Politics Opinion

A Coalition pie-in-the-sky nuclear nightmare

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Having reignited the “climate wars” with pie-in-the-sky nuclear energy plans, if the plans fail, Dutton and Littleproud will face the wrath of a climate-war-weary Australian people at the ballot box, writes Belinda Jones.

AUSTRALIANS finally caught a glimpse of the Coalition’s nuclear energy plan this week.

And, we mean "glimpse" — a one-page media release identifying seven proposed locations for nuclear power plants and not much more detail than that.

Nationals’ Leader David Littleproud called for Australia to have “a conversation about nuclear”, which culminated in this week’s long-awaited announcement from Littleproud and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

It has taken two years to create a one-page media release. By any standard, that is poor form.

As Betoota Advocate editor Clancy Overell so eloquently summed it up this week, 

“Man who was paralysed with fear over lack of details about Indigenous Voice provides a one-page media release for his half a trillion dollar nuclear plan.”

In fact, the Coalition press conference on nuclear energy inspired far more questions than answers, despite Dutton claiming the Coalition has done “an enormous amount of work”

Obviously, for Australians, the most pressing concerns for nuclear energy are cost and the time it’ll take to build seven nuclear reactors, as well as safety concerns.

As a policy, it’s not off to a good start. State premiers have rejected the idea and their support is crucial to the success of nuclear energy, due to the fact state legislation would have to be amended to allow any nuclear energy plan even to exist.

According to the Blue Mountains Gazette, NSW Premier Chris Minns indicated 'NSW's nuclear prohibition would not be removed under his watch and suggested the proposal would stymie investment in solar and wind'.

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan said Victoria won't stand for "more expensive, more risky, more toxic energy solutions”.

Queensland Premier, Steven Miles, highlighted the long-term consequences of nuclear energy:

"That is not to mention how future generations, my kids, your kids will need to manage dangerous radioactive nuclear waste forever.”

WA Energy Minister, Reece Whitby, called the plan “crazy”.

Queensland Liberal Opposition Leader David Crisafulli who is in full campaign mode for the upcoming October State Election, reiterated his party had been "clear" nuclear was not a part of their plan. 

Victorian Liberal Opposition Leader John Pesutto also claimed his party has “no plans for nuclear”.

However, the states’ consensus on nuclear energy may not be a major hurdle for the Coalition’s nuclear plans. Constitutional law expert, Professor Emerita Anne Twomey, suggested “state bans on nuclear could be overridden by a federal law, as outlined in section 109 of the Constitution”.

Section 109 of the Australian Constitution states

'When a law of a State is inconsistent with a law of the Commonwealth, the latter shall prevail, and the former shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid.'

Perhaps, similar to the Coalition’s plan to announce first where they plan to build nuclear reactors, then consult with the local communities affected after the fact, their plan is to bulldoze their way past state laws irrespective of the wishes of constituents, state governments or any other objectors to their nuclear plans — which is hardly a democratic process.

One supporter of the current Coalition’s nuclear energy policy is nuclear physicist Dr Ziggy Switkowski, the former Howard Government advisor on nuclear.  This is despite Switkowski telling a Federal Parliamentary Inquiry in 2019 of the risk of “catastrophic failure” and that the “window for ‘large nuclear generation’ had closed for Australia”. At the time, Switkowski cited the “emerging technology of small nuclear reactors [as] the viable option on the table”

That prediction has been proven to be premature with no small nuclear reactors at a viable or commercial stage in 2024. The USA’s first small modular reactor was cancelled by developer NuScale last year due to cost blowouts.

Switkowski also told the 2019 Inquiry:

“It was unlikely the industry could establish enough support to gain a social licence to operate.”  

This week, Switkowski weighed in on the scepticism his work in previous years had helped to foment within Australia saying, "The strong positions some critics have taken in the last 24 hours are ridiculous”.

Australia’s wealthiest woman and enthusiastic Coalition supporter Gina Rinehart has long been demanding nuclear energy be part of Australia’s energy mix — a view that may emanate from her business interests around uranium exploration and mining. 

Rinehart is no fan of renewables, claiming they’ll force food prices up and send farmers broke. This is despite the fact that they produce alternative sources of income for farmers and provide reliable energy solutions where "there’s no mains just to switch on” in isolated, rural communities.

The Coalition’s proposed seven nuclear reactors would not provide any benefit to those rural communities to which Rinehart refers that are not connected to mains power, whereas a combination of solar or wind and battery power would.

So, the electorally embattled Dutton and Littleproud face an uphill battle to get their nuclear policy off the ground in the face of overwhelming opposition to their plans. And though their scant plans offer nothing substantial on the issue of Coalition nuclear policy, they have managed toreignite the climate wars, which may in fact be the method in their madness. 

Rather than bring the nation together, divide and conquer on any issue seems to be their modus operandi.

For a nation exhausted by over a decade of “climate wars” that it hoped were well and truly over, the Coalition has taken a huge risk to bring expensive, pie-in-the-sky nuclear to the table and reignite those wars. If it fails and it likely will, based purely on economics, then both Dutton and Littleproud will face the wrath of a climate-war-weary Australian people at the ballot box and, ultimately, their own political parties. 

Dutton and Littleproud have both nailed their colours to the mast, demanding a conversation on nuclear energy with no intention of taking no for an answer. Like their failure to consult with communities before announcing their plans, they may have put the cart before the horse. Time will tell.

Belinda Jones is an IA columnist and political commentator. You can follow Belinda on Twitter/X @belindajones68.

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