Apparently, we absorb more radiation from bananas than from nuclear power.

Which was easily the silliest contribution to a debate on Australia’s energy future at the Melbourne Town Hall last night. But even the more reasoned responses from a pro-nuclear camp led by nuclear physics boffin Dr Ziggy Switkowski failed to convince the crowd uranium is a solution to a carbon-constrained future.

Ziggy insists nuclear is safe, cheap and, now, virtually ubiquitous. Even Ukraine is building more reactors in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, he says, and Australia remains alone as the world’s largest non-nuclear economy.

“Reasonable people agree…coal makes way to gas makes way to nuclear,” he said in the first of a series of Intelligence Squared debates organised by the Wheeler Centre. It didn’t play well.

James Hansen, who brought the global warming problem to the world’s attention in the 1980s, backs nuclear as a solution. “Fourth-generation” reactors have improved safety and efficiency, he told the debate.

Nuclear supporter Dr Erica Smyth went on to declare nuclear a “perfect solution” given Australia’s “ideal population”. Her centrepiece suggestion: matching sets of nuclear and desalination plants (needed to cool the reactors) up and down the Australian coast.

But opponents insist safety remains an issue. “We cannot ignore the very real fear of catastrophic nuclear accidents,” EcoFutures‘ Molly Olson said, pointing to US nuclear industry subsidies of US$500 million a year as a sign the technology is an economic white elephant.

Those on the anti-nuclear side of the debate want to shift the focus to renewable energy. Why go nuclear, they ask, when renewable power sources like solar are more readily available. Ziggy and team are “renewable energy deniers”, according to Dr Mark Diesendorf from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of NSW.

Dr Diesendorf believes Australia could install a 100% renewable mix by 2020 using off-the-shelf technology — at an affordable cost of 3.5% of annual GDP. Renewables can provide base-load power, he insists, with new-generation 24/7 solar plants able to manufacture hydrogen or ethanol to export clean fuels to other countries.

In contrast, nuclear is “slow, dangerous, expensive and unnecessary”. And the audience agreed, voting overwhelmingly for the anti-nuclear cause after the debate. Ziggy has some work to do.