Amid all the quotes about Japan’s unfolding nuclear crisis that have galvanised the world’s attention over the past few days, this one stood out: “The earthquake was terrifying, but this is worse,” said one Japanese resident, told to evacuate his home near the crippled plant a Fukushima. “We want to go home, but we are scared.”

Nuclear proponents can bang on all they like about the science and the textbook safety of nuclear energy, and how well it compares with other technologies; and of the dangers of exploding oil refineries, collapsing coal mines, or bursting dams. As awful as these events might be, there is nothing quite so menacing as the danger that is not seen and is not understood. The nuclear industry stands unique in this regard.

It has been quite surreal to observe “experts” 10,000 kilometres away from the scene insisting there is no public danger from the dramatic events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants, while the nuclear authorities on the spot ordered the immediate evacuation of more than 200,000 residents, began the distribution of iodine tablets — given to minimise the threat of thyroid cancer — and recommended those that remained within a 20-kilometre radius of the plant close their windows and cover their heads in wet towels.

The nuclear industry has recognised, since the incidents of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, that its prosperity depends on the indulgence of public opinion — unless, of course, you live in a country such as China where that doesn’t matter so much. The passage of time, the emergence of a younger generation, the development of new technology, and the clamour for low emission energy sources to help curb greenhouse emissions held the promise of a new beginning. You would have thought that the industry — and its most ardent proponents — would have understood that the one essential ingredient to this surprising renaissance would be public trust.

Maybe not. In its obstinance, the nuclear industry can deliver as powerful an argument against itself as the most vociferous green opponent. The Japanese public have always been ambivalent about the industry, given their history with atomic reactions. Their faith has not been improved by revelations that executives from the Tokyo Electric Company falsified safety documents (from the very reactors that are now compromised), and its belated admission in 2007 that another nuclear plant had not been designed to withstand earthquakes of the magnitude that hit the region at the time.

Even the academics can’t make head nor tail of the events. One Japanese university expert replied to a query yesterday: “It’s all quite confusing. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has been holding a press conference almost every three hours since yesterday, but every time it seems to be an announcement that contradicts the last announcement they made.”

The one sure casualty of Fukushima is the fantasy that nuclear energy can somehow be stripped down to a cheap and easy model, that shorn of “unnecessary” regulation and safety measures, it could be as cheap as coal. Given the extraordinary circumstances that has seen the top blown off two reactor buildings and sea-water used to flood and effectively kill the overheating cores, this is delusional at best. This event will surely add to those extra layers of safety and costs.

As each layer of protection at the Fukushima nuclear plant was peeled back by the force of nature, bad planning, human error, or just plain bad luck, so too was the fantasy that the general public would agree to the installation of nuclear facilities — in Australia or any other developed nation, for that matter — without the maximum possible safety measures. That much was learnt from Three Mile Island, which at this stage has more in common with Fukushima than Chernobyl.

The other key ingredient to a prosperous nuclear energy industry is the indulgence of the financial markets. Not a single buyer could be found for shares in Tokyo Electric Co for much of Monday, and when some could be found it translated into a slump of 24%. Some industry experts suggest the cost of remediation at the Fukushima Daiichi plants could be horrendous, and may send the company broke. Only one light water reactor has ever been decommissioned — a small 60MWe facility at Shipping Port in the US — but it was not compromised by what appears to be at least a partial melt-down in two of its reactors. The company is in unknown territory in its efforts to control the immediate events at the reactor, and will continue to be when it seeks to clean it up.

Whatever the impact on the global nuclear industry — and judging by the comments of several Western leaders over the past few days it seems stalled at best — it now seems clear that no nuclear energy industry will emerge in Australia, or at least not for another decade or two. That much was made clear by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last night, noting that the country had no need for it. Even without the safety concerns and the costs, there is no energy utility in the country that possesses the balance sheet to contemplate the scale of investment, let alone the risk that is attached to it. Incidentally, the Coalition policy on nuclear is not to have one (a policy) unless Labor does — a unique offering of bipartisanship

The US has been trying to rekindle its industry for 30 years, but no company has been able to obtain private finance without massive support from the US government through loan guarantees. It should be noted that the French nuclear network, often cited as the benchmark for the industry, was built entirely by finance at first provided, and then written off, by the French government. The low cost of French electricity to local consumers is not quite what it seems, and will be tested when the country needs to replace its fleet in coming decades.

Australia’s short-term abatement requirements in the electricity industry will likely be delivered by the gas industry — as controversial and as costly as that might turn out to be. Thereafter, the future abatement prospects are likely to be delivered by renewable technologies — at least that is the assessment of the International Energy Agency, which predicted last year that large-scale solar could deliver as much as 40% of its energy needs by 2050.

That remains to be seen. But if renewables — with the help of smart grids, high-voltage networks, and a reduction in costs at scale — can deliver on such promises anywhere in the world, then it must be in Australia. Countless economists and experts point to Australia’s natural advantage, both in resources and technology — and Gillard reinforced those attributes on the ABC’s Q&Aprogram on Monday night — but we don’t appear to be in any rush to find out.

One of nuclear’s biggest proponents in Australia, the energy minister Martin Ferguson, has been happy to allow the development of renewable technology to be stalled, all the while pretending to be doing otherwise. Perhaps now he, and the government he serves, will recognise the importance of investing — with the same vigour and mechanisms he would have envisaged for a nuclear energy industry — in a credible long-term alternative to coal and gas.

*This article was originally published on Climate Spectator

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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