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                                       Nuclear energy: power for the people?

We do not pretend to any particular expertise on nuclear energy (although we think it a pity that other outspoken commentators are not similarly candid). We do, however, recognise its importance – particularly in the context of global warming and the burgeoning energy demands from China’s and India’s rapid industrialisation – and wholeheartedly support the call from the shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Resources, Forestry and Tourism, Martin Ferguson, for a responsible national debate on the issue.

Who could possibly argue against a responsible debate? Sadly, there are those on the Left – both within and outside the ALP – who do just that.

They tell us, for example, that the nuclear option cannot be countenanced until we’ve solved the problem of radioactive waste.  Why not? Is the waste problem self-evidently of a higher order than that of greenhouse emissions from carbon-based electricity generation? Is it indeed a homogeneous problem? (A good deal of nuclear waste is only relatively lightly contaminated material such as industrial clothing.) What progress is being made in solving the problem, and what can we look forward to with improved technology? These sorts of questions deserve airing, not dismissal out of hand.

Then again we’re told that nuclear energy is uneconomic – that very few new nuclear power plants have been built in the West in recent decades because they’re too costly. Leaving aside the double standards – economic considerations scarcely figure when proponents of renewable energy technologies take the stage – we need to ask why nuclear energy costs more. Certainly some part of this cost premium (we can argue about how much is justified) is due to the exceptionally stringent environmental and technical controls imposed on nuclear energy in comparison to alternative power sources.

It’s also inappropriate to talk about direct costs of different energy technologies divorced from the policy context. In his article, “The Economics of Nuclear Power” (IPA Review, June 2005), Alan Moran compares the cost per megawatt-hour of nuclear generation technologies in Australia with those of black and brown coal, natural gas and wind. Nuclear options would be between 30 and 70 per cent more expensive than coal options, between 20 and 50 per cent above natural gas, and not far behind wind generation.

But governments can and do intervene in the power generation market, most particularly in response to the need to reduce greenhouse emissions. Moran recalculates the cost comparison taking account of government targets, taxes and subsidies. Allowing for these, and for the introduction of carbon credits or taxes comparable to the carbon trading scheme currently in place in Europe (an all but unavoidable measure if we intend to get serious about carbon dioxide emissions), the cost of nuclear power falls below that of coal-derived electricity. If we went further – as we would be compelled to do in order to reach the touted figure of a 60 per cent emission reduction over the next 45 years – the nuclear cost advantage becomes considerable. (Moran estimates a 20 per cent advantage.)

To some of a much deeper Green persuasion, none of this matters. We should simply consume less energy. It’s certainly true that we can do more to save energy – starting with our private motor vehicles, many of which are much bigger, heavier and more powerful than necessary – but what they’re really calling for (though seldom in so many words) is a substantial cut in our living standards, to be disproportionately borne by working families drawn to new housing on the under-serviced outskirts of our cities. It also runs counter to compelling evidence that the capacity of countries to improve environmental outcomes – not least to reduce emissions and to develop economically viable renewable energy technologies – is directly linked to their wealth.

Essentially, we need to get away from the either-or dichotomy in the energy debate. All sides – the anti-nuclear Left, the deep Greens and the critics of both – are prone to it. The risks and costs of nuclear should be dispassionately appraised and weighed against the risks and costs of business as usual; the progress we are making in developing renewable technologies should be acknowledged and supported; and we should start taking the politically courageous decisions necessary to get serious about energy conservation.

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