhood. Lots of people don’t even want wind, and they can’t blow up and destroy half the countryside. (Which may or may not be true, but lots of people think that is the case).

    Adam, you might be right about nuclear being the best long term option, but it is exactly that. A long term option. Not short term as we require. I also think your statement that there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars being pumped into renewables right now is a bit generous. Maybe overseas, but not here. The Howard Government made sure of that.

  10. The Zebras

    Evan Beaver – “France has tonnes of nuclear power, but it all exists in an enormous state controlled sealed facility”

    Who cares? France’s per capita carbon emissions are 0.33 of ours and it’s not because they don’t have showers. That’s 3 times less than us and people say nuclear has nothing to offer!

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