nuclear power plant nuclear reactor
A small modular nuclear reactor (Image: Facebook)

There’s nothing like nuclear to bring out the over-reactors.

In one corner, it’s all mushroom clouds and Blinky the three-eyed fish. In the other, it’s a muscular and misled optimism that flicking the switch on a nuclear power plant would solve Australia’s “trilemma” of reducing emissions while ensuring energy security and making power cheaper.

A new group — the parliamentary friends of nuclear industries — will be co-chaired by Nationals MP David Gillespie and South Australian Labor Senator Alex Gallacher, with independent MP Bob “Let A Thousand Blossoms Bloom” Katter as deputy.

Two in three Coalition MPs want to lift the ban on nuclear energy, and the Nationals want the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to be allowed to invest in nuclear. And there’s a push on in Labor, too. Some want the issue on the table at the national conference later this month, while reports today say gas will be the key for its net-zero emissions policy.

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Some fission there.

As latest round of the debate started, the Australian Conservation Foundation immediately took the nuclear option.

“There is nothing clean about the fuel behind the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters, which produces waste that remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years,” ACF campaigner Dave Sweeney said. What tosh.

While it’s technically true that the fuel would be the same, it’s no longer technologically true. Any plant built in Australia would be a small modular reactor. They’re smaller, safer, cheaper, and faster to build. And they have less of that pesky waste that nobody wants in their backyard.

They say you’re more likely to sway people with emotion than with facts so maybe a little bit of bluff and guff is par for the anti-nuclear course.

Meanwhile the latest pro-nuclear hotheads seem to think it’s as easy as plug in and turn on.

Liberal MP Tim Wilson said: “Only nuclear plus baseload renewables can deliver Australia a sustainable net zero future with cheap, reliable electricity. You aren’t serious about climate change if you oppose nuclear outright.”

The booming solar and wind sector and advances in storage show that’s bunkum. The latest report from the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator found that by 2030 “adding new variable renewable generation (solar and wind) to as high as a 90% share of the grid will still be cheaper than non-renewable options”.

Renewables sceptics love to proclaim that when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, the power goes out. But it doesn’t, or won’t, not with household storage, large-scale batteries and the potential of pumped-hydro and other technologies.

The pro-nuclear lobby also faces another hurdle: the timeline.

The Gen IV International Forum — which Australia joined in 2016 — is looking at six technologies. But the forum says it’ll be a lazy two or three decades before they’ll be deployed. The Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation says small modular reactors could be built in three to five years.

Even in the unlikely case that the federal government decided to take nuclear energy to the next election, and even if the legislation made it through a new parliament, that would be only the start of the awkward conversations about where to put any nuclear plant, how to train a workforce to manage it, and the predictable furore about what to do with the waste.

Australia has had years — decades — of wandering in an energy policy quagmire. This concerted effort to introduce nuclear into the debate has more than a whiff of smokescreen about it. Especially now, as Australia gears up for the Glasgow summit in November and a possible election before that.

Nuclear is not the bogeyman. But it’s not the superhero either.

At best it’s something we should keep in a future mix as the need for climate change action gets ever more urgent. At worst it’s a deliberate red herring being tossed about to further stymie progress on tackling emissions.

And if pushing for nuclear wasn’t politically explosive enough, even the Australian Nuclear Association is among those who say it will be financially viable only with a carbon price. Boom.