Sometimes, it’s difficult to know whether governments are genuinely interested in the agendas they push forward, or whether there are issues played out in the background resulting in other ulterior motivations. And, as part of this process, covering up some of their misadventures and mismanagement of political issues.
And so it is with the Australian Government’s announcement to hold an inquiry into nuclear energy in Australia. It’s the first federal report to review nuclear energy since 2006 and, as the announcement is coming from the embattled Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor, it’s difficult to think of the review as anything other than a deceptive move to deflect from the many issues causing problems for the Morrison government.
There have been many reviews into nuclear energy in Australia, and five attempts, of varying degrees over the past 70 years, to install nuclear power stations. The first plan was announced in 1952 by South Australian Premier, Thomas Playford, for the Spencer Gulf region between Port Augusta and Whyalla.
The second plan was announced in 1969 in the Jervis Bay area but after strong opposition from the local population and union refusal to work on the site, the federal Government withdrew from the project in 1971.
In 1977, the Western Australian Government announced plans to construct a nuclear reactor on the northern outskirts of Perth but, again, anti-nuclear demonstrations forced the Court Government to eventually back down.
The Portland area in Victoria was also the proposed site for a nuclear power station, first in 1980 and subsequently in 2007. Spencer Gulf also re-appeared as a proposed site in 2007, but these proposals were also dropped in late 2008.
While there are many technical and environmental problems with the installation and management of nuclear power stations – as well as opposition from local communities – the primary reason why all five proposals have been discarded, or lapsed, is economic: nuclear energy is not a viable industry in Australia. It never has been and, in all likelihood, never will be.
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Every review prepared by Australian or state governments since 1952 has arrived with the same conclusions. If a nuclear industry was ever to be developed in Australia, that time would have been in the 1950s but the opportunity for this has passed.
And, politically, which seaside coastal town across Australia is going to be the first to welcome a nuclear power plant in its backyard?
Looking at where the push for nuclear energy is coming from, it’s essentially the conservative friends and benefactors of the Liberal and National Party. It’s a push coming from the Minerals Council of Australia and through its ability to spend large amounts of finance and resources to lobby Parliament. And given the widespread understanding the industry is highly unviable, they’d be looking at a large public subsidy in the unlikely event the industry was ever established. These are the ones that have a clear interest in developing nuclear as an alternative energy source, at a time when renewables are providing an economic threat to the mining industry and conventional forms of energy generation.
There are many other challenges with nuclear energy: many of the 20 locations identified by nuclear lobbyists in Australia are on Indigenous lands. While nuclear energy is more efficient than coal-powered energy, it’s still not as efficient as renewable energy. And while proponents of nuclear energy claim the industry is 99.9 per cent safe, it’s the 0.1 per cent of incidents that create the long-term environmental damage, and when incidents do occur, they go horribly wrong.
The three big nuclear catastrophes over the past 60 years have been the Three Mile Island incident in the United States in 1979; Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 and, more recently, Fukushima in Japan in 2011. These incidents caused widespread environmental damage, and in the case of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the impact is still being felt over large geographic areas that are still housing large populations.
Given what we already know about the poor prospects of nuclear energy in Australia and, looking at other countries such as Germany that are decommissioning nuclear power stations and moving towards 100 per cent renewable energy, why has the Australian Government decided to commission yet another report into nuclear energy in Australia? The last major report, the Review of Uranium Mining Processing and Nuclear Energy in Australia, was commissioned only 13 years ago.
The South Australian Government also held the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission in 2015 to establish the credibility of nuclear storage in the state. It found that while there many be some prospects of a viable nuclear storage industry in Australia, the generation of nuclear power was likely to be unprofitable, as was the processing of uranium.
What has changed in the industry since the time of these last reviews? Certainly, governments need to be aware and keep pace with developments in the field of energy generation – especially this Government, which currently has no national energy policy. But there haven’t any large scale changes in the nuclear power industry internationally, and with many countries decommissioning nuclear power plants, it makes no sense now, for Australia to start considering nuclear energy.
This review will be carried out by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, and is due to complete its report by the end of 2019. While there have been some developments with small modular reactors, it’s hard to see what this new review will find that hasn’t already been found by previous reviews – essentially, that nuclear power is economically, politically and environmentally unviable.
But finding out what is already known is not the issue in this case. It’s a classic diversionary strategy a government keeps up its sleeve to gloss over political problems and, in this case, it has worked – most of the media has been preoccupied with the issue of nuclear power over the past week, and the caravan has now moved onto other issues.
And it has definitely kept the attention away from the embattled federal Minister, Angus Taylor. Which might have been the purpose all along.