Recently promoted as a “green power” alternative, the nuclear option, like so-called clean coal, is a dud and fundamental social concerns about its use remain unaddressed.
Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s famous put-down of the Opposition that it was like “a dog returning to its vomit” apparently has its roots in the Bible: “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” is from the Book of Proverbs, according to Wikipedia.
The longer quote could well summarise recent promotion of nuclear power as a “green” alternative to coal-fired electricity.
These calls sound increasingly odd against a regulatory background that favours increasing privatisation of power production and distribution; plummeting renewable energy costs; and increasing hostility to any form of government subsidy.
Many of us have moved on but let’s recap briefly.
The nuclear option had its last sustained public airing at the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. South Australia hosts the world’s largest uranium mine at Olympic Dam, in the mid-north of the state. In the face of international uranium trading uncertainty, the South Australia has a clear interest in finding domestic markets for the resource, and the inquiry was expected to favour the industry.
Yet the Commission’s summary offered no support for developing the industry now and gave heavily-qualified support for any future development.
Despite its vast supply of nuclear fuel ore, the most commercially viable long-term option for South Australia is to become, rather unappealingly, a global nuclear waste dump.
More recently, the Grattan Institute and others have described the debate about nuclear power as a distraction from a transition to a more sustainable national energy supply.
“At present, nuclear technology is too complex, too expensive and too slow to build to play any substantial role in Australia’s power system … Ministers should resist the temptation to promote pet technologies or back new generation projects with public money,” wrote the Institute’s Guy Dundas and Tony Wood, in the Sydney Morning Herald, earlier this month.
When addressing the nuclear power debate there is a tendency to dive straight into a discussion of the technology and its safety, and alleged green credentials, all too often in search of support for strongly held partisan views.
This is a pity because at the very start of its findings the Commission observed that prior “social consent is fundamental to undertaking any new nuclear project”.
What the Commission seems to be saying is that there is no point exploring all these other issues unless and until there exists informed and enduring broad community support for the industry.
What does social consent mean and why is it important?
Former Australian PM Tony Abbott’s comments about wind farms helps explain the issue.
Citing the example of a development on Western Australia’s Rottnest Island, Mr Abbott said wind turbines were so “visually awful” they warranted government action to limit their spread.
Setting aside the pros and cons of wind energy, Abbott was noting that projects that could affect the public realm – in this case, visual pollution from the turbines – must first gain social acceptance before development can proceed.
He was suggesting that if enough people objected to the appearance of wind farms, despite their green credentials, then on those grounds alone they should not be built.
But if social consent is required, what informs it? What might weigh against it, and what could prevent it being granted?
In the case of nuclear power, the clearest opposition is grounded in its alleged dangers, which have at least two elements.
The first concerns the “lived” consequences of nuclear accidents. What would a future beset by a nuclear disaster look like?
The second concerns the cost associated with the disaster, more particularly who bears that cost.
Let’s briefly explore briefly these two aspects.
Perhaps because the consequences of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster are still unfolding, the longer-term effects of nuclear catastrophe are better illustrated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in northern Ukraine.
Radiation fallout from what is considered the worst nuclear accident in history has now subsided to such an extent that limited visitation is possible. The reactors remain largely out of bounds but people can visit the nearby abandoned company town of Pripyat.
Pripyat was built for the families of the industrial and technological workers that ran the Chernobyl plant, with everything from hospitals and schools to an athletics stadium and fun park provided.
The town is now slowly disappearing into the nearby forest while a burgeoning “disaster tourism” industry has emerged.
Most visitors to the town remark on its haunting sadness. The point of including these images is to illustrate the case that public perceptions of nuclear disaster cannot be erased by telling them another accident like the one at Chernobyl is unlikely.
Nuclear power has always required some form of government subsidy. When power generation was a monopoly responsibility of government, subsidies were embedded within the final consumer cost of electricity. Now that it is largely privatised, subsidy components are visible to commercial scrutiny.
However, there is one form of subsidy that likely won’t disappear: nuclear power has only been provided when government has accepted the operational risk, that is, the commercial consequences of a nuclear accident.
Depending on who you believe, the Fukushima cleanup could as much as between US$470 billion to US$660 billion, or about half of Australia’s GDP.
The costs are not confined by borders. Ukraine’s neighbour, Belarus, reportedly spends US$1million a day within its own borders cleaning up after Chernobyl.
In commercial terms, the costs can be expressed as the quantum of any insurance premium needed to cover them. The relative rarity of nuclear accidents and the still evolving understanding of remediation costs and damages makes it difficult to price the risk but in the wake of these disasters, it is becoming clearer.
The point here is that in strict commercial terms, any nuclear power proposal that relies on government accepting the operational risk comes with an expectation of a subsidy equal to the insured cost for that risk over the duration of any rectification program.
It is an example of privatising profits and socialising losses. Communities are right to challenge such proposals by asking the reasonable question: why should we carry the risk?
There are strong grounds for communities to withhold “social consent”; the lived and commercial consequences of nuclear accidents are clear.
And, if “social consent” is a fundamental barrier to the development of an Australian nuclear power industry then its promoters must address it.
All talk of safer technologies, green energy and overseas acceptance of nuclear power look like attempts to bypass “social consent” by direct appeal to government and technocrats.
Mike Brown has worked in local and state government in NSW in planning, urban design and strategy for 15 years. He is a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW, Sydney.
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